Francis Meyrick

Of Helicopters and Humans (10) “Shillelaghs, hair-trigger tempers, and three… Greens? “

Posted on October 14, 2012

With thanks to Jeff and his Great Grandpa. I hope I NEVER tick you guys off…

Of Helicopters and Humans (10)

Shillelaghs, hair-trigger tempers, and three… Greens?

(Part 1)

We little humans are all the product, or victims, to some degree, of factors not entirely under our control. We don’t get to choose our upbringing, surroundings, culture and genes. Sometimes we get saddled with dubious teachers and comrades. As for our gormless, wholly incompetent parents… You don’t know how hard it is to be a parent, until your own turn comes along. All of a sudden… it’s amazing how you realize that your old parents were perhaps not so daft and frumpy after all.

As pilots and aviators, if we are interested in being the best we can be, it’s worth occasionally taking a long, hard look at the road we have traveled. Who are we? Where are we going? Who are we?
There are a lot of Sky Gods out there. Immaculate Conceptions. Those who are without Sin. The Greats. If you haven’t noticed yet, I enjoy poking fun at them.
(Salaaaam… all kneel… Bow down… Grovel in the dust…)

Me? Am I a Sky God, I ask myself? Do I see myself as a cut above the rest? Honestly? Nah. Not really guilty. I know I’m just a very average Joe Pilot, who has to work at it. Room for improvement. Without any false modesty, I’m the well meaning, occasionally bumbling Pilot type, with the odd interesting lapse into Certifiable Klutz-hood. And even the very occasional hall-of-fame Life Time Aviation Achievement Award, earned by neat tricks. Such as trying to sling load a 1,200 ton purse seiner fishing boat with a poor little Hughes 500 D model helicopter. (described elsewhere)
No, I like to trace and study my roots. And I’m sanguine about this truth: I can look back on plenty of “stupid”, and “Oops!”. Not to mention “Oh, SHIT!”,and fervent religious invocations, like “JESUS!” I bet you didn’t know I was a practicing Hindu, did you? Yep. “HOLY COW! ” is also a frequent invocation.
All these aviator Life experiences have led to the slow, painful awakening into a (slightly) more level headed degree of self realization. So let’s put aside the “am I not wonderful” self adulation, rather common amongst us Sky Driver types, and poke around, disrespectfully of course, beneath the surface. What might we find lurking there, within ourselves, that has been (or still is) a factor negatively affecting our Airmanship and our Judgment?
Err…alcohol? Grin
As I’ve gotten older (and uglier) I’ve eased way, way back on the alcohol. It’s expensive, it slows you down, too much is not good for your health, and it really doesn’t serve pilots well who want to keep their medicals long term. Strict Moderation? Sure. But did I always know that? Am I a candidate for Sainthood? A poster child for sobriety and piety?
Hell, no.

(Sigh) I was about twenty four or five, and I finally left Ireland and came to London for work. That was way back in the seventies. I remember being in a London pub, baffled at how slow all these Limey guys were with their beer. F@#!N pathetic, dude. I had knocked down two pints of Guinness already, and I was half way through my third. These guys were one third way through their first. What? Then I noticed the funny looks. The “Holy hell, watch that Paddy knock ’em back! ” looks. It was a turning point for me. I slowly realized that it wasn’t that they were slow. It was more that I was a heavy drinker. I had fallen in with a gang in Dublin, and we were quite used to going out and knocking back five, six or seven pints of Guinness, and a few chasers. A couple of whiskeys, a brandy or two… and then we would jump on our old motorbikes and race each other home. In today’s DUI terms, if 0.008 blood alcohol milligrams is “over the limit”, we were probably 0.025 to 0.035, and doing ninety miles an hour home.
Culture. It was the way we did things then.

Very slowly, I started to become aware that what I did was different. And maybe not all that smart. I slowly, slowly eased off. Today, I’m a real poor sham Irishman, because I drink very little. But it was not always so.
The same with anger management. Temper. My Dad had a fierce, explosive, roof hitting, high decibel temper. I remember him in his seventies and eighties, still knocking back the gargle, smoking, and getting totally wound up about the Reverend Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland. I grew up seeing that explosiveness all the time, and I guess I thought it was normal. It’s not, and it’s not good. It affects relationships, career, and judgment.

