Francis Meyrick

Of Helicopters and Humans (34) “Are you a Bobblehead? “

Posted on September 18, 2014

Of Helicopters and Humans (34)

“Are you a Bobble Head? “

It’s a serious question – Are You?

If you fly helicopters for a living, you ought to be. Believe me. I am.

If you don’t remember Bobble Heads, they were all the rage in the seventies’. Bobble Head Dogs, for some reason, were really popular. You had to have one in every car, or else your kids thought you were a total embarrassment to them. It’s called being “square”, and I guess parents were supposed to be round. So you would dutifully park one in the rear window. And there the Bobble Head dog, lying peacefully, would Bobble away, body at rest, head bobbling up and down. The kids would love it, for at least half a day, and then the Bobble head dog would just be left to Bobble away. Recently, an enterprising firm in California brought back the rage, with a Bobble Head doll that looked just like a certain prominent fund raiser. On the base of the Bobble head was inscribed a question:

Am I a very silly person?

And, you guessed, yes!-(bobble)-yes!-(bobble)-yes!
Boyed by their success, this enterprising Free Enterprise company brought out another one that looked just like a certain former Cheerleader, and a person famous uttering the words “I mis-spoke”. Spitting image. On the base of the Cheerleader-cum-Miss-Speaker, the inscription read:

Do I have a frickin’ CLUE?

And, you guessed it, NO!-(bobble)-NO!-(bobble)-NO!
These two products were wildly popular with the Public, but some very important lady in the Government called Lois wasn’t amused, and she sent some emails, which she has since lost. The result was that the Tax Dogs were sent to bite the manufacturer very hard on the shins. It’s not called “biting” actually, it’s called “auditing”, but it still involves lots of teeth, and snarling. And whimpering. These dogs “audited” the manufacturer, and then stuck them for a truly Bobble-heading Tax assessment. And that was the end of the Bobble Heads. Which was a pity really, because now they are collector’s items, and nobody is going to leave them in the hot rear window of an automobile.

Anyway, Moggy you moron, you may ask, and what has that got to do with helicopters? Everything! Of course! Don’t you see?
You see, a lot of Helicopter Pilots are Bobble Heads. Especially the older ones, like me. Just watch them, at certain times. Like starting up. As opposed to other helicopter pilots, mostly the newer ones, who don’t bobble much at all. Here, let me explain the background to this unique rotary bobble head phenomenon.

A lot of what we do is based on learning by Rote. You are told what not to do. And, hopefully, why. And to a degree, this works. To a degree. If you tell a child not to touch the stove top (“Minnie! Don’t TOUCH! It’s HOT!”), then the chances are that Minnie won’t touch the stove top. But if instead of Minnie, who is an obedient, sensible child, we take a youngster version of Moggy, who is an anti-authoritarian mischief maker, with pronounced (non-violent) Anarchist tendencies, then the chances are 101.3 % that he won’t learn squat until he burns himself. Painfully. Tisk, tisk.

Burning yourself in the helicopter world is frowned upon. It’s very expensive, and leads to all sorts of career embarrassing paperwork. So we take a hard look at the learning mechanism. Sure, we learn from our teachers. Sure, we learn from text books. But you know what we REALLY learn from?

When our good buddy screws up.

And when he does something awesomely spectacular that we realize (quietly) (in the privacy of our conscience) (Shhhh….!) that WE could easily have done ourselves, then we often enough sit up with a jolt. Take note. Wipe away mental beads of perspiration. Add to our growing reservoir of mental images of disastrous scenes in the middle of which we just do NOT want to be. Ever.

You will find that some older pilots are arrogant and judgmental. Haughty. Exclusive. Snobbish. MY sh… don’t stink. They are a small -loud- minority, believe me. (and they get laughed at a lot, behind their backs, believe me again) Most of us old farts are way more cautious. Yes We KNOW how easy it is to screw up. It’s not that we are paranoid, living in minute-to-minute fear of failure, but we can draw on a vivid collection of mental scenes of bent metal, smashed couplings, mangellated cockpits and other non-scheduled metallurgical anomalies, that most every situation is approached with a suspicious caution based 23 % on our Teacher’s Input, and 25% on studied Textual Information. Yep. That leaves us Dinosaurs with a whopping 52% of our caution based on an entirely different input. Which, you may ask, is the source of this intense learning? Bordering sometimes on the edge of paranoia? From where do we acquire this super cautious, defensive mindset? Easy. From one source, close, personal, vivid, impressive. From where?

From when our good buddy screws up.

Sure, there are fine flight schools who boast of their prowess. There are serious Training Departments with deluded, sometimes pompous individuals, who sincerely believe they (and they alone) are the makers and breakers of all that is upright and virtuous. If their company has a Good Safety Record, it is these serious Gods who modestly-but-publicly (constantly) take all the credit. Otherwise, it’s all down to those damn chopper jockeys.

