Francis Meyrick

Old Zeke

Posted on June 3, 2013

the day started with the Assumption of Normality

Old Zeke

based on… truth
and also
“Maybe conceited Electricians should think twice before judging an old Plumber…? “

A long time ago, somewhere in this small and insignificant world, there were some offshore Oil and Gas installations. They were serviced by helicopters. The choppers would come and go, busy as bees. There were several central platforms, the hubs as it were, which were surrounded in a rough circle, by up to a dozen well heads. The helicopters would fly workers from the hubs every day, and land briefly on each well head, parking up for a few minutes, whilst the passengers walked down to check on meters, pressures, and repair or remedy the occasional snafus. A lot of the flights were very short, and some of the pilots referred to these short trips as “flying a Hop & Pop” or “flying Hop & Poppers”. Originally, the term was used to describe parachute jumps, where the jumpers would exit the aircraft, and pull the ripcord immediately, thus “popping” the parachute.
There were many of these flights in any week. In a year, there would be several thousand. It was a lot of hop and popping. People got real used to it. It all went very much smoothly. The helicopter mechanics were very good, and it was fairly rare to have mechanical issues that could not be quickly fixed. In this way, several years passed, and everybody got used to a well worn groove. Hop & Pop was almost like riding the elevator. Or popping on the bus. Nobody thought too much about it.

One of the pilots was called Zeke. He was often referred to as “Old Zeke” on account of his grey hair, advancing age, and slow, quiet speech. Zeke didn’t say too much. He flew by the book. He briefed the passengers carefully each and every morning for the first flight. With special emphasis on the tail rotor dangers, and the correct technique for underwater escape. As long as they had been briefed well each morning, he was satisfied to not brief for the rest of the day. But that first brief was performed thoroughly, and reliably. Zeke also performed the pre-takeoff checklist. That was actually a company requirement, but few pilots bothered. There was a convenient fold out checklist available in the cockpit, but, once out of sight of land (and Managers), the majority of pilots never touched it. Zeke religiously flew his take-off straight into wind. He would climb up to at least three hundred feet, sometimes more, if the weather was rough and windy, before turning. That was also a company requirement, but, again, many pilots turned sharply far below that. If anybody had asked Zeke why he liked the company’s “below 300 foot – no turn rule”, he would have told the inquirer about some of his experiences. But nobody bothered to ask. So Zeke just flew a cautious, defensive take-off, ready and primed for trouble. In a way, he always simply assumed an engine failure, and positioned himself to be able to meet such a contingency quickly and head on. Old Zeke quietly enjoyed his flying, and he saw it as an Art Form. Something to be flown with finesse, something to be flown with respect, accuracy, and in as close to perfect balance as possible.

Another pilot there was called Brad. Brad was much younger. He was a remarkably brilliant young man. His technical, manipulative skills were excellent. He could fly to a very high standard of Airmanship if he so wished, and in addition to his intelligence, he was an accomplished software engineer. Brad always had a lot of pots on the cooker. He ran a business, he corresponded with an amazing variety of friends and acquaintances, and his active mind could multi task efficiently, and he could fly the helicopter effortlessly. In a sense, it was no longer a challenge for him. It was a meal ticket, and a pay stub. Brad got along real well with the Foreman. The Foreman especially liked Brad, because Brad was quick. Real quick. Brad was of the opinion that daily pre-flight briefings were a waste of time. His passengers were all regulars, and were so used to flying helicopters, that Brad was perfectly satisfied with dispensing with any repetitive safety briefs. They were just an irritant to his passengers anyway. Brad knew his machine really, really well. He never used the fold out checklist. He just spun her up, and got the show on the road. The Foreman really liked that. Brad didn’t waste any time. If a well was shut in, and the company was losing production, the Foreman preferred to send Brad, if he was available. Brad was “quick”. And “Quick” was Good. A casual observer might have wondered about the quick leap off the deck, seemingly in an impossibly short time after the rotors first started turning. Similarly, a casual observed might have been really impressed with the screaming low altitude turn. Passing through 150 to 200 feet, Brad, with his excellent manipulative skill set, would just honk that baby around in a forty five degree turn, and rattle off to the problem closed in well head. Old Zeke, the ancient old fart, would still be climbing out (though 300 or 400 feet), and Speedy Brad the Bullet would already be swinging the Repair Team onto short finals. The Foreman liked Brad.

Time went by. One day, The Foreman fired Old Zeke. He was “too slow”. The Foreman told the helicopter company that he wanted “another Brad”. The next day, young Timothy turned up. Timothy was a sweetheart, with a very well meaning temperament. The Foreman told him, on his first day, just to listen to Brad, and Brad would soon show him the ropes. Timothy nodded eagerly, thrilled with his job, and the challenge. He listened avidly to Brad, and watched his teacher closely when he was flying. Timothy was real impressed with Brad. They had some long conversations over dinner, and sometimes the Foreman would sit in on those discussions.

Timothy would ask: “Brad, how about the pre-take off briefing? Isn’t that a company and an FAA requirement?

Brad would wink at the Foreman, and the Foreman would laugh back. Then Brad would say: “Look, these guys fly on the helicopter almost every day. Some of them have got more flight time than you have.” There would be laughter.
“Do you really think they need to be told about not walking through the tail rotor? Anyway, when you are parked up on those well heads, the tail rotor is usually hanging over the edge. You’d have to fly to get to it…!” There would be more laughter.

Timothy would ask: “Brad, how about not turning below 300 feet? Isn’t that a company requirement?”

