Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 37) – The Pilot who hated me

Posted on June 23, 2013

A Blip on the Radar (Part 37)


Truth is stranger than fiction.
Much. Stranger.
I look back, many, many years now, decades in fact, and I still see the incandescent, glowing red hot fury in the eyes of a fellow pilot. I see the angry fists, and I feel the spittle on my face. I know he is about to rain blows on my face. It’s not good. He is a big fellow, and it’s gonna hurt. That’s not too bad, I’m pretty tough, and I am also no small chappie. But this is not a good place for this.
If there is ever a good place.

I decide to clearly demonstrate to the shocked witnesses that I’m not looking for a fight. I look him silently straight in the eye, and I do not back up, but I fold my arms behind my back. My posture is showing that I do not wish to fight. Especially here. For we are standing in the hall way, outside of a court room…
How, I ask myself, has it come to this? I listen to his rant, and the accusations he hurls at me.
Indeed, how has it come to this?
One of the strangest things about this case, is that I felt – and still feel- desperately, desperately, sorry for the poor guy. If I could have helped him, in any way, I would have. He needed support. He was a pale ghost from his former self. His face was gray. Eyes sunken. A man seriously wounded, both in body and, I fear, in mind. The victim of a terrible helicopter crash.
A family man, who had lost everything.
Income, career, and health. Marriage? And now, by the looks of it, a court case.
The latter, courtesy of… me?

* * * * * *

It all started so innocently. Unspeakable tragedies often do.
The incremental steps, that lead, unfalteringly, to catastrophe, are obvious in 20-20 hindsight. At the time however, not so. Many a time you are simply not in a position to make decisions. You can make suggestions, offer input, but that is all. People placed way above us humble helicopter jockeys make the big decisions. Managers, owners, Chief Pilots, Directors…
Some of these are good listeners. Some not so. This also is a truth the helicopter lover will soon learn along the rocky path of his or her lowly career. When asked for it, speak the truth, simply and plainly. When ignored… accept that you have done what you can.

I’ll call him Brad. Big boy. Not a diplomat. Kind of brusque. A little abrasive. Defensive, perhaps? He told me a story about how he had been basically defrauded in his business. That’s got to hurt. Behind the exterior abrasive bluster… what? Vulnerability? Who knows.
Within half an hour of arriving from his long journey to a small place lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he, although the new-hire, brand new kid on the block, had already managed to totally tick off all the mechanics in the hangar. He achieved this neat feat by spending five minutes looking at his helicopter-to-be, and then ripping in to the guys who had been working on it for the last few weeks. The boss had to go down from his office, and sort that one out. I was a puzzled observer to this, and not involved in any way. Personally, as a dual rated Pilot-Mechanic, I prefer to approach mechanics respectfully. You get more with honey than with vinegar. The worst thing possible is a pilot without an Airframe and Powerplant License, who basically starts accusing a bona fide A&P holder of being just an incompetent, hammer wielding klutz with extreme myopia. It’s not… the best way to make friends and influence people.

The next item on the agenda became even more interesting. My boss was in the habit of asking me to fly with some of these new hires. I was a dual rated airplane and helicopter CFII, and I was usually happy to oblige. On this occasion… I was wondering how it would go. Off we went, and Brad was quick to point out to me that this dual flight was entirely unnecessary. He had a lot of Hughes 500 time, and he didn’t need a check out. I politely ignored his protestations, and we flew what worked out to be a perfectly normal check ride. He was doing fine. He was smooth on the controls, coordinated, and everything was just peachy. Until… I said, happily,

“Let’s go do some autorotations!”

It should perhaps be noted that I like autorotations. I’ve probably done a fair few thousand of them, and I’m comfortable with the procedure. In the training environment, you do them all the time. You’ll do twenty or thirty a day. Sure, you’re very, very careful, and there is no recovery from “stupid”, and if you persist in “stupid” you WILL die. But once you respect that fact, they still are a lot of fun. Just don’t be “stupid”…
The reaction was not what I had expected. He flat refused. I’ve never had somebody on a check ride flat refuse to do an autorotation. It was a first for me. I tried to jolly him along. No success. I tried to insist. He got visibly ratty. I offered to fly a few demonstrations. No joy. He wasn’t having it. As far as he was concerned, he was that good, he did not need to do any.
I’ll be damned…
Oh, well. A cockpit is really not a good place for an argument. There came a point beyond which it seemed prudent just to return to base, and go and report to the Boss. I explained what had happened, and I also made no secret of the fact that I was suspicious. I wanted now to check out his autorotational skills VERY carefully. My boss (not a CFII) listened, and was clearly surprised. He promised to talk to Brad. They subsequently did so, and I was not present at that meeting. I do not know what was said, but I was overruled. The man that owned the company sided with Brad, and decided that he was a high time Hughes 500 driver who did not any further check flight.
I heard the news, and quietly “sucked air through teeth”. I wasn’t happy about it, but the decision was above me. Amen.

