Of Helicopters and Humans (11) “Near-Miss over the Gulf “

Posted on May 24, 2013

Of Helicopters and Humans

Part 11: Near Miss over the Gulf

Given the colossal amount of helicopter traffic that beeps and honks its way noisily along the myriad Freeways over the Gulf of Mexico,it is astounding how relatively few mid air collisions have taken place in the last fifty years. The sky is indeed a very big place. And we little humans in our funky toys are very small. Unfortunately, this statistical fact is of zero comfort to those who have found themselves unintentionally sharing the same tiny piece of airspace with a fellow pilot.
I am now in my tenth year of flying in the Gulf, and it makes my eighteenth year altogether plying my rotating wing trade just over water. Ignoring all the other stupid airborne stuff. And forty three years since I first went solo in a decidedly battered Aeronca Champion. I swear, one of those days, I might start to kind of know what I’m doing. I also, one of these days, might go and get a real job. (But… not just yet).
In common with most of my fellow pilots, I have a deep seated concern about ramming somebody else, or being torpedoed by some eager beaver coming up behind me. It’s technically known as “fear”, and it’s a useful ingredient for a pilot to cultivate in an otherwise male chauvinistic and often cocky cockpit. The stories are whispered in bars, and in quiet asides. They are mostly true, and handed down from old farts like me to the budding young bloods. In time, when it is their turn to suffer from stiffening joints and annoying stomachs that insist on protruding out in an unsightly manner, not to mention occasional short term memory lapses, ( “Oh? We’re married? ” ) these tales will once again be handed down to a whole new generation of up and coming, bullet proof buckaroos.
There is the famous case of our brother pilot who was flying along, busy minding his own business, when he caught a split second view of another helicopter, in an extreme angle of bank, hauled over, desperately trying to avoid a collision. Our surviving hero faithfully records the maximum efforts of the other pilot to avoid catastrophe. He himself was a horrified spectator for only a fraction of a second of this unfolding catastrophe. Then his attention was drawn, via a colossal loud noise and terrifying vibrations, not to mention a plentiful airflow, to the fact that the lower chin bubble and the front of his cockpit, was no longer flying in formation with him. Part of the structure had departed, aswith his anti-torque pedals. They had gone. Vamooshed. He withdrew his (miraculously uninjured) feet from the (non-existent) anti-torque pedals, and wisely performed an immediate and successful autorotation. The other pilot was not so blessed. He lost his rotor disc. There were multiple fatalities. Lest any reader feel unkindly towards the survivor, and blame him in the least, let it be said how easy it is to miss traffic. Especially when it is neatly hidden behind the window pillar. On a misty day. When you are busy in the cockpit. Single pilot. Planning a fuel stop. Or a divert due to customer request. Or tuning the radios. Or setting up the GPS… Wherever our surviving friend is today, he will be the first to tell you how lucky he was.
At Intercoastal City, just south of Abbeville in Louisiana, over the years two mid air collisions have taken place, that I know of, with four helicopters taking the Final Long Plunge down to Mother Earth. There were no survivors. You will hear talk of the sunny day, with Routine Normality going on everywhere, that was suddenly and terrifyingly interrupted by Tragedy. You listen to those stories, and you know it can happen to you. So you work hard at your lookout. You pay attention. You listen. You communicate on traffic advisory frequencies. And you hope…?
The day it nearly happened to me, was misty, horrible, and weird. So many mid airs have happened all over the world, in good visibility and under blue skies. Clear Blue and Twenty Two. When you’re feeling happy, and relaxed, and positively buoyant about not taking that office job twenty years earlier. Or becoming a librarian. (I tend to think I would have made a lousy librarian).It’s when it’s sunny, and life as a helicopter jockey is good, that it is all too easy to let your guard down. That is when the gremlins, those mischievous meddlers, love to strike. Their random curve balls, lobbed your way, spin and slip, and seemingly defy all logic, upsetting all our careful plans. With luck and a bit of skill, maybe a dogged determination as well, the helicopter jockey can dodge these missiles, and fly on, shaking, his mouth dry, to be a wiser, more tested aviator.
I was coming out of one of our bases, in a Bell 407, and I was not happy. It was real early morning, with a watery, misty, aloof and scowling sun barely peeking above low clouds. I was taking off straight into that bright sun, and there was glare everywhere. The “little amber caution light” was flashing obnoxiously in what passes for my mind. I was concerned about traffic coming from our competitor’s base to the north of my take off route. I had previously discovered that the occasional machine would come out of there, without radio calls, and just turn hard right across our take-off path. Often enough a two crew machine, with the boys presumably absorbed in massively long check lists and cockpit work, to the detriment of situational awareness. It’s easily done. We’ve all done it. Too much going on inside. Not good. I had already previously been forced to smartly move out of the way of such machines, inexorably converging on me from the left, obviously unseeing. (and not willing to give me the right of way). And no radio calls. Sometimes I would call on the local traffic frequency, and ask for them to confirm they had me in sight. No reply. Then you know. Somebody is messing up. They might be on the wrong frequency. They might accidentally have the volume turned down. They might be dealing with some weird technical problem, and their attention could be totally focused inside. Regardless, it ain’t good. And I would move smartly out of the way. We try not to play the Road Rage Game in the Gulf of Mexico. The “I have the right of way, and, By Golly, I’m gonna keep going, and YOU move over, numb nuts!” game. Not a good idea. Keep that play for the US 90. Freeway madness. Not in the Sky…
So I was used to moving out of the way, for the odd helicopter taking off to my North, on an easterly heading, and then swinging to the South, smack across my bows. That was what I was looking for. I even told my front seat passenger to help me. “Keep an eye out your side, Sir… occasionally I’ve had them come out from over there, without a radio call, and not see me. Let me know if you see any traffic on our left…” Obediently, the young guy beside me immediately jumped to his assigned task, and now there were two of us paying attention, watching and aware.
I just had this bad feeling. I can’t describe it. I’ve had it before. Just uncomfortable. A vague, weird, annoying, awareness of something threatening, that I couldn’t see. But I knew it was there. Waiting to get me. Fuk’n gremlin… I was positively craning my neck around the cockpit, looking past my left front seat passenger, around the window pillar, looking, looking…

