A Blip on the Radar (39) “I could have been a Librarian “

Posted on March 19, 2014

Forgetting to undo one tie-down…
the one millionth pilot to make this same old mistake

A Blip on the Radar

Part 39: I could have been a Librarian

There was a period of time in Oz and New Zealand, when, if I understand correctly, Federal student loan programs were very readily available for those wishing to further their education. Those loans were also available for those wishing to become Commercial Helicopter Pilots. And therein, ironically, lay the seed of much grief and heart ache down the road. It’s called ‘Supply and Demand’. A lot of eager beaver young guys who wanted to be pilots, had THAT DREAM. Poor guys! And what able bodied, warm blooded, Testosterone pumping, Sheilah loving, fair Dinkum, stand up guy does NOT want to be a chopper jockey?? (you want to be a… what?) (A librarian?… that’s so… COOL)

The first thing to recognize about ANY loan, is that the sumbitch has to be repaid. With more sumbitch interest. Now if only I could learn that lesson myself today… So I’m certainly not able to preach such a virtue from the lofty moral heights of purity and supreme wisdom. I guess I had better not preach sobriety either. Abstention? Nope. Moderation? Yeah, maybe. But, seriously, we all know that debt can be ugly. I recently talked to a heli-whopper flying buddy here in Yankee land, whose student debt stands at a truly staggering $160,000 US dollars. That’s a record for me, but I’ve heard about student loans over $100,000 US Dollars many a time. It’s a helluva way to start your career. You are taking on a house note size loan, without the four walls and the cool beer in the refrigerator, but with the roof ready to cave in on top of your favorite head, if you can’t get a job once you are qualified. And not just any job. It had better PAY decent money…

Scribbling “Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual”, or MTM for short, has been a challenge in terms of labor and midnight candle hours, but it’s also been rewarding. I especially immensely enjoy the many emails I get. A reward in itself, right there. Reading between the lines, many a time, I get this mental picture of “young guy”, and “starting out”, and “anxious, borderline desperate” to get a job. You can almost sense the puppy dog eyes, and the tongue hanging out.

Wanna fly… soooooo BAD. Mister, do you know where I can get a job?

Brother, I know just how you feel…
I’m an old puppy dog, but the urge to go fly, pull pitch, burn fossil fuel, rip up into the sky, and think (“Yippee…!”) never seems to have left me. (Limited I.Q., probably). So I know it, there’s a lot riding on getting going and finding work. The newly qualified guy, with 200 to 300 helicopter hours, has invested Time, Effort, Loan Money, Hope, Expectations, and Self Respect. He may be married, have a family, or be seriously thinking about it. He may have been doing a much better paid job, but in some field that was boring him to tears. Maybe he was a welder, or a bus driver, or even a librarian. Mama (the great one) has given him permission to follow his Life’s Flying Dream, but Mama also expect food on the table, and clean nappies for Junior.
Her patience, forbearance, understanding and support, is… Finite. Am I right?
And now, along comes that offer of a tuna boat helicopter flying job. The lure of flight hours. At least SOME money.
And a guy can be forgiven for being overjoyed, and willing to overlook the “minor” drawbacks.

But what of risk?

And this is where I’m going to annoy some people. The jocks. The heroes. The bullet proof, three hundred (or three thousand) hour Sky Kings. I have said it many a time. Because it’s true. The world over, tuna helicopter flying has killed hundreds of pilots and their passengers over the years. It’s not something to be breezed into. A couple of beers, a talk with old Bernie who did six months on the “Agrippina”, and who is a world class expert. And it’ll be alright, Mum. Never fret, Dad. No bother, Brenda.
No worries, mate…
“It’ll be alright”, because it HAS to be? Not exactly a boatload of job choices available.

I’ve flown fixed and rotary, IFR, day, night, single pilot, two crew, EMS, Law Enforcement, Search and Rescue, Tours, Instruction, Mountain, Desert, Jungle, North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Africa, Europe, all around the Pacific Rim, Airways, and dirt strips. I’ve flown aerobatics, taught aerobatics, flown air shows and aerobatic competitions. STILL learning the ropes. ONE of these days, I kind of hope I’m gonna know what I’m doing. ‘Cos I’m still learning… Every day. But as regards RISK, now that is one mother that I know a bit about. Believe me. Madame Risque, she has my full attention and respect.

So, what of risk?

Helicopter Flying is a thinking Man’s game. Not a jock’s game. It’s a game for the soft spoken Man. Not the Loudmouth at the Bar. Don’t listen to him. Your survival chances go way, way up exponentially if you have a discrete, but highly developed, super cautious side of you, that asks good questions. Informed questions. And demands answers. A side of you that is willing to pause, back up, and think through the Master Plan again.
Remember that “little amber caution light”? The one I often invoke?
He’s your buddy. Listen to him.