Nonsense, says this Anti-Authoritarian Rebel from the Twilight World. The best Instructors, the best training manuals, the most fancy training departments, equipped with the most snazzy simulators, are merely temporary learning stations. It’s a place to humbly change out dirty nappies. Pay homage to check pilots. Laugh politely at their infrequent (bad) jokes.
Much like the Catholic Stations of the Cross, the neophyte meekly trudges his dusty (and often expensive) way around this circus, bowing and bobbing and maybe sacrificing and praying, but in the end, the BIG LEARNING starts out in the field. What he sees, for real, what he learns, for real, what he savors, for real. What shocks him, for real. Like when…

His good buddy screws up.

* * * * *

Many years ago, a lifetime ago it seems, I was working for a large helicopter company, and they had lots going on. I was off duty, at home, relaxing. I was bidding on ebay. For this magnificent, moronic Bobble Head. Here, let me show you that picture again.

The phone rang. Would I be willing & able to come in to the “Head Shed” the next day? Me? Now what have I done? Who have I gone and pissed orf now? For what? That feminist joke? The Nigger story?
They wanted me in as a “pilot-peer”. A what?
They explained to me that they were having a “Board of Inquiry”, to deal with a severe case of unscheduled metallurgical anomalies. Oh, I said. I remembered the case well. It had happened to one of my good buddies. I was being asked if I would mind coming in, and attend the Board of Inquiry. I would be there to make sure that the offending pilot was given a fair hearing. Oh. Well, sure, I said.

In due course, I found myself sitting nervously in a room with all the top bosses of my employer. All kinds of people who could get me fired in a heart beat. (best behavior, Moggy…) Everybody sitting around a long table, with lots of paperwork, and binders, and pens, and writing pads, and even a Bobble Head. A nervous Bobble Head. Me. Well, hell, I didn’t have a clue what I was really supposed to be doing. Luckily, the Director of Operations, (BIG boss, Heavy Honcho, don’t-mess-with-Cassius-Honcho) asked me, very nicely, if I had any questions before we started.

Well, I’m famously undiplomatic, it’s not pre-meditated, it’s just gormless. Soft brain tissue. It just flops right out. I’m thinking it, and (BOOM!) out-it-flops. Afterwards, I wish I could put a sock in it. Life would be SO much simpler. But, no, Moggy rushes in where Angels fear to tread. Well meaning. Just dumb.

“Errr… Well, thank you for asking. What I’d like to ask is: why am I here? Am I window dressing? Should I just shut up and pretend I’m indispensable? Or can I participate, and ask questions…?”

I kind of flinched after I had spoken. Oops. Maybe that didn’t sound kind of right. “Window dressing”? Like a Ranch Salad? Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe they might take offense. Please don’t fire me.
But no, nobody seemed to take offense at all. Maybe my reputation for being gormless (soft brain tissue) had already preceded me. The Director of Operations (super nicely) explained to me that they would welcome my input very much, especially as I was working the same helicopter type out of the same base, and I was intimately familiar with all the protagonists involved in the unscheduled metallurgical anomalies. Okay, I said, (dubiously), wondering if perhaps “Silence was golden” and maybe they already just wished I would shut up.

The proceedings got going, and, frankly, I was (hugely) impressed with my employers. There was no rancor, sarcasm, belittling condescension, or sneering. It was just a bunch of helicopter pros trying to establish the facts of what had occurred, why it had occurred, and what might conceivably prevent such an expensive re-occurrence. The more I listened I was truly impressed with the brisk business like tone, and the attention to detail. The research had been meticulous. There were photos, drawings, sketches, a time line, engineering reports, and even coffee. No chocolate biscuits, though.
What had happened was that a Big Old Two Blade light ship helicopter had needed a maintenance run. But the regular pilot assigned to that aircraft had apparently disappeared, although he had allegedly been asked to stay behind at the end of the day to perform the run. Now my buddy entered the scene. He was not current on the Big Old Two Blade Whopper. He flew a two crew medium ship, and he hadn’t touched that light ship type for many YEARS. Nonetheless, he got asked to do the engine run. (Hmmmm…?) It was late. Dark. Raining slightly. My buddy, being an obliging sort, said he would do the run. Even though he had already flown a full day, and he was tired, and he wasn’t familiar on type, but he had been once. Many years before. (Hmmmmm…?)
He climbed into the cockpit, and he knew the mechanic was standing on a stand, left engine cowling open. The mechanic’s head was inside, pre-occupied with inspecting work that had been done earlier that day.
(There would be a lot more work coming their way soon, but nobody knew that just yet…)
The mechanic was an old pro, and he knew the pilot was an old pro. Mutual trust. Maintenance had told the pilot the bird was ready for the engine run. Maintenance knew the pilot was good. The pilot knew maintenance was good. Everybody knew everybody else was good. Life is good. Maybe a little late in the day, a little dark, a little dreary, but it’s all okay. And maybe we are a little tired, but we appreciate our employer, and the source of our mortgage payments, and we aim to please.
Ready? Sure. Let’s go do it.
Very carefully, my buddy performed the start up. He did not want to over temp the engine. Finicky start up technique. You gotta pay attention. Pilot modulated. You get it wrong, just a fraction, and you toast that there engine, and you just blew $100,000. Turbines are not cheap. So my buddy, being a conscientious sort, was watching the gages like a (tired) hawk. The N1 speed got up to 60 per cent, all is well. The gages were nicely in the green. Ah. Relief. Good start…