I was making my radio calls, and climbing though three hundred feet. I was the last in four aircraft taking off out of our coastal base. My three compadres ahead had all announced intentions on the local traffic frequency, and nobody had challenged them. I was number four. Same calls as the other three. Same take-off direction. Same frequency. Same modus operandi.
And now I was climbing and looking for unknown traffic.
Just my fellow pilots, disappearing in known directions, previously announced. We had done this hundreds of times. We worked well together. Good team. Well known procedures. The female aviatrix ahead of me announced her position, and I smiled to myself. Everybody liked her. Good pilot, great personality, mucked in real well with all the boys. Who says flying helicopters in the Gulf is a Man’s World? We have some lovely ladies, who do sterling work. May there be more…
Looking for unknown traffic…
Four hundred feet… About to start a right turn onto a heading of one-seven-zero and continue climb to two thousand. Too much light. Light everywhere. Misty, low scud, and sun rays flashing off everything. I am vigilant, and so is my front passenger. Flashes everywhere. Light off water. Off buildings. Off cars. Flashes everywhere. Looking, looking..


One single flash. Below me. Between my feet. My head jerks down.

ROTOR DISC…!!!! F@#!!K!!

Front of. Coming right up at me. The sun has flashed off the spinning disc. A hundred feet below and closing FAST. I perform a wild evasive maneuver, a mix between a Kangaroo panic collective pull and a screaming Hottentot side swipe on the cyclic. Haul into a turn away.
F@#!!K!! That was CLOSE!
My heart is beating furiously. I stare in stunned amazement at another Bell 407 sailing up into the air, unannounced, impertinently (and solidly) occupying air space I had intended (and announced) for my own use.