BOINGGGGG… (the bell tolls…)

Months went by. Brad was out there, flying and fishing. Business was brisk. All well. The whole fleet of machines was flying, flying. Making money.
We’re all making money.
Then… one day, a satellite fax came in. My boss called me in, and showed it to me. It was from Brad. He said he had noticed that the tail rotor tip cap seemed to have “a little play” in it. That’s not good, and I said so. But it was the next line that really caught my attention.

“So I’ve put some structural adhesive around it, and we’ll see what happens…”

Aaaargghhh… (sucks air through teeth).
“That’s not a good idea, Boss. He shouldn’t be flying with that. That’s not an authorized repair. He needs new blades…”
The Boss talked to Brad via satellite phone, and I was not present at that time. I don’t know what was said, but I do know that Brad went on flying. (“…and we’ll see what happens…”)

BOINGGGGG… (the bell tolls…)

A week later. ALARM, ALARM!! We’ve had a CRASH! We have a bird down.
Damn! WHO? Brad! OH!

I was flying at the time, and off Island. I arrived back, a week after the crash, and two days after Brad had been airlifted back to the Island. I landed, and rushed around to the hospital. First thing. It never crossed my mind not to. There I found Brad, black and blue, bandaged up, beaten to hell, all kinds of internal problems, back problems, obviously in severe pain.
When he saw me, tears poured down his cheeks. My heart went out to him, and I sat down carefully beside him.

“Why are you crying? Is it bad?” I found myself asking a remarkably stupid question. Put it down to the gormless Irish. You know, too many potatoes. His reply stunned me.
“You’re the first person who has come to see me!”

He explained that, apart from the Boss, none of the mechanics, none of the other pilots, none of the office staff, nobody had come to see him.
It obviously had really hurt him deeply.
I stared at him in disbelief. I knew he was not very well liked, but here was a wounded fellow aviator, who had nearly died, in serious pain, and nobody could be bothered to come and visit? I was incensed. I made up my mind to express my feelings elsewhere, when the time came.
(and I did, surely). Steam

The conversation then turned to the accident. What happened?
Here the story soon became bizarre.
I tell it carefully, to the best of my going on twenty year old memories. I know it sounds incredible.
But… it’s exactly the way it happened.

He told me that he had been flying along at about 1100 feet. All normal. Then, suddenly, a vibration in the pedals. “What did you do?” I asked. He was propped up with pillows, and he mimed holding on to the cyclic. “I slowed down”, he said, moving the imaginary cyclic back. “Then I kind of waffled down to about 700 or 800 feet. I was doing about 40 or 50 knots…”

“Waffled down?” I kept my face straight, but behind it, I was wondering about those actions… Would I do that? I doubt it. Give up airspeed like that? Waste time? How about an immediate auto down to the surface, recover to a hover, and THEN explore what the hell is going on…??
He went on. “But the vibrations were getting worse… Then…”
In his eyes was the horror relived of what he had been through. An ordeal for any man, no matter how stout of heart. “Then, all hell broke loose. We just started violently spinning, round and round, and the nose tucked right down. I could see the waves coming up…”
I asked: “Were you in autorotation?” He looked blank. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, I could hear the dull echo of an old bell ringing…

BOINGGGGG….. (the bell tolls…)

“Where were your hands…?” I asked the question gently, wonderingly, feeling desperately sorry for him.
He answered haltingly, pain and fear etched deep in his eyes.

“My hands weren’t on the controls…”

He must have seen the look of surprise on my face. He added:

“Moggy, I was screaming. So was my observer. I thought I was going to die… All I could see was the face of my little girl…”

I said nothing. I understood. The bell had finally tolled.

He went on and described the death spiral. The waves coming. The massive, bone shattering impact, nose down, left float first. How most of the air cells in the fully inflated left float had burst, and, in a truly extraordinary combination of coincidental good fortune, acted as a gigantic air bag. How he had struggled up to the surface, confused, in terrible pain. How he had swallowed so much salt water, that his lungs had almost shut down. I nodded. I was familiar with the process. A friend of mine, Walther, had died that way. (I describe that crash elsewhere.) It’s called “drowning on dry land”. You drown in the fluids in your own lungs. Brad was incredibly lucky to have survived. He told me how he had spent the entire pain wracked night up on the open bridge, outside, below the indifferent stars. Drifting in and out of a dream-like waking nightmare. Propped up like a limp doll between two unknown Korean sailors, who had remained faithfully beside him, all night long, whilst he leaned into the oncoming breeze, straining to draw tiny breaths of life giving air. His terror of going to sleep, lest he never wake up again.

