Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 24 A) “I have control!…JESUS! “

Posted on October 11, 2010

A Blip on the Radar (see also

Part 24 A: “I have CONTROL!…JESUS! “

Given a choice, I can’t imagine a Tuna helicopter company not much preferring a 5,000 hour pilot over a 500 hour pilot. Or a 2,000 hour pilot over a 200 hour pilot. I hired a few real high timers, 8,000 hours plus, and some had Tuna Time into the bargain. I always had a stack of pilot resumes.
In this respect, it has always amazed me the way you will see so many advertisements put out online by Helicopter Flight Schools. These lurid promises are designed to attract the novices (with deep pockets, or massive student loans) and often enough seem to say, or at least imply:

*** We are THE GREATEST!***
(Well, yeah, what else can they say…)
*** Our students graduate from us, and find time building jobs easily in such diverse fields as (blah-blah-blah) and (more blah-blah-blah) and TUNA HELICOPTER FLYING. ***


And maybe they will have a photo of some brave soul standing beside a banged up old Tuna Bird, on some Godforsaken rust bucket somewhere, smiling cheesily into the camera.
And if you’re a career cynic like me, you wonder:
1) Did he really graduate from that school, or is it a picture they cobbled up from something online?
2) Is he smiling because he’s so deliriously happy to actually be there, or
3) Is he smiling because he’s about to get the hell off it, and go home…?

Pardon my mischievous humor, but I wish to alert anybody about to mortgage his house, his wife, his three kids, and his beloved pet Poodle, (in order to get his 65,000 smackeroonis to go and get his prized 200 hours of ‘Rough Robbie’ Sex), that things are not quite that simple. Or that easy.
Helicopters… are wonderful. Flying helicopters… is the greatest privilege you can imagine. For all Life’s weird card shuffling I’ve seen (and experienced, believe me) I don’t ever regret having become a pilot. But the caution I want to make here for you dreamers… is that some of that ‘easy road to riches’ simply ain’t no ‘easy road’.
Don’t believe everything you hear and read…

1) Tuna helicopter flying is…. wild. An incredible adventure. Beautiful. Absolutely. One of Life’s Ultimate Adventures. But, my friend, it can kill you in a heart beat if you’re not very, very careful. And prepared. It has needlessly killed, injured and maimed hundreds of people over the years…

2) Whatever that smiling snake oil sales man will tell you at that fabuloso helicopter “Academy “, it’s not the case that dozens and dozens of desperate Tuna Helicopter Companies are lined up and waiting -breathlessly- for you to achieve your 200 hour Commercial. Nor is it the case that they will trample down your front door, slam a fat cigar in between your jaws, offer you their bright pink Cadillac as a down payment, all the while waving a big, fat contract under your nose.

Yes…. you will hear stories of 200 hour pilots getting onto tuna boats. But it’s not common. It’s rather un-common, in fact. There is no way that it’s as easy as the ‘Jerry Airola Snake Oil’ salesmen will pitch it.
A 200 hour pilot is way, way, way, at the bottom of the list.
Last resort.
Should 200 hour low time pilots even be on Tuna Boats? That’s a question I will let you answer for yourself.
But this I believe with a passion:

No 200 hour or low time pilot should ever be allowed to go off on his own on a tuna boat, first time around.

I don’t believe the Insurance Industry should allow it. I don’t believe responsible Tuna helicopter Operators should allow it.
Let me explain a number of reasons why…

A few times I got asked by different bosses to take out a new Tuna pilot, on a sea trip to check them out.
A month or two on the Ocean.
These were low helicopter time pilots. Anchovy Heads. One I really remember was a mechanic, anxious to be taken on as Pilot- mechanic. He wanted the big bucks. He had a decent amount of fixed wing time, 700 or 800 I seem to remember, but only 200 hours on helicopters. Another worrysome character had 900 hours.
The idea -an excellent one- was to give them a chance to practice take-offs and landings at sea, and do some dual flying and solo work, all under the supervision and guidance of an approved Old Phart Pilot. In the event, for me, this was to prove to be both a rewarding experience, with a sense of really promoting safety, but also a somewhat alarming, eye opening experience.
I have some insights to offer perhaps, drawn from personal observation, and I respectfully suggest that any low time pilot considering Tuna helicopter flying might pause for some honest thought here…

I’m actually really, really puzzled why Tuna helicopter companies don’t do a lot more of this kind of progressive training. Many pilots are so eager (borderline desperate) to promote their careers, they would jump at the chance to go out and ‘fly for free’. Mention a Hughes 500? Turbine time?
All you would have to do is flaming well feed these low timers, give them a sleeping bag and some basic shelter, and none would even ask for pay. Or expect it. Give them some pocket money, pay their air fare… and the chances are you would have a very willing, eager student, a vastly reduced Tuna Helicopter accident rate, lower insurance premiums (especially if you followed a written curriculum, which I would gladly design and write up, for free), and a much more professional image for the tuna helicopter industry. As it stands now, so often it seems to be a case of fighting fires. Crisis management.