Today, I’m -mostly- pretty calm. I take a lot in my stride. I’m also a landlord, and I own a fair bit of rental property. Annoying “Stuff” that once would have had me popping off into orbit, leaving a trail of purple-and-red fireworks, now leaves me more inclined towards withering commentary, often written, but delivered with hardly a ripple in my blood pressure. (So what if you think my blog sucks. See if I care. Go take a long walk along a short pier. I don’t CARE. You can talk. To steal a line: “Your Mother was a hedge hog, and your father drank Elderberries! “)

Yeah… pretty calm. But it was not always so. I’m convinced my forefathers were a blood thirsty lot. I can just see them, trotting across hills and bogs, in tartan kilts, waving vicious looking implements around the place. Shillelaghs. Fighting sticks. Marauding. Rape and pillage. I just know they loved rape and pillage. I too was born with a certain Irish genetic streak, that is capable of spectacular detonation. Not good, if you’re gonna try and be a professional pilot. It inhibits lucid thinking.
Well, just like the drinking, my bad temper, and my irascible Irish temperament, also had a pivotal experience, that somehow changed my life. This experience set me thinking, and maybe I started to see myself a little through the eyes of others. It was all down to one guy.
A bloody Englishman, actually…

What happened was that I lost the cool. It can’t have been important, really, because I just can’t remember WHAT I lost the cool over. I know, at the time, it was really important. Really, really, worth losing the cool over. But this dude… far from taking offense, becoming defensive, and losing HIS cool, he had the brass neck to laugh at me. Huh!? Then he followed that up, by smiling gently, and murmuring quietly, in a most un-confrontational style:
“I’m sorry, old boy! I didn’t mean to light the blue wick…”

It was a turning point for me. I felt “silly “. Really, really silly. Maybe I saw myself for what I was.

* * * * *

In my little aviation life, I have had a truly gargantuan amount of undiluted fun. But I have also witnessed plenty of pilots at work with that exact same screaming liability. It’s a dangerous flaw. A time bomb. A pitfall, worthy of study, respect, and cautious circumnavigation. It is rarely discussed, in polite, high falutin’ “professional pilot society”. It is in fact mostly (totally) ignored. The odd Mad Irish Blogger might recklessly bring it up, but who is going to listen to him? After all, pilots are cool, right? Professional, laid back, tobacco chewing John Wayne types. Who greet death and danger with a quiet, laconic growl. No drama, right? Right?
Yeah, right…

Pilots are humans. Just like anybody else. We are coming up to the pivotal 2012 presidential Elections in the USA. Even Democrat Politicians, great leaders, saviors of the working classes, cheered on (and actually voted for) by millions of Americans, are actually human. Very human. They are so human, they (along with their Republican counterparts) are even exempt all the insider trading laws pertaining to stock market transactions. What’s illegal for you and me is LEGAL for them. If you are a member of Congress or the Senate, and enjoy privileged information, of course you may (legally) use that to fabulously enrich yourself, your family, and your circle of cronies. It’s okay to make millions. After all, you are special, right, Nancy? Eh? Hillary?

So what then, of this screaming liability, on the all-too-human plane, that affects so many pilots? That I should not really mention, because to do so is un-cool?
The “WAAAAAAAHHHHHH…! problem”. The what?
And I’m not kidding. Wish I was. They are out there. Screaming, shouting, getting mad, pissing people off, frustrating first officers, worrying employers, and shortening their own life expectancy dramatically.
I exaggerate? Nope. No-no-no…..

Let me give you some tasty examples. Just a few. Of the really yummy ones, that still, after all these years, make me shake my head, or even get my teeth clenched…

1) Fred.
I’ll call him Fred. Fred is dead now. Long dead. (Even the law suits are all over, finished, and done with.) He exited this Mortal Coil in a helicopter, of course. Instantly cremated. (Cheaply. The do-it-yourself version.) And I have to say, I’m sorry, but I was not even remotely surprised when I heard the news. I had flown with him, (another story),(he scared me) but I kind of liked him. In a bar. He was funny. He told stories. He waved his arms. He had done all sorts of things. (Some of them… legally dubious). But put that dude in a helicopter… Stand by for dynamite meeting ignition. Bill Clinton meeting Hillary Clinton, AFTER meeting Monica.