If I was going to go on a Tuna Boat, I’d be asking a lot of questions. What’s this “MTM Tuna Manual ” thing? Any good? Has anybody read it? Does that idiot know what he’s talking about? Has he flown tuna? Five years? Hmmm…. Maybe I’ll read the damn thing. Hmmmm… He’s making me think, that Moggy dude. And what’s this he’s asking? If it’s a Hughes 500, then what of the engine? C10, C18 or C20? C20B? Military surplus? A rebuilt C18? Rebuilt by who? Paper work? So that matters? Is there a belly hook provided? If not, why not? Moggy says it’s a great safety tool. And that it probably saved his neck. My potential boss says angrily that Moggy is full of shit. Don’t read anything that mother writes.
Hmmm… Who is right?

My attitude towards risk has changed. In some subtle way. There’s still a little boy in me, that likes to play. Or a little thug, depending on your point of view. (watch me on my motorcycles, scraping the footrests, running out of throttle… or, maybe not) But some vital ingredient has made itself at home, over the years, in my perspective on risk. That ingredient is the sober realization, learned from the bitter fruits of near disaster, that I am fully capable of really prize, classic clangers.
Gi-normous boobs. Call it too many Moggy heart-in-mouth (“Oh, shit?!”) moments.

I have honestly tried to share with you some of these really horrible moments. Spread across Tuna Boat flying, Law Enforcement, North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Africa, and elsewhere. Sure, I didn’t actually break anything. I actually never even scratched a helicopter. But maybe it was more of a “lucky near miss” than merely an “academic potential”. I nearly, nearly screwed the pooch. I got so close I got to smell his damn doggie breath. I didn’t like it. So I slowed down. Backed off. I accepted I was not perfect. Not even remotely. Not only was I not a brilliant pilot. I was perhaps just a very average fixed wing and chopper jockey. I needed to slow down. And watch myself… re-evaluate where I stood on Risk. It’s the simple things that get you in helicopters. It’s not the Green Man from Planet Yuptulia cutting you up in his convertible Flying Saucer, practicing barrel rolls. Nothing as exotic as that. It’s the STUPID little stuff that trips you up. The routine. If I can get that point across, I’ll be thrilled. I give you two simple examples, neither of which paint me as the great Sky God. But, hopefully, they show you how easy, easy, easy, the stupid, simple stuff can bite you…

* * * * *

A) Dynamic Roll-over accidents

Question: Now, a roll-over type accident is typically a low time helicopter pilot’s mistake, right? Or a student pilot, right?
When you hear that somebody rolled a helicopter over, what do you -honestly – think? “There for the Grace of God”, go I? I doubt it. I imagine you think: “Dozy bugger…!” And “that would never happen to moi…”.
Back up right there, amigo. Back the bitch up. WAY UP.
(Sigh). Lemme tell ya a story against myself…

Answer: (small, squeaky voice) “I nearly did it, actually… “

I already had thousands and thousands of hours. I was in Africa, and it was HOT. I was at this poky hole of a place that was masquerading as a major airport, and waiting my turn to get the hell out of there. One Passenger on board. There were helicopters everywhere, and big old African blunder buses (Boeing 727’s if I remember) coming and going. And blowing hell out of everything with their engine wash. Those guys will turn on the spot, firewall one engine, and not seem to notice the absolute chaos behind them. Or they just don’t care. Corrugated iron fence sheeting flying through the air, pedestrians flattened, helicopters spun around, and total mayhem. There was an Antonov taxying, a few commuters, and above it all, the emotional African gentleman in the tower, who was doing his best. His heavily accented English, coupled with the machine gun velocity of words, coupled with the static, coupled with the fact that many African pilots were talking in their own language, produced in this weary Irishman’s psyche ONE overwhelming emotion:

“Let me the HELL out of this fuk’n place…”

But I had to wait my turn. So I sat. Turning and burning. Cooking. Twenty minutes. Marinating in my own body juices. Sick of it. Getting grumpy. Getting dehydrated. Getting a headache. All the Blunder buses had priority over us mere rotary fodder. Anyway, they spoke the language, and we were just interlopers. Waiting, waiting… Beside me, three other helicopters were also turning and burning. Occasionally, we would kind of look at each other. Shake our heads. Another romantic, helicopter flying day in beautiful Africa.
Shit hole…
When I finally got the call to taxy to the runway, delivered in a heavily accented micro second, before he moved on to yet another blunder bus, I was primed and incandescent hot to trot. Wound the throttle up, in a hurry, (before he changed his mind), and pulled pitch quickly. No time for “little amber caution lights”, and all that BS. Let’s get going…

(??????) (What!!!???) (DAMN…!)

