Of Helicopters and Humans (12) “African Near Miss “
Posted on May 29, 2013
Of Helicopters and Humans
Part 12: African Near-Miss
Flying in Africa, in my case, in Angola and the Congo, was… interesting. Of the many experiences, several spring back vividly to mind. One of these, involved my imperturbable Buddhist friend Phuk. Known as Phuky-baby to most of us. Phuk hailed from Vietnam originally, and is long since retired from active flying now. He would forgive me with a shrug and a smile, I believe, for the narrative about to follow…
Phuk was kind of… unflappable. What mattered to us, big things, worth getting excited about, were sources of minor amusement to the decidedly Buddhist Phuk. It wasn’t too surprising, really. Here was a guy who had been through the whole hell of the Vietnam War. He had been shot down, several times, and sent right back up again in a new helicopter. He had seen the chaos of defeat and American withdrawal. He had walked around, alive and un-scarred (physically),listening to agonized screams of dying men. He had seen friends suddenly butchered into unrecognizable hunks of bloody, pulsating meat. All for the sake of the Grand Visions of great politicians, far removed from the battlefield. He was one of the many who had landed on an American aircraft carrier, only to see his machine unceremoniously pushed over the side, in those last, panic and fear filled days of the collapse of South Vietnam. Another Great Victory in Man’s Eternal Fratricidal War. He had come to America, with no knowledge of the fate of his wife and daughter. In the first years, there had not even been mail. He had worked for a long time as a janitor, lonely and lost in America, missing his family, before finally getting his US FAA Flying Licenses. In those years of confusion, and separation from his family, he had remained faithful to his wife. He had also observed -with awe- a once feared, former South Vietnam general (previously in absolute charge of tens of thousands of souls, and making life and death decisions) sweeping carpets and dusting shelves. How the Mighty had fallen. Phuk would relate that story to me, and his voice would still drop into a hushed tone, as if the formidable General somehow might yet overhear our conversation. After many years, an emotional, unspeakably joyous reunification with his wife and daughter in the US. But his adventures were not over. His engine quit over the Gulf one day, while he was on his own. His machine floated briefly, rolled over, and sank. Now Phuk was floating in the Gulf, alone. He had managed to send out a hurried Mayday, and it had been acknowledged. They knew he was down. Time went by. Nobody came. He became dehydrated and maybe delirious. The intensive search, based on erroneous information, was taking place too far South. Phuk, with no way of knowing this, spent hours in the water. “Small sharks” (his words) came and nibbled experimentally on him, and he kicked at them, and threw them away with his hands. He thought he had been abandoned perhaps, just another useless Vietnamese, and would be dying on that day. He saw his whole Life. His manner of describing the ordeal was quiet, matter of fact, accepting, with perhaps a slight wonder. Eventually, one of the search pilots, without orders, on his own initiative, retraced Phuk’s route of flight back to the beach. Wonder above wonders, he managed the unique feat of spotting a head and shoulders bobbing forlornly above the waves. Surrounded by “small” (hungry) “sharks”. Phuk was rescued, and very grateful. He went back to flying. Years later, he would be flying in Angola, Africa, and meet up with a half crazy Irishman. We became firm friends, and we spent hours talking about Life, Death, and The Universe. I enjoyed his company. What I remember most about him was his forgiveness. He seemed to harbor no bitterness. No hate, no angry memories. Despite all the violence of War. Phuk was, strangely, at peace. I could never figure that out. I was not like that. We were opposites in many ways.
The day it happened, we were all flying into nearby Cabinda Airport. A whole gaggle of helicopters. A flock. A shower. Seven or eight of us. The radio was choc a bloc with chatter. The stressed Angolan tower operator, whose English was passable but heavily accented, was doing his best. Some fixed wingers were taxying around the apron. With African and Russian pilots. Into that hot curry mix, a decrepit old Boeing 727 announced its hulking presence on a long final. You have to imagine a totally congested frequency, with a wide variety of English being spoken. Reasonable English, basic English, and hopeless Pigeon English. English-Angolan. English-American. English-Russian. English-Nigerian. English-Irish. Into this mess of rotating blades and propellers and turbines, comes the vintage African 727 on long finals. Gear down, flaps down, lights on, and the African crew rigidly settled into “landing mode”.
Enter… one more helicopter. La-di-dah. Ho-hum. Phuk. Leisurely, down on short finals. Seemingly blissfully unaware of the African Boeing 727 coming barreling down after him. Now you have to add Vietnamese English into the cacophony. Phuk was doing a model approach, clearly unhurried. Several of us could see the debacle developing.
African 727 (sharply): Cabinda Tower! Helicopter!
Cabinda Tower: One-four-Victor! Side step to Apron!
Phuk: Alpha or Bravo?
Groan… I knew what he meant. He wanted to know which exit to take off the runway. Normally the Tower was real picky that you obeyed his instructions, and that you used only the indicated exit. Now however, such details were unimportant. Phuk, cross the frickin’ grass if you want to, but GET OFF THE RUNWAY.
African 727 (beginning to panic) (still continuing approach):
Cabinda Tower! Helicopter!
Cabinda Tower: One four Victor! Side step to Apron!
Phuk (unruffled): Alpha or Bravo?
Two other pilots, seeing what was going on, jumped on the radio, but the net result was just a horrible warbling squeal, indicative of everybody “stepping on” everybody else.
African 727: (losing it) (still -unbelievably- continuing approach):
“CABINDA TOWER! HELICOPTER!”
Cabinda Tower: One-four-Victor! SIDE STEP TO APRON!
Phuk (unruffled): Alpha or Bravo?
It was too late. The 727 was over the hedge, with obviously never a thought of carrying out a very sensible “go around”. They were too busy panicking. Phuk had not exited the runway. Everybody was freaking out. Except Phuk. I watched in open mouthed horror as the wing tip of the 727 took a solid aim at the tail rotor of the little Bell 206. It missed. By inches. The sheer proximity of a very solid piece of the Boeing to the tail rotor of the Bell, was proven by the fact that the various wing tip vortices literally spun the helicopter around through a hundred and twenty degrees. The collective exhalation from all the assembled helicopter pilots was matched only by the furious commentary from the crew of the 727, presumably directed at Cabinda Tower. It was in African, but I know it was angry as hell. The Tower Operator, in the same language, appeared to be giving as good as he was getting. It was left for the rest of us to quit shaking, as soon as possible. It took me a while.
There was only one totally unruffled participant in the madness: Phuk. We all explained to him what had happened, in turn. Each awed pilot adding color to the narrative. “Oh”, was about all we got out of Phuk.
It wasn’t an act, or a show of bravado. It was just the way he was. Another event had passed him by.
Another event on Life’s journey. Why get excited about it?
Phuk was kind of unflappable. What mattered to us, big things, worth getting excited about, were sources of minor amusement to the decidedly Buddhist Phuk.
The sky could almost fall down, and as long as it was “almost”, I know what Phuk would say, in his polite, soft spoken Vietnamese – English:
“Oh? Well… we go lunch now, yes?”
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on February 24, 2014, 7:46 pm