The strongest memory I have is the day that Fred decided to have a furious domestic with his wife. That’s okay, it’s a free country. You wanna scream at wifey, and kick her cat, well, hopefully she knows where the large frying pan is. But do it in private. Fuxsake. No. Fred decided to do it in public. In the office where his wife worked, while three of us pilots were there. What was worse, was that he was blocking the only exit. We couldn’t tactfully escape. And run. Instead, whilst he ranted and raved at his better half (much better), we three hapless ones decided to suddenly become really interested in a sectional chart on the wall…

Oh, look! See that! There’s a sectional here! Really? Oh, yeah, see? There’s airfields on it, and rivers, and railway lines! Really? Hell, I never knew that. Fukme, I gotta get me one of those…

Having thoroughly embarrassed all of us, he then stormed out of the building. We watched at what then unfolded. Sitting on the ramp was a spiffy Hughes 500E model, turning and burning. The proud brand new owner and his wife were sitting in it. The fellow had only just bought the machine, and was awaiting his first lesson for his type conversion and turbine training. CFII Instructor? Who else? Fred…

Down the path a furious Fred came storming, and leaped into the cockpit. Monty Python goes to work. He must have fastened his seat belt (I think) but he must have done it in a nano second. For within two nano seconds, the throttle was slammed open, every coupling was whining and protesting, torque was being applied with truly extraordinary brutality, and we all watched in stunned amazement as the machine bounced vertically into the air. The old “collective up into the armpit” trick. Instant vertical thrust. The old Bishop of Galway and the actress. I mean, THRUST. Like a Polaris Intercontinental ballistic missile launch. For the next fifteen minutes, Fred manically beat up the offices his wife worked in, and the surrounding trees, hangars, bystanders, birds, bees…. And anything else he felt like. He never went above a hundred and fifty feet, (maybe he just scraped two hundred) and up until that point I had never, ever, actually seen a Helicopter Captain having a full blown temper tantrum. Whilst flying. With two petrified passengers.

Students of Psychology might be able to explain the personality type that then lands, and gets out, perfectly calm, pleasant, soft spoken, and acting for all the world as if nothing has happened. I, for my part, observed the helicopter still turning and burning, and no apparent movement from inside. I decided to stroll over, and was therefore a first witness to the two ghostly apparitions that remained on board. Still frozen rigid, pale, gripping seat edges in a sort of living rigor mortis. The eyes, hollow, sunken. The wife looked like she was in total shock. He, for his part, was manfully trying to engage in nonchalant conversation with me, but he couldn’t quite carry it off.

Fred was in his late thirties when he died. The circumstances remain murky. Basically, he was fire fighting in a big old lumbering bus, and entered smoke, and never came out. Well, he did, but by that stage he was smoke(d) himself. Was he calm and rational, and an innocent victim of circumstance? The law suit said so. Who knows. Or was he pushing the envelope, the way he often boasted that he did?
Who… knows.
I will tell you the Hughes 500 owner told me that throughout their fifteen minute ordeal, Fred was screaming hysterically, and beating on the instrument panel with his fists. That… is some temper.
Fred would have made a great Irishman.

2) Humphrey
I’ll call him Humphrey. Humphrey is retired now. To the eternal, ever-lasting joy of every second-in-command that ever shared a cockpit with him. Long may he… stay retired. And bask in his own greatness. I know he does. And bore the pants off everybody in the Old Folks’ home. And use plenty of catheters.

My first meeting with Humphrey occurred in the context of flying a large, twin turbine, IFR, two crew helicopter, equipped for nineteen passengers. Over water. He was going to be my Training Captain. Apparently, I had pulled the short straw. This is the way the first conversation went:
Humphrey: (coldly)”Francis, I understand you hail from Ireland?”
Me: “Yes, Sir.”
Humphrey: “You are Irish?”
Me: (tempted to say: “No, I’m an albino dwarf from Pakistan. Can’t you tell?”) “Yes, Sir.”
Humphrey: (even more coldly) “I would like you to know I flew for the British Army in Northern Ireland. I didn’t like Ireland. And I didn’t like the Irish. They shot at me. A lot. Is that quite clear?”
Me: (“Yes, Sir” was the correct response. I knew it. It was the expected response. Preferably with a downcast expression. After all, as my Training Captain, he stood next to God.)
“Well, Sir, you must understand you were a moving target, but I’m really sorry we missed.”

