Of helicopters and Humans (10B) “Shillelaghs, hair-Trigger tempers, and three…Greens? “

Posted on November 21, 2012

Of Helicopters and Humans (10B)

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

(Part 2)

We landed back that evening, after our “Three Greens – or not” incident, and I remember just being relieved. We were walking in from the ramp, under the heavy, dark, grey evening skies, with daylight rapidly disappearing. The way it does, at those Northern, miserably cold and wet latitudes. I wanted to complete the paperwork, sign out, and go back to the relative peace and sanity of my small apartment. We walked in silence. We never did chit chat, joke, or carry on any small talk. From the heights of his exalted Aviator Super Status, I doubt if he would even consider lowering himself to the level of small talk with a mere First Officer. Especially one with a dubious, Celtic background.

I was therefore a trifle taken aback, when he coughed behind me, and said, in an unusually friendly manner: “I say, Francis, just a moment…”
I paused in my tracks, and turned to look at him. He was smiling. Like one of my old buds. Wink, wink. You know, almost human, even. I raised my eyebrows, questioningly. What?
“Francis…errr… I’m a little bit embarrassed about what happened out there today… Could we…errrr… Keep it to ourselves…?” (Big smile)
It took my breath away. I stared at him. What!?
When the truth of what was transpiring here finally hit me, I thank my Irish fighting genes for speaking up. I don’t remember my exact words, but I do remember the scorching blaze of raw passion. I told him that far from covering up, and pretending that nothing had happened, how about him considering the implications of what he had done? What if a more timid F.O. had been cowed and beaten down to where he had not spotted the error? How about treating this as a learning opportunity? How about reflecting on the typical day-to-day reality of this fact: that every cockpit he parked his ass in, was reduced to a Mid East war zone? That his histrionics, his yelling, his rash jumping to conclusions, was not merely unprofessional. It was bloody dangerous. Etc, etc. Heck, I vented. I know I finished off by telling him that if he was going to pull stunts like that, then other pilots positively needed to know. Because he was a thundering liability. Mister kiss-my-ass Training Captain…
And with that, I walked off. Leaving him standing there, his face dark and scowling.
How- to- make- friends- and- influence- people. Yep, I always flunked that class…
* * * * *

Many of us thought this Sky God’s explosive temper would eventually get everybody in serious trouble. It did, of course. Before I tell that (extraordinary) story below, let me first make a general statement. I don’t care what anybody says or thinks, I’ll argue this point with undiluted venom.

A professional pilot’s cockpit needs absolutely to be a calm cockpit.

