Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 24C) “A local jolly “

Posted on October 30, 2010

A Blip on the Radar (Part 24 C)

Part 24 C: “A local jolly over the Rain Forest”

Needless to say, armed with my increasingly lengthy notes on my young friend’s “problem areas”, I started asking more and more theory questions. Especially aerodynamic theory. Why?
Because these are Good Questions that have Good Answers. Which, if you truly understand them, might just save your little life. Such as:
1) What really makes a helicopter fly?
2) How do we keep the pesky sucker happily in the air?
3) What warning signs and symptoms should we as helicopter pilots be clued in to?

He of course wasn’t happy about it. Damn the theory. He just wanted to go and fly.
His knowledge was rudimentary at best, quite inadequate for sure, but there was something else worrying me: I had this funny feeling that there was fundamental dis-connect going on in his brain. He could muster no enthusiasm for aerodynamic theory at all. It was a chore, an unpleasant task to wade through, something to be completed as quickly as possible, books closed, and forget about it. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to sense a single spark of “awareness” in his eyes that “knowledge is power” and that in helicopters, it’s “the little shit that will hurt or kill you.”
If I asked questions a certain way, he knew the answers. Like a robot. But I sensed it was case of learning by rote. And not a case of understanding. Because if I twisted the question around, to where there was a need to apply the knowledge in a practical manner, he was lost. No clue.

“So what is HOGE?”
“Hover out of ground effect”.
“Good. What is translational lift?”
“When you go faster on the take-off and you get more lift”
“Ye-es. There is a bit more to it than that. But that will work for now. Why is this crucially important stuff to a tuna helicopter pilot? Or any helicopter pilot for that matter?”
“Duh… Well… I don’t know…”
“Okay, I’ll give you a clue. Do we have unlimited power in our engines?”
“Right, so what does that mean, that limited power. Can we do anything we like?”
“Oh, no, we can only go so fast and so high…”
“Yes… so how high can we hover in our little Bell 47 with the Lycoming O435A engine?”
“About ten to fifteen feet…”
“Is that always the same? “
“Yes. “
“Okay… so, are you saying if I load five people in our helicopter,three hundred pounds of beer, two kangaroos and a friendly Polar Bear, we will still hover at fifteen feet? “
“Errr….No. “
“Very good. How high do you think we would hover in that scenario?”
“Errrr… maybe five feet. “
“Personally, I don’t think we would hover at all. But let’s kick them all out, except you and me and full fuel. How high will we hover? “
“Ten to Fifteen feet. “
“And that never changes? “
“No. “
“Okay, it’s a freezing cold day in Alaska, and some poor Eskimo Pilot is getting ready to hover in a Bell 47, with the exact same weight as we have here in the Tropics, close to the equator. Will he be able to hover at the same height as us? “
“Errrr… no. “
“Would he be able to hover higher or can he only manage a lower hover? “
Errrr…. Lower.
“Okay, now it’s blowing a howling gale in Alaska, as well as it being cold. (Poor bastard. He’s gonna freeze his little Eskimo nuts off) Will that make any difference? “
“Errrr… no. “
“All right then, what do you know about ‘air density’? Is that something we take into consideration? “
“Errr….. yes. “


Needless to say, this was scary stuff. His “add on” Commercial Helicopter rating was becoming more and more suspect. We didn’t just have some slight technical gaps in his knowledge. We had great gaping chasms and deep plunging ravines. When I took out the Pilot Operating Handbook, the revered (yes?) “POH” with all its graphs… that all just clearly dumbfounded him. He acted as if he was seeing many of the charts for the first time. I suspected that was probably the case… The thought of him going “solo” for a few minutes under my watchful gaze in the pattern at the local airport was scary. The idea of him going “solo” for months on end on his own Tuna boat… Well, that was positively terrifying. I made lots of notes for my Boss. Lots. And lots of notes.

There was nothing else for it. We had to do some serious groundwork. His enthusiasm was… less than inspiring.
After several hours’ worth of Ground Theory, I thought I had personally done a really good job. I might have had to drag him by the hair, but I had indeed succeeded in explaining a whole bunch of stuff to him. I even sent him off solo in the pattern for a little while. Operating to and from a smooth runway, he managed to only terrify me a little bit. There was hope. Or so I thought. We were going to have to work on his slope landings, and we’d hardly touched autorotations yet. His tuna boat take-offs and landings were works of some Suidical Art form, but we’d get around to those… I was hopeful.
The next morning, we went onshore to do some shopping. We split up, agreeing to meet back at the ship independently. I was busy examining some fancy tribal carvings for sale, when I heard a helicopter approaching.
As helicopter pilots are prone to do, I glanced casually up. It was a Bell 47. I eyed it. Nice bird. Same paint scheme as ours.

Duh… IT IS OURS!! What the fu-fu-fu….!!??