It’s a plaintive wail
“We dare not fail,
Gotta get a pilot, gotta get a pilot,
the boat’s about to sail! “,
the previous pilot
just got fired
there’s nobody hired,
We gotta get a pilot…!

But that way you solve one problem, only to run a huge risk of tripping smack-bang-whallop into a much bigger doggy-doo….!!

* * * * * *

He was a really nice fellow. Everybody liked him.
And he had already established a reputation as a dependable wrench. All he needed now was a flight check out on a Bell 47 G3. A month or two on my boat, and then, all going well, my boss would put him on another boat on his own, as pilot-mechanic. Great.

Trouble was…
He couldn’t fly for toffee. I knew that within the first few minutes.
I’ve got quite a few thousand hours flight instruction given under my belt, and I don’t get nervous easily.
But this fine lad…
Our very first tuna boat take-off, from the ship, underway, in relatively benign conditions, was a white knuckled, grossly-out-of-balance, hop-skip-and-stagger affair. And pray. Holy…
I started making mental notes. Little did I know that I was going to end up with over two pages worth of detailed listings of areas requiring serious remedial training.
It started with “the death grip from hell “. You could throw a copper coin between two Scotsmen, and announce:

“That’s your penny! “

…and you couldn’t possibly get a tighter grip. (That’s how they make copper wire in Scotland, by the way)
From “the death grip from hell “, which he was very loth to relinquish under any circumstances, (including near crashing), we graduated to a peculiarly wooden style of flying. He never ‘went with’ the helicopter. He never rode it like a Master on his pony. He just tried to overpower the girl with brute force, manifested by gritted teeth and furious, scowling concentration. My entreaties to “relax! ” were met by complete non-comprehension.
His sense of depth perception was so skewered, that we would be on short finals at two hundred feet above the helideck, whereupon he would just lower full collective…. and the very next time around, we would be coming in level with the helideck, far too low, in a borderline HOGE struggling high hover-taxy.
I tried everything.
“Relax now, I have control, yes, I have control…… yes, just let go of the controls…
(LET GO!!)… (thank you!)… just watch the way I do it, and get a sense of the approach angle… “
“That was really MUCH better. Good. Now then, let’s try it again, eh? “
“Oh, don’t worry, that was nothing. (Heh-heh-heh….) ” (wipes away beads of perspiration).
“Okay, just one more, and if you don’t yank back on the cyclic this time, I’ll give you a Mars Bar… “
Silent prayer.
“Dear Lord, if you would kindly intervene here, I’d sure appreciate it, because I’m running out of ideas… “
Not-so-silent prayer…

Nothing worked. In addition, he was now getting so stressed, he was going backwards. He had this fixed wing tail dragger habit of hauling back on the stick to slow down. As if he was flaring a Piper Cub or an Aeronca Champion. In a helicopter, that is a sure-fire recipe for a tail rotor/tail boom strike. Combine that reflex action ( a beautiful example of the Law of Primacy, by the way. What you learn first stays with you.) with his flawed depth perception, and as a flight instructor, you were in for an in-ter-es-ting ride. We might manage two remotely reasonable approaches to the helideck, but as sure as eggs isn’t always hard boiled eggs, on the next one he’d come in too fast, too low, and HAUL back on the cyclic. I would HAVE to intervene, to prevent catastrophe, and then he would sulk that I was upsetting him. Why couldn’t I just ‘let him fly the helicopter’?
Dude…. I’m trying… (silent thought: “but I’m frightened you’re gonna kill me… “)
I tried everything.
“Okay, matey… “
(all jolly voice)
“you’re doing so well now…. “
(a thundering big lie)
“Let’s do an experiment…. “
(as if we hadn’t already pushed the very outer boundaries of the flight envelope)
“We’ll go up this afternoon, and I’m going to say as little as I possibly can. You’ve heard it all before, and I want you to fly the helicopter, and not my mouth… so just relax, and enjoy it… Okay?….Heh-heh…. “
It all came to a near crashing end, time and time again, and each time I would have to yelp:

It became obvious this wasn’t working, and I thought the next best step was to try a radically different approach…

(to be continued)

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 6, 2015, 3:38 pm

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