And all the while, as he recounted his story, I could see those eyes. Those eyes, that were haunted. And which had seen the approaching shadow.

I returned to my employer, and, sadly, filled him in on the details of what had transpired.

* * * * * *

Fast forward to many years later. I had long since left the Tuna Fields, and was working as a pilot mechanic for the Sheriff’s Office, flying helicopters and airplanes. Chasing bad guys. The subpoena, to court, was unequivocal.
I was required to go. In due course, I found myself sitting, under oath, in a pre-trial hearing, with a stenographer typing down every word. Brad was suing my former employer for an undisclosed -large – sum of monies for his traumatic injuries, and loss of earnings. Much of the argument I was not a party to. Thus it was alleged, and apparently not wholly denied, that a mechanic at the shop had removed the reinforced abrasion strip from the leading edge off both tail rotor blades. Which is an unauthorized field modification. The manufacturer doesn’t allow it, apparently.
I could offer no help. I had not seen this being done, and I truthfully knew nothing about it at the time. There was an allegation that the mechanic had intended to use a heat gun to remove the (glued) abrasion strip. It was further alleged that this gun didn’t work. Out of fluid. Therefore… it was alleged that the mechanic had used a “quick lick” of a BLOW TORCH. Sure, it had melted the glue holding on the abrasion strip. But you are not talking “heat gun hot”. You are talking… BLOW TORCH HOT. No comparison. “Quick lick” or no “quick lick”. It was deduced that this action had weakened the internal bonding of the tail rotor. Duh.

Again, I knew nothing about this. I hadn’t authorized it, seen it, requested it.

The prosecution for our injured pilot got going, and really laid out the ground work for their case very well. By the time they were finished, the maintenance side of this screw up looked like a bunch of monkeys with hammers.

Regardless, the defense attorney, with that skilled ruthlessness of the paid liar class, quickly zoomed in on the sad saga of the non-existent autorotation, the hands-off approach, and the screaming. My boss had known of it, as I had discussed the whole thing with him. Never dreaming that I would end up in a court of Law.

By the time the defense attorney was finished drawing all the sorry details out of me, and with myself under oath, it was obvious to all, including Brad, that his case was terribly, possibly irreparably, damaged. A recess was called, whilst the leading attorneys conferred. It was at that stage, in the hall outside, that Brad accosted me, and vented his fury.

The case, indeed, went nowhere.

* * * * * *

When I reflect back on it all, the implied lessons are so obvious, that they are hardly worth even enumerating here. If something funky starts happening, shoot an auto for the ground or the water first. Once safely below ten feet, decide the next plan. Plop her down if you have any doubts.

“Waffling on down” and giving up airspeed to boot…

Sucks air through teeth…

This I know. Poor Brad was a victim. Somewhere in his primary training lay deficiencies. Somewhere along his career path, lay the seeds of a reluctance, or even a fear, to enter autorotation. Probably, indifferent instructors. It’s not uncommon. I’ve seen it before, and heard similar anecdotes. Entering an auto can be a chopper jockey’s best (and only) course of action, and it is imperative that he or she be willing to do so TOUTE BLOODY SUITE. As in CHOP-CHOP. Auto first, questions afterwards.

Poor old boy. My last sight of him was a broken man, out of aviation, doing a menial task. I’m really sorry what happened to him, and I wish I could have helped. Heck, I tried.

I even offered to do some demos… remember, Brad? Dude…

The other way I feel he was a victim is that in many lines of helicopter work accident insurance is either not available, exceedingly expensive, or just not much heralded.
“We don’t need no stinkin’ insurance…”. The macho culture is such that many pilots

“assume the non-occurrence of an accident”.

Ouch. Hence the stories of broken Tuna Heads being airlifted home, and their unfortunate parents picking up the tab. Stories of guys in wheel chairs, with terrible back injuries, and not a dime from insurance.
Not a single red cent.
It is better to plan for the worst. Where I work now I have, amongst other benefits, a “Loss of License Insurance”, which pays out basic salary for two years, in the event something happens, or I lose my medical. It gives me great peace of mind.

Somebody needs to set up a standard Life and Medical Insurance package for Tuna Pilots and Mechanics, and the employers need to educate themselves as to what is available, and make a point of offering it to their people. It’s flat wrong for employers to shrug shoulders indifferently, and state that “they are all subcontractors”, and therefore, ergo, it’s nothing to do with the employers.

These are feeling people, humans, for Goodness Sake. Not economic, expendable units. Steam

Poor old boy. What would I say to Brad, if I met up with him again?

Dude, I wasn’t lying in court. I was under oath, and I take that bit seriously. Everything I told was true, to the best of my ability.
What else could I have done or said? Hope you’re doing better…

Peace, brother…

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on November 29, 2014, 7:05 am

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