All hell broken loose. Some jackass pissed orf Giant with a sledgehammer is beating merry hell out of your helicopter…

The windscreen just caved in…
You are rocking and rolling, and dust is flying through the air…
You are slamming around in your seat like a rag doll…
Horrible, ungodly, tearing, smashing, screeching noises…
The decibel volume of unfolding events stuns your mind…

Instinctively you are trying to shut down, but that’s not easy, because your arm is flailing around. You manage, with great difficulty, to release the throttle, and roll it back to shut off.
Then you throw yourself down over the collective lever, crouching as low as you possibly can, trying to get away from that giant sledgehammer smashing up the cockpit. You’d grovel on the floor, you’d hug the mat if you could, anything, just anything to get away from Hercules with the Hammer.

Fu-fu-fu… What the HELL…?????

Silence, eventually, returns. A sanity, of a sort, returns. You look up, through the smashed windscreen, and the Angry Giant is gone. Slowly, your mind reeling in shock, you sit up. You process information. Assess.
1) I am alive.
2) The engine is shut down
3) The Giant is gone.
4) I am alive.
5) The engine is shut down.
6) The Giant is gone…
7) The blade! The blade! The blade was still tied down…!!!


And still in severe shock, your mind still reeling from unimaginable horror, you flail and stagger, and climb out of the cockpit, and survey the carnage. Nothing in your multi (multi) thousand hour flying career has prepared you for this. Nothing CAN prepare you for this. The smashed helicopter is the least of the disaster. For there, lying on the indifferent, cold concrete, lies…

the mechanic…

* * * * *

The Board of Inquiry probed all these facts, meticulously and dispassionately. Notes were taken, questions asked, questions answered. I was asked questions. I answered questions. I made sure the mitigating factors that in some way might help my buddy were highlighted. My input was respectfully dealt with.

Time for my buddy to be brought in. If he was glad to see me there, as his pilot peer, or not, he showed no expression. My admiration for the professionalism of my Bosses now had to make room for my admiration of the way my buddy handled it all. No bluster, no arguing, no excuses. Just a polite, deeply apologetic, perfectly sincere answering of questions. It takes a man to face up to the ugly truth, admit guilt, and helpfully clear up any grey areas. Superb attitude. At one stage, he said, very calmly, with 100 per cent sincerity, words along the lines of:

“I am truly sorry this happened. I make no excuses. All I can tell you, is that if I still have a job with you after this, I can promise you this will NEVER happen again…”

Heads nodded. No sarcasm, no anger, no belittling, no finger pointing.
He was escorted out of the room.
The Director of Operations turned to the Head of Maintenance.
“So, how much did this little adventure cost us…?”
The Head of Maintenance consulted an itemized statement. It was mind boggling six figure number.
Silence around the table. The Director of Operations shrugged.

“Oh, well…”

I was dismissed, and thanked for my participation. I left with the strong impression that somebody was going to get wrapped on the knuckles, told to “never do that again”, and sent back to work.
I was right…

My good buddy STILL works for that company, and is an older, wiser, more humble Aviation Veteran. We meet up once in a while, and we joke about old times. He knows he has my total respect for his outstanding deportment, and he also knows (because I have told him) that I learned a TON about this helicopter life from his “adventure” and my humble role on the Board of Inquiry.
There but for the grace of God, go I…

So maybe now you will understand why old geezers like me are “Bobble Heads”. Watch me start up a helicopter. Any helicopter. Watch my head bobbing and twisting and craning and leaning until I know…


The Director of Operations mentioned above has long since retired, and he probably wouldn’t remember my name if you told him. But I was the junior Bobblehead employee in the corner who was HUGELY impressed by his candid, brisk, fairness, objectivity, and professionalism, that permeated the whole meeting. And who built up a whole new admiration for the company he was working for. A pride, even. A resolve, to try, ever so hard, to NOT (EVER) have to attend a Board of Inquiry sitting on the OTHER side of the table.