I stared in disbelief. There went our helicopter, low over the town of Wewak. I could see there were two people on board. I was shocked. What in hell’s name was going on? I was less than happy. I had very little confidence in my student, and I could just about cope with a carefully supervised solo session to and from smooth runways. Where on earth did he think he was going now, without permission? One thing was for sure: he was not heading to the airfield. He was heading away, in entirely the wrong direction, towards the distant mountains…
I hurried back to the ship, worrying big time. When I arrived there, the mystery merely deepened. It appeared our hero had arrived back on board the ship with a newly minted friend. A Papuan local. He had taken this worthy up to the helideck, and then, without my permission, and without the captain’s permission, he had simply taken off with his companion. Nobody knew where he was going. I jumped on the radio, and called him.
No reply. I called him over and over again. Silence…
Soon I was pacing up and down. I had no idea what was going on. When the fuel endurance time passed, I knew he was either dead or down. The mystery was now taking on ominous proportions. Wewak is surrounded by dense tropical rain forest. The tree canopy is over a hundred feet high. When a helicopter crashes through that canopy, the branches simply close over the entry point. You can fly right over the accident site, and not see a thing. Ask any pilot who has experience flying over tropical rain forests. He will tell you horror stories. Pilots have survived crashes, only to discover they were unable to penetrate the incredible tangle of growth. Even armed with a machete, a man in good health may only advance mere yards per hour. You are simply NOT going to walk out.
In addition to that, the authorities in Papua New Guinea impose strict requirements. One of these is the presence on board of a HF (High Frequency) radio. And another is the filing of a flight plan. You can’t just sail into port, and start swanning around Papua New Guinea. We had already been through this with another Tuna pilot, who had disappeared over the horizon with a fistful of money and a loaded revolver. Off on a Fool’s Dream, looking to buy cheap gold from bemused local villagers. At that time, the authorities had come unglued. And threatened us all with a blanket flight prohibition. Period. Not even to and from the local airfield.

It had taken a lot of sweet talking from a number of people, including myself, to defuse that mess. And now, we were right back into the proverbial soup again. I paced the deck, searching the sky. No helicopter. I was worried sick. In my mind I saw a broken helicopter lying in the jungle. With two injured occupants. I knew that without a flight plan, we had zero chance of finding them. Over and over again, I tried to figure it all out. It didn’t make any sense. Where in heck were they?
Time went by, and now I was contemplating placing the phone calls. Local authorities. My boss. Search and Rescue.
Oh boy…

When I finally, finally, heard the distant noise of a helicopter approaching, my eyes were out on sticks. Was it him? There was no way of telling. The tiny dot circled the town of Wewak, then seemed to be heading over to some other boats moored some distance off. It circled those boats at low altitude, and I thought I recognized the colors. I flew to the radio, and called him up. To my surprise I received an amazingly cheerful answer. It was him all right, seemingly having a high old time. I was less than pleasant, but it didn’t seem to phase him at all. He landed a few minutes later, and I was waiting, foot tapping. My blood pressure was way up, and the expression on my face I imagine was ugly. They shut down, and the black passenger (who turned out to be a joyrider), took one look at me, hurriedly said goodbye, and then scarpered. After that, it was him and me.
First he tried to argue. He said that as the helicopter mechanic, he didn’t need my permission to go and fly. He could do that “anytime he felt like it “. And if he wanted to take somebody he just met to a trip to his inland village, then that was his perfect right.

Good try…

But pretty soon, he started to rethink his escapade. Perhaps the white piranha teeth flashing two inches in front of his face had something to do with it. Accompanied by beacoup decibels, and the impressive spectacle of a furiously angry Irishman really, REALLY winding up into a first class hissy fit. Eventually, it cowed him into silence. The more I discovered what they had been up to, the more I ran out of suitable phrases to fully express my consternation. Him and his newly minted bosom pal from Papua New Guinea had just decided to go on a local jolly, landing at several inland villages. I was later to see some photos they took, taken from the helicopter, blades still turning, tail rotor still churning away, surrounded by HUNDREDS of wildly excited local tribesmen. It just baffled my mind that he could:

1) go off flying like that,landing God knows where, knowing he had some serious “issues” going on.
Such as slope landings…
(Or was he willing to even admit that to himself?)
2) take a passenger
3) go swanning around the countryside, over dense and totally impassable rain forest.
4) land in an area with hundreds of milling locals, most of whom had probably no idea of the dangers of the tail and main rotor blades

And, best of all
5) have the unspeakable gall to apparently assume I would applaud his foolishness.

In my mind, even more alarm bells were going off on the subject of his powers of “judgment”.
That he was a seriously “challenged” helicopter pilot I already knew. But now I was more and more convinced that despite his obvious intellectual abilities (he was no dummy), he had a serious lack of imagination.
No fear. No respect. No awareness of danger. In short, a helicopter accident waiting for a suitable moment in Space and Time to spontaneously happen.

The next day I was still cross, and I refused point blank to fly with him. He knew better than to try and repeat his little stunt, and the machine sat idle. However, the following day, I took pity on him, suitably crestfallen as he was, and we went flying again. I was weary now, merely wondering what his next stunt would be.

In the event, I did not have long to wait…

Francis Meyrick

(to be continued…)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 6, 2015, 3:42 pm

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