Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 31) ” A Strange Premonition “

Posted on August 3, 2012

Photo: K.Mark Demon

A Blip on the Radar

Part 31: A Strange Premonition

Let’s be honest: we tend to refrain from writing about fellow pilots who… die.
It makes us uncomfortable. There is also the fear that we may come across as judgmental, or unkind, insensitive, arrogantly superior, gushingly sentimental or downright maudlin. It’s easier just to remain silent.

And forget? Eh?

I have done that, in this case, for sixteen years. I know now, from emails, that this particular story is also blurring into obscurity. The sort of tale that people will recount in a quiet corner of a bar, over a strong drink. You can imagine the intro would be along these lines:

“I heard tell there was a guy, who got killed on his very first take-off, ever, from a tuna boat. Moggy mentions it in one of his articles.”

The reply might be: “Really? What happened?”
And the narrator might continue:

“Well, all I know is he was flying a Hughes 500, and something went wrong, and he crashed. I think he got out all right, but he died afterwards. Something like that…”

His name, long forgotten, and his individuality steadily erased by the shifting sands of Time, it is hard to ascribe flesh and blood to such an increasingly shadowy figure, who belongs now to Yesterday. But I can assure you that behind that tale, there lived a real person, with feelings and thoughts, ambitions and hopes.

He was a buddy of mine, and we spent the requisite Tuna Times in various bars in Guam. He was an Austrian, he had something like nine hundred plus flight hours, all of which was on pistons. He had zero turbine time. He had also never been out on a tuna boat. He had been hired, and was awaiting a check out on a Hughes 500, before his first posting to a Taiwanese Tuna Boat, the Fairwell 707.

I was more seasoned, battle scarred and cynical if you like, and I had a couple of years of tuna experience already, plowing lengthy grooves all over and along the Pacific Tuna Fields. Causing chaos, mis-pronouncing Chinese cusswords, and generally having a rip roaring old time. I had also already had the experience of taking out a previous Anchovyhead newbie, with a view to checking that person out as a possible tuna pilot-mechanic for my employer. That episode ended in (abysmal) failure, and is described in detail elsewhere. As an old dual rated Flight Instructor, with quite a few thousand hours of Flight Instruction given on airplanes and helos, I was not totally ignorant of what it’s like to be a nervous trainee. I tend to be sympathetic, a little soft perhaps, and I try and encourage nervous pilots. I actually have a sneaking liking for nervous pilots. Guess what, they have a vital survival tool in their budding pilot’s tool box. It’s called by a much abused name, but actually has great survival value.

Imagination… Applaud

So I’m all for a bit of “fear”. It’s good. It will keep you alive. A wise pilot will hesitate to wear a helmet with a gawdy sticker that screams:

“No Fear!”

For what he is really saying, modestly, is:


(no f…ing BRAIN, more like it…)

No fear? Really? Amigo… listen to the old, mucho boring farts. Who have LOTS of rotary hours… Listen, schmuck face… That “little bit of fear” will keep you thinking, aware, cautious, and probably… alive.

But there are limits. “A little bit of fear” is okay. Now “terrified”, that’s something else.
This chappie… was scared. He was slow to admit it. But I started picking up on… something. Over a couple of beer drinking sessions, and some careful prodding by me, I started picking up definite vibes that this guy was worried. Big time. He asked hundreds of questions (good ones) and I tried as best to give hundreds of answers. (hopefully, good ones). Then he would lapse into silence, and stare oddly into the distance.

Then he would change the subject, and talk about his father, who had died, and left him a super nice house in Austria. He showed me photos. He would talk about his fiancée, and show me her photo. Beautiful girl. She was very unhappy, he said, about his new employment.
I started picking up on something else. Something not good.
Eventually, he confided in me that he had crashed seriously back home. In a little piston powered Schweizer. He had more or less gotten away with it, but his passenger had been seriously injured.
“What happened?”, I asked, sympathetically.

And here is where I still scratch my head, to this day, to understand his description. It seemed like one moment everything was all right, and he was giving rides at an air show. The next… he was spiraling down, spinning, out of control, and crashing. The shadows in his eyes, as he recounted the story, spoke volumes.

“Was it a tail rotor failure?”


Engine failure?


What then? He didn’t know. You don’t know?? No. It was never clearly established.

And here he was, trying to move on in his helicopter career, with one serious crash behind him, the cause of which was something of a mystery.
With a house like that, free and clear, and a beautiful girl like that, what are you doing out here…?

Trying to prove…something…?

I really liked the guy, but alarm bells were going off in my mind. At some level, I must have picked up on something serious, because I sat down with my boss the next day, in private. I recounted the whole sad saga, and strongly, urgently, adamantly, asked my boss to send the guy out with me for a trip, before he was sent off on his own.