So THAT is why you become Director of Operations, I remember thinking. Because you know your stuff, and you’re cool with the ugly facts of this fascinating and colorful helicopter life…

Anybody got a Bobble Head for sale??

Francis Meyrick

PS: Okay… Questions in your mind?

Glad you asked. Such a nice old fellow. He survived, actually. Lucky boy. With very, very severe concussion. He was off work for many months. How was that even possible? There were no outside eye witnesses, so there was some debate over the exact sequence of events. It should be noted that the helicopter WAS TIED DOWN. Had it NOT been tied down, it would almost certainly have (violently) rolled over on its side. That’s what usually happens. (it has happened many, many times) The torque effect, when the blade finally gets going, will see to that.

With the blade tied down, and the helicopter tied down, in this case N1 reached 60 per cent. Blade unable to rotate. That’s a HUMONGOUS torque building up. Remember Newton’s Third Law? Eventually, it’s too much. Something HAS to break. In this case, the tied down blade broke, just inboard of the inboard trim tab. (That’s really close in towards the mast) It did not sever completely, but “hung down”. The tie-down slipped off, the broken blade (hanging down) took off like Hillary Clinton (asked to testify about Bhengazi) and that is where the Crazy Giant-with-the-sledgehammer made his appearance. Banging merry hell out of the poor little chopper.
So how come it didn’t kill the mechanic, on a stand, head peering into engine?
That’s what we all wondered. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the helicopter “jumped” violently against the steps. In doing so, it knocked the unfortunate mechanic clean off the stand, head first onto the concrete. Severe concussion. Breathing difficulties. Poor fellow, you might say. Sure. But that tumble must have happened a split-ass nano second prior to that broken (hanging) blade coming around at Clinton Warp speed to VISIT. Which would you rather argue with? Cold concrete, using your favorite head? Or a really pissed orf rotor blade?

Combination of circumstances. EASY TO DO. Hell, I nearly did it, and I honestly describe that unfortunate Schmorgasbord Klutz-up elsewhere. Pilots do it -all-the-time. And it’s about time we STOPPED doing that stuff. In this case… fatigue, dark, non-familiarity with type, pre-occupation with light off, and over reliance on the knowledge that the mechanic was present, standing on a stand, a mere handful of feet from where the blade was tied down. Human error. If you feel judgmental, scornful, I caution you: YOU are a prime candidate to pull this exact same little trick. Why? Because you’re not humble. You don’t realize how FRICKIN’ easy it is to FRICKIN’ actually DO.

Flip sake. He was standing up on a work stand, a mere eight or ten feet away from where the blade was tied down to the tail boom. How could he not see the blade was still tied down? Answer: it’s SO easily done. Fatigue, dark, light rain, pre-occupation with task in hand. Maintenance tunnel vision. Awesome career experience tunnel focused very narrowly and intensively on one specific area. Undoing the rotor blade is primarily a pilot’s thing. Sure, working around a helicopter is a shared responsibility, but you can’t expect a life long mechanic not to focus his attention narrowly on his particular work detail.

Hopefully, nothing that we haven’t already learned. Again. And again. And again. It’s the simple, routine, hum-drum, mundane, mind stultifying tasks, that we perform every day, that have this unique, inbuilt, bugger factor. Ignore the check list at your peril. One day, you will pay the price. Humility is good. Elsewhere, if you want to waste more of your valuable time, in “Moggy’s Tunaboat Helicopter Manual” I go on, and on, and on, about removing ALL your tie-downs before trying to depart your tuna boat. I’m not the only old Tuna Head who goes On ,a nd ON, and ON about that. You think people listen to us? Well, maybe they LISTEN, but they sure don’t HEAR. Wanna see a pretty picture? Unnecessary stupid? Here you go..

Watch ’em ALWAYS turn a single blade rotor system ninety degrees, to the nine o’clock and the three o’clock position, prior to any start. I would no more dream of firing up with a single blade parked fore-and-aft, than I would EVER vote for any of the Democrat Clowns scrabbling for short term votes, any votes, regardless of long term, devastating consequences for the whole Nation.
Watch the old farts ALWAYS do a careful walk around, prior to start, and after shut down. They are not doing that for fun. Because they need the exercise. (well, some do, admittedly) They are not doing it because the Ops Manual says so. They are doing it because they have had their buddies screw up, and they do NOT want to do the same.
Watch the pot-bellies starting up. They are not just calmly looking inside at the gages. All relaxed. Wondering where to eat lunch. Yummy. Hey-hum. Just another, routine start.

Nope. Old geezers like me are “Bobble Heads”. Watch me start up a helicopter. Any helicopter. Watch my head bobbing and twisting and craning and leaning until I know…



Now, did somebody mention “Lunch”…?

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on October 6, 2014, 7:30 am

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