* * * * *

That exchange… (well, fukkit, he ticked me off…) occurred in the crew room, and there were several flabbergasted witnesses within earshot. I understand the story is still recounted in those parts to this day.
I’ll admit, as an exercise in diplomacy and etiquette, how-to-make-friends and “influence people” I probably flunked that class. It adds a whole new dimension to the concept of bringing teacher an apple. With a humongous, wiggly worm poking his beady-eyed head out. There were so many (beady-eyed) head banging sessions after that, between Training Captain Humphrey and junior Second-in-Command Meyrick, that I have long last count.
A few though, twenty plus years later, still stand out in my memory.

We were operating out of a major international airfield. It was busy. Taxying from one side to the other was quite an odyssey. Lots of taxiways and runways, and clearances and holding. But so what? Same pay check, same office hours, same employment records. Technically speaking, who gives a flabby rodent’s posterior?? Answer: His British Army (retired) Highness Training Captain Humphrey. All that had happened was that we had picked up some passengers offshore who needed Her Majesty’s Customs Clearance. For that, we couldn’t land on the Eastern side of the field, outside our home base. We had to land on the Western Side, have ground staff carry paperwork, shuffle terribly important Immigration Forms, throw some Holy Water, mumble some Immigration mumbo-jumbo, and, hey presto!, we would be cleared by her Majesty.
So what? No big deal. Fuxsake, brother, CHILL!

Well, it was to him. It was some kind of personal affront. He went ballistic. The audacity. How dare they load people on his aircraft (his, you know, HIS) that needed Customs? The blooming cheek! Why couldn’t they load the damn foreigner Dago Wops on a boat? Arriving at the West Side, the relevant administrative staff further had the unspeakable temerity to let us wait at least five minutes and twenty one seconds. Off he went again. You could actually see the arteries in his forehead and neck start to bulge, as his blood pressure (high at the best of times) now sky rocketed. He would go strangely white, and start screaming at everybody over the radio. He was mad with the world. I tried to play the humble second in command, (lower case), and tried just to keep my mouth shut. On and on he went, yelling over the radio. There was a delay, for some reason, and I suggested, in as mild a tone as possible, that we should just shut down. That made him more mad. So now I got yelled at. So we sat, turning and burning, while Herr Obergruppenfuhrer Captain Humphrey (British Army – retired) worked himself into a first class hissy fit. Eventually a really nice girl came on board, (stockings and high heels) who worked for the agent trying to secure the Customs release. Her apologetic charm was totally wasted, she too got screamed at by the resident lunatic in the right seat, and, reduced to tears, she soon fled the cockpit back to the relative safety of the ramp.
At this stage, the other lunatic, in the left seat, decided to open his big Irish mouth. He should have known better. No, he did. He probably just did it for the sheer hell of it. I said, slowly and deliberately:
“Sir, I’m sorry, but that was totally uncalled for…”
He erupted. Blood pressure? 160 over 110? No, more. 180 over 120? I was wondering what I could get it up to. Maybe I could provoke the retired son-of-a-(unmarried lady) to burst an artery. Maybe…

I looked at him, coolly. He was totally, off-the-clock now. 200 over 130? Just another little push, and he might just flip himself clean over the edge. And drop dead. That would look great in my logbook. I would be able to cut a celebratory notch out of my cyclic. I reflected on how best to get him totally apoplectic.
“Are you serious?” I inquired, infuriatingly sweetly.
210 over 140? (Yo, baby! Nearly there…)

“Alright”, I said, “if that’s how you feel…” And I calmly undid my seat belt. He stared at me in total astonishment. I wasn’t meant to do as he said, of course. I was just meant to be totally intimidated, and cower like a kicked puppy.
“Bye…!”, I said, as I calmly took my headset off, and popped out the left door. His look of total astonishment and disbelief tasted like a good pint of Northern Irish Guinness. Served in South Armagh, Northern Ireland. Bandit country, for the British Army (retired).
I strolled along, relieved to be out of the deranged cauldron masquerading as a professional pilots’ cockpit. Past the astonished looks of bystanders and witnesses, I walked over to the admin offices. First I apologized to the still tearful missy who had tried to placate the lunatic in the right seat. Then I asked the astonished office for a ride over to the east side.
“Why?” There was dumbfounded amazement in the question.
“Oh”, I replied lightly. “The Captain just ordered me out of the cockpit.”
“He did WHAT…??”
In short order I got my ride, and a few minutes later, I was calmly walking back into our crew room. Unsurprisingly, the Chief Pilot was standing there waiting for me, with an incredulous look on his face. The ground agent had already called across. Through the windows I could see Two-Zero-Bravo still turning and burning (in more senses than one) over at the West side.
“What happened?”
I explained. There were amazed looks.
“He did WHAT…??”
“He ordered you OUT OF THE COCKPIT?”
Utter amazement. A few minutes later, as I sat grimly enjoying a cup of coffee, the combined crew room (muffled hysterics) watched Two-Zero-Bravo taxy forlornly across the airfield. Nineteen passengers, and this time only one lunatic at the controls…