Not good. I calm myself down. And call him on the radio.
This is my motivation: we all make mistakes. I make mistakes. Best to admit them, learn from them, and move on. Best also to deal with stuff pilot-to-pilot. I have heard real screw ups before. Two pilots. One heated. The other calm. The calm guy says over the radio:
“Let’s discuss it on the land line.” End of story over the air. That gives everybody time to calm down. Two professional pilots chat later. Somebody sees the error of his ways. He apologizes. It’s over. It’s done. It goes no further, unless it really has to. We all have to work together.
I called him on the local traffic frequency. My fellow company pilots heard the whole thing.
I called him politely by helicopter type and geographical location.
No reply.
I called him politely by helicopter type, geographical place, and color of his machine.
No reply.
I called him adamantly by helicopter type, geographical place, color of his machine, exact departure point and operator name.
No reply initially. I was getting cross. Irish… cross.
Eventually, a lazy voice came up and asked:
“Errr… Are you calling me?”
I was getting exasperated.
“Sir, are you the (company name) Bell 407, (company color), that just took off from (base) on a heading of zero-nine-zero?”
About the only thing I had not added was his inside leg measurement.
I added: “Because you need to understand that you took off underneath me, without a call, and nearly collided with me…!”
I repeated: “Sir, are you the (company name) Bell 407, (company color), that just took off from (base) on a heading of zero-nine-zero?”
Eventually, the same lazy, disinterested voice came back, with a hint of contemptuous dis-interest. “Errr… I don’t think so…”
I remember sitting back in exasperated amazement. Beside me, my front seat passenger gave voice to what I was thinking: “He doesn’t give a rat’s ass, does he?”
I shook myself. “No, but I can fix that.”
There and then I called my own Base on the radio, and filed an airborne FAA near-miss on the spot. The first time in forty three years since my first solo that I had done that. We could have resolved that pilot-to-pilot, with a phone call and maybe a meeting afterwards. But the prerequisite is a certain willingness to keep things as safe as humanly possible. If you just don’t care, buckaroo… Well, we have ways of making you care.

My fellow pilots all swore he had never called to announce his intentions. Nobody heard him. He of course maintained to his employer and to the FAA that he DID call. But even that dubious fib/excuse doesn’t gell with the fact that three helicopters had already overflown him out of our base, and I was merely the fourth machine in one long, continuous stream. My fellow pilots were also convinced that the unsatisfactory dialogue I describe above was in fact with the same errant pilot. And all agreed his evasive dis-interest and lack of respect richly deserved my action of kicking the issue “upstairs”.
Pity. It’s much better to work these things through pilot-to-pilot. It remains the only time ever I have formally filed against another pilot. Had he merely agreed to talk later on the land line, he would have saved himself a long interview with his employer, and with a representative of the FAA.
My passenger afterwards said he noticed my head suddenly glance down, and he too looked down in time to see the front of the rotor disc coming up. He said he didn’t even have time to yell, before we were “doing something weird”.

As always, I second guessed myself for a while afterwards. Could I have done better? Could I have perhaps paid more attention to the possibility of a machine taking off underneath me? It was hard to know how, unless I could figure out how to see through the cockpit floor. Nonetheless, should I have assumed the lack of a radio call constituted a safe passage? Maybe not, but there were very few movements out of that (small) base. What were the odds of somebody coming out of there (unannounced) at exactly the same time as I was taking off (announced) and number four in a series of four helicopters? (Pretty good odds, apparently…)
And finally, with the benefit of hindsight, could I have been more diplomatic on the radio? Well, in my defense, I started off nice. And in a professional manner. If he had answered me in a prompt manner, I think we would have resolved it. How hard is it to say: “Oops… Sorry, bro’…!” How hard, indeed. But I admit towards the end I was getting real ratty. By the time a pilot says: “Sir, are you the (company name) Bell 407, (company color), that just took off from (base) on a heading of zero-nine-zero?”… And if he sounds increasingly “pissed”, then you would be wiser to answer and make nice. The reply “Errr… I don’t think so…” (in a lazy, contemptuous tone of voice) is kind of like adding fuel to the fire. My fellow pilots all remarked on that. Heads shaking.
Did I learn from this? Yep. Did I cover myself in glory? Nope. Note to self?

Respect that little “amber caution light”, Francis.
Ditto that strange, gut feeling.

(And maybe you should have been a librarian. Dammit…)

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on February 24, 2014, 7:47 pm

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