In a nano-second, I had achieved a truly astonishing angle to Terra Firma.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, I was sure.
I was way off on a kilter. Either the control tower had rolled hard right, or I had rolled hard left. One of the two. Another nano-second, and the control tower had rolled back hard vertical, and now dust was floating above the cockpit floor. The collective was hard down. I was actually trying to push it through the floor. Damn…
My buddy, turning and burning beside me, came over on the radio.
“Hey Moggy! Watch it, I think your left skid is sunk in the tarmac!”

He was right. The right skid, on my side, was wholly unaffected. I had actually looked out my door, at the RIGHT skid, wondering about the tarmac and the heat. I had seen nothing to alarm me. It was the unseen LEFT skid that had sunk into a soft patch on that scorching hot day, and the stage was set for career disaster. Normally, I take off real smooth and gentle. Normally, I am real careful. Normally, this would never have happened. But as Murphy’s Law dictates, the weird one-off collusion of different factors all at the same time (fatigue, heat, hurry, soft tarmac on one side only, soft tarmac on side away from pilot’s view, etc, etc) had me well on the way down the Yellowbrick Road towards a whole lot of paperwork, and huge personal embarrassment. It’s pretty horrible how low that rotor disc will dip. In a split, split second. Where I had sunk one skid in, there was a permanent shiny black groove, that stood out clearly from the rest of the dull top coat. My fellow pilots, with that usual great compassion for their suffering buddy, of course immediately dubbed the track “Moggy’s Mark” for the rest of my sojourn there. Like: “I was parked just down from Moggy’s Mark…

* * * * *

B) Firing up with the Rotor Blade tied down.

Question: What kind of dumb, moronic, asinine, myopic, dim-witted, certifiable klutz starts up with his rotor blade tied down? And does all manner of horrible damage? Sometimes in excess of $100,000? Not to mention the real risk of rolling your bird over onto her side? (torque, when the blade finally does let go) And totally destroying her? Not to mention the risk of killing somebody?
What kind of NUT-CASE pulls a stupid stunt like that?? When you hear that somebody fired up with the blades tied down, what do you -honestly – think? “There for the Grace of God”, go I? I doubt it.
I imagine you think: “Dozy bugger….!” And “that would never happen to moi….”.

Answer: (small, squeaky voice) “A nut-case like ME, actually. “

I find myself still wincing in embarrassment. How in hell’s name… did I manage that. I had two near brushes with this particular ghoul. The first was when I was flying an OH 58 for the Sheriff’s Office up in Arizona. I was told I had a VIP to take on a flight, but that the gentleman was actually very nervous. Would I please be nice. Sure… I’m kind of a well meaning, bumbling type hombre, and I try to be nice. So much so, that I had Mister VIP nicely seated, carefully seatbelted in, all nice and tucked in. If I had been still carrying my Teddy Bear around with me, I would have lent him to the VIP. I had been really, really nice. Read: distracted. Maybe there is something to be said for: “Get in, buckle up, and SHUT UP!” Anyway, I got as far as a nano second’s worth of starter application, just a blip, before my eye traveled to the rotor blade, and I thought it was maybe a good idea to go and untie it. No damage, just a one second burp, and then I stopped. With a hurried “Let me just go check something”, I hopped out of the cockpit, redressed the major error, and continued the flight. But for all my covering up, the message of my error went home. Damn. Not good.

I soon became a firm devotee of this trick: before you start up a two bladed helicopter system, ALWAYS park your blades at nine o’clock and three o’clock. Left-right. Never, ever, start up with your blades fore and aft. I strongly recommend it.

Well… The years rolled by. Many more flight hours. Thousands. And now I was in Africa. We had a political problem there, working with some of the locals who were easy to work with. And some, who were emotional, unpredictable, and bi-polar as hell. Black men with all the same attributes as many white honkies. Must be a human thing, being a difficult SOB. Anyway, I worked with this African gentleman dispatcher, who had this ability to go from rational to hyper hysterical in three seconds flat. He also had this unique talent of blaming everything on the pilot. You will come across this phenomenon a lot in the rotary world.

