Chasing A Storm – Korean Death Trap

Posted on June 4, 2017

“Huh, I wonder why I am the only helicopter flying? ” Was a brief thought I had right after take-off on the outskirts of a storm. We were fishing near the Papua New Guinea Western most coast near Wewok. About 10 RD boats, or rather all of the companies large Purse Seiners were hunting for tuna in a pack of boats. The weather was not good. Strong wind, grey skies, light drizzle, and a rather large cloud beginning at the surface extending to 20,000 ft or more was just East of our position.

Now when I had received the 'Chopper Standby' call. The area we were in seemed adequate and free of heavy precipitation. This was a particular concern to my mechanic and myself because the aircraft's blade tap had started to wear after 1 year aboard our fishing vessel.
We took off in the clear-ish area and searched for tuna in a triangular pattern from the boat. The boat changed course based on a recommendation of another fish master. I watched as another boat followed our boat enter the Eastern cloud. After about ¼ mile into the greyish color the boat disappeared. “I hope we are not expected to enter that thing… ” After one hour of searching for fish, the Korean Navigator gestures to go back to the boat.

In the helicopter I would typically follow the Garman G125H boat gps that is installed in the aircraft. It lays a line or track of where the helicopter took off and landed. I then would supper impose the direction the boat was heading during take-off. Then based on 14kts or the speed of the boat and the time of flight I could predict generally where the boat was. In this case the boat changed course and drove 10 miles into the dark grey cloud that began at the surface due to strong precipitation. The course change did not matter a whole lot since the navigator knew they changed to South West.

In excitement a radio transmission came in on the radio in Korean from our Fishmaster. The only words I could hear where “YellowFin. ” A prize worth catching or at least how it sounded on the radio. The navigator looks at the 604 and then point directly at the dark grey monstrosity to the east of the helicopter. “go back to ship, go go! ” I simply said no, it was interesting that the Korean Navigator thought it would be ok to fly into what looked like the evil gates of Moridor. The reception with the boat started to get very poor and the 604 lost the position of the boat. This was making the Korean very nervous because he was reliant on the 604. I simply knew in general where the boat was headed. They were headed on a South East direction and about 10 miles into the depth of the grey cloud in front of us.

I pointed about 5 miles to the south and the clouds looked like they had an opening where the precipitation and visibility would be adequate to safely get back to the boat. I gestured to the Navigator and we were off to the South Paralleling the precipitation from a safe distance. As we approached of what looked to be a clearing…Things began to change rapidly. The color darkened and precipitation began to get heavy. After about 30 seconds of heavy precipitation. I did a 180 degree turn and a low frequency vibration started and the cyclic had a slight oscillation in it. I sort of knew that it was the main rotorblade tap that was coming off. In the previous week the tail rotor blade tap came off on one of the blade causing a weight imbalance and an alarming tail rotor vibration. In this case the vibration was not nearly as pronounced because of the small change on a much larger surface. I could also hear a 'swoosh swoosh' Sound from the blades due to the flapping of loose tap. This lasted for less than a minute before I saw a piece of debri fly off the aircraft, then the sound stopped and the vibrations subsided to a minimal.  However, the Navigator was rather alarmed and screaming in Korean over the radio. He then pointed at the rough sea and said “landdingh? ”

I simply said “no, bring boat here! ”  We then flew about 3 miles West away from the emerging cloud. The cloud began to look truly alike the clouds to the Gates of Moridor in the Lord of the Rings; very dark, encompassing, and it appeared that this menacing cloud wanted to swallow us. Within a matter of minutes we had continued to retreat from this formidable enemy a few more miles Westward as it grew rapidly. After pacing around till the clock hit 1 hr and 10 minutes, we had received a radio message that the boat was headed for us and about 1 hr away. This time would be cutting it close. The storm had now pushed us back 20 miles from the take-off point. The distance and time brought cause for concern but was not an imminent danger at that point but an action needed to happen, especially because the boat would be traveling slower than expected in rough seas.
It was more than apparent that South and East were not viable directions to head. The general visibility of the safe haven area only had a visibility of 5 miles. I noticed that North and NorthEast appeared lighter in color. So I proceeded at 60 kts for two reasons; first if the weather decided to try to encroach on us we would not dive into the cloud and precipitation too fast as before putting us in Inadvertent Meteorological conditions The second reason was that speed is close to the lift over drag ratio or rather the speed you fly for maximum endurance -time aloft.-

After an additional 20 minutes of proceeding North, there appeared to be a light opening East. So we proceeded directly East and then finally picked up a 604 signal showing a directed track back to the boat of 080 degrees and 8 miles. The visibility was adequate, about 3 miles with a light drizzle. I could feel a strong wind from the South which meant the storm's center was shifting to the South and we should be in the clear back to the boat. The wind was a result of the pressure difference from the heaving precipitation to the South (Micro/Macro-burst). The weather seemed to stay relatively stable. At 2 hrs of flight time, we saw the boat, a nice relief. The Korean Navigator, this was his last flight with me and his last trip on the ship. We got full the next day and his contract was ending. So naturally, he pulled out the phone and we took a commemorative selfie!

If you notice in the photo, I look a little fatigued while Hwong Sin -Navigator- looks over joyous with the new gift of life! I took a 3 hour nap after this semi-stressful experience.
Fly safe!

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