Maybe that’s why I love being a single pilot. I was later to emigrate, and wander aimlessly around the globe. Eventually (today) I was to end up flying helicopters offshore for many years in the Gulf of Mexico. But before that, I rattled around flying all sorts of things. For quite a few years I flew single pilot, IFR, fixed wing all over the United States. That was an interesting job. I worked for the Sheriff’s Office, and I flew both a helicopter and a fixed wing. The chopper was an OH58, more or less the military version of the venerable Bell 206. The plank was a drug seized Cessna Turbo 210. Constant speed prop, retractable. Great machine. One important use was “Con Air” prisoner transport. At the drop of a hat, we would be dispatched to all over the US, to pick up suspect arrested under outstanding warrants from our Sheriff’s Office. These were some long, two and three day, Inter State flights. Colorado, Montana, California, Arkansas, New Mexico, etc, etc. We invariably filed IFR, and skipped happily for thousands of miles down the American Airways. Myself and a correction officer. And up to four prisoners. That was when I learned just how big, and how varied, and how beautiful the USA is. Of course, as a little airplane, we were last on the totem pole, going into major International hubs. Going in to Sacramento, California, one busy night, we approached from the South East, and I had my STAR arrival route open in front of me. The expected one. But by the time they had finished vectoring me around the sky, to make way for lots more urgent traffic, we were somewhere on an Airway a million many miles North West of Sacramento. I had fished out the next most likely STAR plate, and I was quickly studying that, when a laid back ATC voice informed me that I was now “cleared own navigation for the XXXYYYZZZ”. The only problem was… I had no clue where XXXYYYZZZ was. Or how to get there. It was night time, we had been burning our way through our fuel, and I was unfamiliar with the area. If the likes of Captain Humphrey had been on board, I’m sure the temperature in the cockpit would have been sizzling. As it was, we were having fun. It’s spelled F-U-N. It’s an unknown concept in some professional cockpits…
“Errrr… Approach, Five Two Bravo, we’re looking for XXXXYYYYYZZZZ right now, I’ll tell you when we’ve found it…” (laughter)
An amused ATC approach controller came right back:
“Five-Two-Bravo, yeah, we sure did vector you all around the Great State of California, didn’t we? No problem. Here’s a heading for you…”
No problem. It all got sorted out. Calm cockpit. My point: What is so hard to do in the two crew world, that it can’t be done without histrionics and elevated blood pressure?
Captain Humphrey was to have not one, but several really interesting “events”, some of which have doomed him to eternal celebrity status. Or notoriety, depending on your point of view. I shall limit myself to faithfully recounting this one event, because, just like the “Three Greens – or Not” fiasco, it was potentially tragic. It was also a classic example of why hair-trigger tempers in the cockpit are a thundering liability.
The origins of this piece of… undiluted aero-nuttical slapstick, are found in the simple understanding of “priorities”. Going back to our cold, northern latitudes, and the big old twin turbine, 19 pax, lumbering school bus, you have to know that our base was several minutes taxying time away from the passenger terminal. So what happened was that we would fire up, do our checks, and then slowly taxy over to the terminal. There was an “arrival time” request at the terminal, say 08.10. Our main competitors on that side were often twenty or thirty minutes late. Who cares, really. We tried to be on time for the honorable customers, but, seriously, what urgency would you apply to that arrival time? It’s not a FLIGHT arrival, it’s not subject to an IFR departure time, it’s just a TAXY arrival time. Who (bloody well) cares? The ONLY reason you could possible care is if your PRIDE is at stake. Ha!
(Enter, Captain Humphrey…!!!)
His First officer was… new. Nice guy, but maybe not assertive. Just a nice guy, doing his best, reeling under the temperature in the cauldron…?
Their checks complete, they were fractionally late for taxying time to the passenger terminal. Unless they got going quickly, they might even (heaven forbid) be a minute or so LATE. Goodness…
“Brakes off!”, a snarly Captain Humphrey barked at the pale figure beside him, promptly pulling in a small boat load of collective, and pushing forward on the cyclic stick. “Brakes off”, came the dutiful response.
The Big Beast never budged.
“I said: BRAKES OFF!!”, Captain Humphrey shrieked, instantly mad as hell. Even as the timid reply came (“errr… Brakes ARE off, Captain!”) a LARGE tugboat load of collective was being pulled in. And a really fierce forward input on the cyclic stick.
“I SAID BRAKES OFF!”. Captain Humphrey was now going white with anger. After all, at this rate of going, they might be TWO minutes late at the terminal. Heaven forbid! Still carrying a tug boat full of collective, and still applying a major forward cyclic stick input, the stage was now set for:
“WHAM! Aaaaaaarrrghhhhhhh…!!!” (the world spins)
Followed by: (sirens, sirens, crash alarm, more sirens…)
How do you manage that? Easy. First, you must understand that the wheels on the big, lumbering, twin turbine, 19 pax school bus are BIG. Because they are so BIG, they require very BIG wheel CHOCKS. That’s fine, no problem, but there is a PROVISO. It’s NOT a problem, provided you remember to signal to the ground crew to REMOVE those chocks prior to attempting to taxy. Now if you FORGET…
Yeah. What happens if you FORGET? Well, nothing, right? Correct. If you have a calm cockpit, indeed, nothing happens. Everybody backs off, and you might get this conversation.
“Brakes off!”
“Brakes are off, Captain!”
“What’s going on here?” (lowers collective, relaxes back pressure on cyclic stick).
“Did you signal for the ground crew to remove the chocks?”
“No, I thought YOU did!”
(Shit…) Followed by:
(hand signal)”CHOCKS AWAY!!”
No problem. With 99 per cent of flight crews… no problem. Nada. Zero.
How-ever. Let’s rewind this scenario.
Captain Humphrey: (heatedly) “I SAID BRAKES OFF!”
Intimidated, nervous, non assertive First office (quietly) “Err. They are off, captain!”
(Ocean Liner Boat load of collective) (major forward cyclic stick input)
(might be TWO minutes late!!)
(temper, temper…)
Now pause here. What is going to happen if you keep pulling more and more collective, and keep applying more and more forward cyclic pressure? While the wheel chocks are still firmly in place?
Well, History now knows exactly what will happen. Courtesy of Captain Humphrey. (now Retired)
ONE WHEEL…(note, ONE wheel)… finally MOUNTS its chock. But not (yet) the other wheel.
Is that a big deal, you ask? Yes, it is. Because all sorts of torque comes into effect now. It’s a very LONG helicopter, right? Very long. Imagine the tail suddenly VIOLENTLY swinging through 120 degrees. That explains the earlier description of “The world spins”. But of course, it gets better. Remember the ground crew? Two bods, minding their own business, waiting for the signal to remove the chocks? Well, they see Death coming (BIG Mama Tail Rotor), and throw themselves flat on the ground. And there was a FUEL BOWSER parked there, right? Mama Tail Rotor misses fuel bowser by inches. There was also an APU cart, right? Yep, same thing, another near miss. But the fun is not over. The Nice man in the Tower sees all this slapstick stuff, and he is not amused. He hits the crash alarm. That explains the above “Lights, Sirens, lights, more sirens…”
All that for the sake of trying to TAXY up to the passenger terminal exactly on time…??
And you think that’s it? Nope. Add in two more delights:
1) all the faces at the passenger terminal staring in utter amazement at the really weird goings on.
2) add in all the faces looking down at you from your own company offices. And there’s YOU, you impatient, bad tempered, out-of-control TRAINING CAPTAIN, trying hard to look cool. Like you meant that to happen.
Yeah, right…
Happy days, Brother. Peace. Enjoy your retirement.

Francis Meyrick

PS: (But I’m still sorry we missed…)

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