I was in my bird, one hot afternoon, and I had already logged nearly five hours that day. But there was more to do. I had just completed my checklist, and I was about to hit the starter. Somebody ran over. The Dispatcher was on the phone, wanting to talk to me. I switched the battery off, and hopped out. Walking back over to the office, with my life jacket still on, I thought of something, and turned around and went back to the helicopter. A few minutes later, I reemerged from my phone call, with my brain in a knot. He had wanted to give me another two hours’ worth of flying, on top of what I already had on my list. I didn’t have the daylight to do all that, nor did I have sufficient flight hours left out of my maximum permitted eight flying hour day. Once again, I was forced to patiently explain this, for the three hundred and fifty fifth time. He got emotional.
And so it was, that I legged it out to my bird, still wearing my life jacket, with my tiny mind full of calculations. How long here, how long to there, how much fuel, how much…
I hopped back in, strapped in, and then I had this irresistible urge to just hammer the starter. Battery on, fire in the hole. To hell with the checklist. Just do it. The little angel on my right shoulder, the boring dude wearing the white toga and sandals, he of course immediately said: “Hey! You always do the checklist!” I paused, for a nano second. The angel on my left shoulder, dressed in black, (funny guy), he of course said: “Oh, blow it! You’ve already DONE the checklist! Let’s hit the road, homey!” I paused, my finger hovering over the starter button. But, for once, the white angel dude won out. Him with the skirt. He was right. I always did the checklist. So, wearily, I removed the digit that hovered in mid air over the starter button, and instead I went to the checklist.
Item # 1. “Tie-downs and intake covers removed.”
(“well, of course they are. You think I’m stupid?”) As per routine, long, old, ingrained routine, I swung my gaze to the left. To the nine o’clock position.
No blade…
Swing gaze abruptly to the right, three o’clock position.
No blade…
My brain stalled. In a nano second, I considered and dismissed a thousand possibilities. The main rotor blades had been stolen? Unlikely? They had fallen off? I had already looked on the ground. Nope, they hadn’t fallen off. That left one distinctly uncomfortable possibility…
My gaze swung to the twelve o’clock position.
One main rotor blade.

Yoo-hoo! Here I am! Oh, by the way, some dickhead tied me down just now…

And I remembered that I had hopped out, and walked away, and then returned, a good little boy, to tie my blades down.
Fooled! Fooled by being in a rush. Fooled by the temptation to cut a corner, ‘cos after all I was in a hurry.

And of course, in that horrible predicament, when you know you have really, really, almost messed badly with the pooch, what does a professional pilot do? What does he think? I’ll tell you exactly what he does. And what he thinks.
His first thought is: “Did anybody just see that??”
And you look frantically left-right-left, to see if, even now, some observer has got you cold. If, even now, he is either laughing his socks off, or grimly making notes.
Nobody had seen it. I exited, suddenly only three feet tall, corrected the mega mistake, got back in, and flew off. No damage. No $100,000 repair bill. No egg farm all over face. No rolled over helicopter. Nothing. Got away with it.
That night, upon my return, I wondered if anybody would come over and say anything. Maybe the Big Boss. Maybe he would want “a word” with me. Maybe.
But…nope. I had gotten away with it. Sticking laboriously to the checklist, like a good little soldier, had saved my posterior. Again. Would I ever learn not to cut corners?

A few weeks went by. As so often happens to pilots, the transgression needled on me. I needed a Father Confessor. Just a good buddy. To share it, get it off my chest. I went and talked to my African American buddy, a pilot I shall call Eboniah.
Funny dude. Soft spoken, highly intelligent, insightful, with a vast repertoire of stories to tell. Great Poker face as well. Which he turned on me. He had me sussed. Only I didn’t realize it.
I told him the whole story. He listened, without interruption. When I was finished, he fixed me with a solemn, judgmental expression. “Do you realize”, he said sternly, “how potentially serious that was?”
I nodded, crestfallen. I knew. He proceeded to give me a stern lecture. I nodded, guiltily. Part of me was still feeling guilty. Another Part of me, however, was thinking: “Well, thanks, judgmental buddy of mine. Next time I need some peer support…” But then his face split into a big, ear-to-ear grin. He laughed.
Fooled ya, you daft Irish mutt…

“That ain’t NUTHIN’…”, he chortled. “Do you want to to know what I did?”
“Oh!”, I thought, the sudden change in emotions catching me by surprise. (I’m no good at Poker)
“Errr, yessssss”. My turn to look stern and reproachful. Fold arms. Tap foot.
“What did YOU do, Mister?”
His turn to adopt that little puppy dog look. And throw a theatrical look around us, as if to make sure that nobody was listening. He then proceeded to tell me about climbing in with this old, ancient, weather beaten Oilfield hand, who promptly pulled his cap over his eyes, leaned back, and went asleep.
Eboniah admitted to me that he thought words to the effect of “what an old duffer!”, and proceeded. With the checklist?
Or from memory. I’ll let you decide.
Battery on…
Ready to hit the starter.
A voice came over the intercom. A lazy voice. An old Oilfield hand voice. A tobacco chewing, no-nonsense, shoot from the hip old Oilfield voice.
“Hey, Cap…”
Eboniah, surprised, replied:
There were some thoughtful chewing motions from “the old duffer”, who was still comfortably reclined, with his cap over his eyes. He continued:


(oops…) (Eboniah slides out of the cockpit, suddenly shrunk to a mere three foot tall)
Oh, baby. Try and pass THAT one off like you meant to do it that way.