* * * * *

Somehow or another, this incident was glossed over, and a while later, there we were, once again, flying together as a pair of professional lunatics, over the stormy seas, with nineteen passengers sitting in the back. The funny thing is that the guys in the back all assume that the guys up front know what they are doing. It’s all part of the make-believe. Erroneous, but well contrived.

I was the Pilot Flying. That meant I was doing the pulling, shoving and kicking on the various sticks and pedals, and he of the hair-trigger temper was doing the checklist and the radios. In the middle of the checklist, there came an interruption, in the form of a radio call. The rig was asking us, very nicely, if we could handle another two passengers on the next leg. We couldn’t. For the simple reason, we were already full. We were dropping five, and loading five. Five plus fourteen makes nineteen. Full house. Sorry.
This fact of elementary Arithmetic could have been explained graciously, with good humor in a matter of a few seconds. But… nope. It was just another opportunity for a temper tantrum. There followed an outburst, and in a sarcastic tone of voice, our hero in the right seat had to inquire if the caller actually knew how many seats we had on board?
“Why, nineteen, Sir” came the puzzled reply. That led on to a belittling explanation from our flight deck as to how fourteen and five actually adds up to nineteen. Etc, etc. It was wholly uncalled for. Now he was angry, and when he had finished abusing the rig, he returned his attention to the interrupted check list.
“Three greens, confirm!” he pointed, still angry, at the landing gear “annunciator panel “. As busy as I was, slowing down for our Landing Decision Point, I still obediently glanced across. What I saw, made me pause. Instantly, he picked up on the hesitation. We were behind schedule on the approach checklist (courtesy of his little tirade) and the rig was in full view and approaching quickly. He was anxious to complete the checklist. So was I. The stage was thus set for…


I glanced at him. Hey-ho. Blood pressure boom-boom time again. 150 over 95? Arteries bulging. Eyes staring. Forehead going clammy white. 160 over 100? Yo, baby! BLOW UP, BITCH!

I couldn’t get a word in, anyway. He was off. It was a rant about my intelligence, my useless presence on the flight deck, something about wondering why I was being paid wages… and all the while, approach checklist NOT complete, we were charging towards the helideck ahead. Nineteen passengers in the back. Eventually… he shut up. It wasn’t that he calmed down. He had just gone apoplectic. Speechless. 200 plus over 120…

It was like a really good French wine. I savored the words. Like a wine connoisseur enjoying a good “bouquet”. You know, the phony showmanship whereby people pretend to be able to tell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and ordinary “plonk”. Yummy. The words tasted sweet.


He looked down. At three REDS. He had missed a step. It’s called “lowering the gear”. Because his First officer was NOT intimidated, and paying attention, we had averted a likely catastrophe. People have gotten themselves killed that way. Gear up helicopters don’t land too well. They roll over. With devastating consequences. Like the one down in Brazil, that killed a bunch. Sheepishly, he lowered the wheels.

“Three Greens, Confirm!” he whispered it in a screamingly QUIET, subdued tone of voice. I should have printed that in a smaller format, to more accurately paint to you the new found timidity of the delivery. Like this:
“Three Greens, Confirm!” he whispered.

“YEP! NOW IT’S GREEN!” I offered, cheerfully, in a very LOUD tone of voice. (heavily UPPER CASE). With a non-subtle added intonation that hinted of an unspoken “YOU MORON”, and “WHY do we pay YOUR wages, numb nuts??”

You know something? It was a quiet flying day after that. Peaceful, almost…

(to be continued)

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on October 20, 2012, 3:02 pm

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