Brad would wink at the Foreman, and the Foreman would laugh back. Then Brad would say: “Look, we had a pilot here…” The Foreman would roll his eyes demonstratively. Brad would look at the Foreman, and laugh. He and the Foreman would exchange knowing looks. Timothy saw it all. There would be more laughter. “We had this pilot here… old dude… and he would never turn below 300 feet. If it was windy, and he didn’t like the sea state, or whatever, I’ve seen him climb straight out to 400 or even 500 feet. Then he’d turn…” There would be laughter. “Now you’ve got to understand that if one of our wells shuts in, that we have got a big problem. ” The Foreman would nod, seriously. “You are talking big bucks in lost production. You have got to jump on these problems, and get the hell out there and fix ’em. You understand?” Timothy would nod his head vigorously. He understood.

Timothy would ask: “The Ops Manual talks about checking out the platform, and recommends doing an orbit first. Do you agree?”.

There would be laughter. “Of course not! Why would you do that? For every well head? It’s all about speed and getting the job done.” Somebody asked: “Did Old Zeke do an orbit every time?” Somebody else answered; “No, not every time, but sometimes. I think if he didn’t know the well head, or if it was windy…” Brad would snort. “I NEVER bother”.

Timothy would ask: “In Training they said to file a Flight Plan if possible from the deck, before you launch. In case you go over the edge, and hit the water, and nobody knows you’re flying. Do you do that?”

Brad would snort impatiently. “Of course not! It’s wasting time. You can do that airborne! Anyway, just file a local plan between two or three different points, and you can go anywhere you like for thirty minutes, before you have to check in again…” And Timothy would nod. Got it. Thank Goodness for a Good Teacher like Brad…

* * * * * *

A few years went by. Timothy worked out just great. The Foreman was pleased. He had gotten his Brad clone. His helicopters were fast, efficient, and dispensed with all the bullshit. Nobody missed Old Zeke. Brad, the brilliant fellow, prospered in his helicopter career, and his wide circle of acquaintances, followers and admirers grew steadily. He was respected as an Ace helicopter pilot.

Then one day, young Timothy encountered a cataclysmic engine failure on take-off. He was climbing through two hundred feet,in a moderate turn to the right, thinking of his recent success in the Bowling League. The engine failure caught him completely by surprise. The nose yawed viciously left, the engine out horn and the Low Rotor RPM warning all seemed to jump angrily into his face. By the time he had leveled the ship, and half heartedly entered autorotation, he was plummeting down through eighty feet. Too late, he realized he was well out of wind, courtesy of the low level turn. To his credit, flustered as he was, he remembered to inflate the floats. But they hit hard. Real hard. The machine bounced sickeningly and went over onto its back. The front passenger had some warning, as he saw the debacle unfolding, but the severe impact totally surprised the three rear passengers. They were used to low level turns, and even the sound of unusual warning horns going off in the front, had not fully prepared them for what was happening. There had been no warning from the pilot. One managed to exit the helicopter successfully underwater, but the other two panicked. One inflated his life jacket whilst still strapped into his seat, where he was to be found, the next day, still securely strapped in. The other undid his seat belt immediately, and floundered desperately, trying to open his door. He found that as much as he was trying to exercise leverage on the door handle, his body was just floating the other way. He struggled desperately, but drowned without exiting. That left three in the water, Timothy and two passengers. Shocked and stunned, they made their way to the surface. The helicopter quickly sank. The seas were rough, and the temperature of the water, it being November, was cold. Time went by. The three were unable to stay together. Thirty three minutes later, an alert radio operator noticed the aircraft was overdue updating their thirty minute local flight plan. Calls were made. No reply. More calls. Still no reply. Eventually, another helicopter was diverted from its flight to the general area. An hour had gone by. The local flight plan had been filed between three points, some twenty three miles and twenty seven miles apart. It was an area of approximately four hundred square miles. The helicopter flew around for a while, but reported no contact. Two more helicopters were diverted. Nothing. More radio calls. No reply. The decision was made to alert the Coastguard. The Rescue Helicopter was still enroute, when a search helicopter reported a nasty looking oil slick, and some floating debris. The Coastguard helicopter was advised, and arrived on scene, and almost immediately located one victim. He was winched aboard, already deceased from hypothermia. An urgent search led to the discovery of the remaining two occupants. They were still alive, but barely. Rushed to hospital, both men arrived alive, but succumbed to the effects of hypothermia.

* * * * *

The years have gone by. Brad still flies that same field. He is universally regarded as an Ace Helicopter Pilot. He has a wide circle of friends and admirers. On his platform, everybody says the accident would never have happened if Brad had been flying. The Foreman says so. Brad, when faced with this compliment, is in the habit of just nodding his head. He tends to go quiet. He doesn’t speak much about the accident.

They say…

But that is probably unkind. They say… Brad flies differently now. They say he briefs his passengers now. Especially on the correct underwater escape technique. They say he flies much more conservatively. Take-offs into wind. Climbing up to at least three hundred feet before he turns. Sometimes, in rough weather, they say he will climb to even higher. And then turn. They say he flies the final approach down steadily from a greater height. No more sharp, low level hook turns onto finals. Strange. Some say Old Brad has lost his nerve a bit. Did somebody say he uses a checklist now? There is a new Foreman coming, a younger guy, and they say he is the impatient sort. That he likes “Quick”. Some wonder how he will get along with Old Brad.

And nobody remembers Zeke…

Except Old Brad.

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on June 4, 2013, 6:22 am

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