Last anecdote on firing up with the rotor blade tied down.
Another buddy of mine was a really, really high time dude when he pulled this stunt. Fired up a Bell 206 with the blade tied down, and with a mechanic standing on a stand, with the engine cowling propped open, and the mechanic’s head stuck inside. The blade was firmly tied down a mere seven feet away from the mechanic’s busy head.
Between the two of them, neither had figgered out what was going to happen. He wound it up to 60% N1. Blade not moving. No reaction from the mechanic, standing on the work stand, with his head in the cowling.
The build up of torque at this stage is gi-normous. What’s gonna happen. Well, the rotor blade BROKE. It didn’t snap off, a clean break, but it gave up the unequal fight, and succumbed to superior forces. Now the blade tie-down slipped off.
And now… the broken blade, dangling down, was free to BEAT HOLY HELL OUT OF EVERYTHING.
Tailboom, windows, cockpit… all got the pissed orf giant-with-a-sledgehammer treatment. Inside, the petrified pilot was hunched down, discovering all manner of religion faiths in an intensive, personal, deeply spiritual moment.
How ’bout the mechanic? He should have been killed. What we think happened is that the helicopter, which was luckily already tied down for the night, jumped violently against the straps. In doing so, it dealt a violent blow to the step ladder, which knocked the mechanic off. Onto the concrete, on his head. Probably a nano second before the broken, dangling rotor blade and the mechanic mutually shared the same point in space. For a very brief second.

Now this is the sort of accident that fascinates me, because EVERYBODY says “How Stupid!”
Whoa! Hold it right there, buddy. Back up right there, amigo. Back the bitch up. WAY UP.
We are all going to be much better pilots (and mechanics), not to mention much kinder human beings, if we study such events, and learn vividly how EASILY circumstances conspire to lead us simple little human being, by the nose, down the glory hole. Truly, there for the Grace of God… go you and I.
And if you truly believe this could never happen to you…

Well, there’s a really good job going down at the local library.

Let me explain some of the innocent steps, that led up to this event. Some of the “accident rings” that started, one by one, to neatly line up in a row, just itching and waiting for that “accident arrow” to cleanly sail through all of them.
1) It was night. There were floodlights, but it was night time.
2) The pilot was fatigued. He had already flown a full day’s flying. He was about to go home, when maintenance, who couldn’t find the regular pilot on that aircraft, asked him as a favor to fire it up on a maintenance run.
3) The pilot was used to flying a totally different helicopter. It had been a long time since he had started a 206. For that reason, he was pre-occupied with the gages, anxious not to over temp this baby.
4) The pilot knew the mechanic was there. Yes, it’s the pilot’s responsibility. But he knew…there was a guy on a ladder back there.
5) The mechanic knew the pilot was there. Yes, the blade was tied down a mere eight feet or so to this right, but he knew the pilot was there.
6) The mechanic was tunnel vision focused on HIS piece of the maintenance puzzle. You are talking a massively experienced, thirty plus year professional, who can bring a huge reservoir of experience to bear on any particular problem.
A powerful focus on THAT particular area.
7) The pilot, a super high time guy, was intensely focused on NOT over temping a (for him) unfamiliar beast.

Disaster. For me, a big learning event, that I applied to my own thinking, experience and humility. If it could happen to those guys, with all their experience… Am I really thinking something like that couldn’t happen to me?
Solution? Caution. Checklist. Slow it down. Think. Step back. Read accident reports. Study. Think.

Helicopter Flying is a thinking Man’s game. Not a jock’s game. It’s a game for the soft spoken Man. Not the Loudmouth at the Bar. Don’t listen to him. Your survival chances go way, way up exponentially if you have a discrete, but highly developed, super cautious side of you, that asks good questions. Informed questions. And demands answers. A side of you that is willing to pause, back up, and think through the Master Plan again.

Remember that “little amber caution light”? The one I often invoke? He’s OUR saviour buddy. Let’s listen to him.

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 19, 2014, 9:57 pm

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