Now why would I have done that? What “gut feeling”, what strange premonition made me feel the need, to argue at considerable length with my boss about this? The answer, a resolute “no!”, didn’t please me at all. I argued. Big time. I pleaded. It got me nowhere. I finished by asking my boss to really, really check this guy out, carefully. Sure, sure, I was told, with a hint of the dismissive. End of discussion. Amen. A few days later, I sailed away on my boat.
On my own.
My Austrian friend waved me goodbye.

* * * *

Six weeks later, I was lying on my bunk, reading a good book, when a loud knocking on the door startled me:
“Moggy! Moggy! Fish Master say come to bridge!”
I moved quickly, and as I entered the bridge, the Fish Master was standing with a mike in his hand, shock registered on his face. Over the radio, all I could hear was a babble of excited Chinese.

“Moggy! Far-way helicopter CRASH!”

The stunning details were coming in, live as they were happening. I didn’t even know the Fairwell 707 was coming out. Now their bird had crashed, and they were looking for the pilot. I quickly checked the coordinates. Raced up to the helideck, and untied my bird. They were too far away for a quick search and rescue flight. Even as we stood discussing the logistics, the call came in that they had found the pilot.

I was to get the full story later, off the accompanying mechanic, who I had known for several years. As he told me, in a quiet bar one night, his glazed, hollow eyes reflected the intensity of the horror of what he was describing.

“Moggy, I don’t know what to tell you. It was the weirdest thing… he took off in a hurry… And then he started swopping ends, round and round, totally out of control. He was all over the sky, spinning round and around, before he smashed into the sea. They went in so hard, I can’t believe they even got out. The floats burst, and she went straight down…”

The helicopter had disappeared from view quickly, the float cells having mostly burst on impact. The mechanic had come up to the surface fairly quickly, with serious chest injuries. He was to end up back in Taiwan, still suffering serious medical problems ten months afterwards. The pilot…

My friend said the pilot came up a LONG time afterwards. When they got him up on deck, stretched out and struggling to breath, he was talking, between rattling gasps, and he said that it had been getting “very dark” down there.
Gosh. How deep is that?

That night, with the insidious onset of asphyxia, due to fluid forming in his lungs, he was to die, painfully, literally by drowning. In his own body fluids. Above water. My friend stayed with him, holding him, and watched him die. In my friend’s arms.

You just shake your head. What…?!

One of the extreme ironies is that the cure is: oxygen. That’s what they give you in hospital, to prevent “secondary drowning”. Nobody on the ship realized that they were surrounded by oxygen. Plenty of it. In welding bottles. In that sort of emergency, the probable cure was actually at hand… It doesn’t have to be hospital grade “pure”. It just has to be OXYGEN. Stick a tube in his mouth! Alas, nobody realized. I wouldn’t have, if I had been there.

What the fffffff… happened? We’ll never know. But there were some factors here, we can understand. And maybe learn from. I’m not throwing stones. 20-20 Hindsight is easy, I know. I’m not Monday Morning quarter-backing.
I’m just pointing out contributory factors…

1) His transition training onto the Hughes 500, his first ever turbine helicopter, consisted of only five or six hours. Spread out over a month. By two different instructors, one of which was not a qualified CFI. Did they cover everything? Was there a syllabus?
2) That spasmodic flying was after a considerable hiatus away from flying any helicopters for… how long?
3) The reason for the launch was that a huge Yellowfin foamer had suddenly come up, and everybody was excited, and screaming for the helicopter. There had been a mad rush to make the first set, since sailing out of port. Go-GO-GO! NOW!
4) Consider that the Hughes 500 is pretty short coupled, where the tail rotor is concerned. You don’t have a nice long tail boom, like a Bell 47, a bell 206, or an R-44 to help you along. It takes a sure footed and positive pilot.

Couple those four factors to a nervous pilot, unfamiliar on type, with some kind of emotional burden from his previous accident, and what do you get? What do you think? Maybe you’ve got a bad combination.

What happened? All the evidence points to one thing: It appeared he lost directional yaw control. If you lose it in the first place, it’s going to be hard to get it back. Meaning if you know how to get it back, you probably would not be spinning in the first place. Then what? Panic? Resignation? Brain lock? Who knows, we would be speculating.

And here is another tuna helicopter accident, one of many, many, many, involving a real live human, that makes “certain statements ” you will hear bandied about, both cruel and absurd. Consider the Sky God, whom I quote elsewhere as well. One of the purported Grand Old Men of the Kiwi rotary scene, who infamously remarked:

“Only the idiots get killed flying tuna helicopters”.

What I would like to say to him, diplomatically, is this:

” Sir,

are you devoid of heart and soul,
or just devoid of a brain,
(and Neanderthal brutish into the bargain?)”

How about training-training-training? How about awareness? How about pro-active safety management? How about YOU, oh Great One, from the lofty heights of your exalted omniscience, preaching a different tune, about safety, caution, prudence, and compassion?

Oh, and I might add, Sir, that “idiot” had a name.


Cheers, Walther, where ever you are.

We won’t forget you.

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on August 4, 2012, 2:01 pm

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