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Friendship Under Fire

March 5, 2019

The helicopter pilot fraternity is a small one, even more so in the Southern tip of Africa. The circle includes weekend flyers and owners, corporate pilots, charter pilots and the colourful game-capture types, and irrespective of what we fly, we all share a common love of flight.




Our industry is largely peer reviewed, meaning that in order to maintain the privilege of using a flying license, we need to successfully demonstrate to an instructor or a peer pilot that we still have the skill and savvy required to fly these machines through sometimes unforeseen challenges. This requires friendship. Not because your ‘user-friendly’ instructor would award your license subjectively, thus allowing you to continue flying in a less-than-competent manner. No, that would be the opposite of friendship – friends don’t do that to friends.

A true friend would comprehensively test your ability and apply just the right amount of pressure to see what comes out of the ‘toothpaste tube’, so to speak. And when those ugly habits appear in the heat of the test, a real friend would concentrate on ironing out the ‘killer’ habits. Friends sharpen us, challenge us and develop us. A few friends made a massive impact on my development as a pilot, and one of them springs to mind immediately.

But first, some context.

It was 2009 and at the ripe old age of 29, I had just finished my commercial license. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was ready for the adventure of flying helicopters. The only problem was, no adventure was to be found. A mere few months before, the American housing market balloon had popped, which had a knock-on effect on the worldwide economy, including South Africa’s. The first things to go were anything classed as a luxury – private aviation being one of them. Compounding the problem was that most light helicopters are manufactured in the USA and this had a negative effect on the pricing of both the machines and their maintenance spares.

So many experienced pilots found themselves made redundant in a shrinking industry and there simply weren’t jobs for newbies.

Luckily, around this time I started working for a friend, Alan Robertson, who I’d met at Alpine Aviation the previous year. Alan was kind enough to create a position for me to help him and a partner rent out their three helicopters on a hire-and-fly basis, all of which were close to new and well cared for. This was a key difference to some other operators and flight schools and attracted some executive types as they could afford to fly. Here I met Shaun Barendsen, the CEO of a large IT Firm in Gauteng. He was not your typical top gun, he was a true erudite and humble gentleman. In time, we would become more than flying colleagues, we would become friends.

He, like me, was a latecomer into aviation, having gained his flying license well into his 30’s. I remember how he would often come to fetch one of our jet-black R44s to fly out on a long nav-flight to some far-flung place, returning a few days later. On one such trip, Shaun was forced to take a short ‘relief’ stop in a field. Unbeknown to him, the grassland was a bog caused by heavy rain the previous night. The sludge-like mud literally sucked the shoes off his feet. Fortunately he was able to extricate the helicopter from the field’s clutches, leaving him to fly home bare-footed in a muddied chopper. He never lived that incident down. But he laughed at our jibes, and although we had people to clean the mess, he did so himself – he was that kind of guy.

Over the years we kept in touch, often bumping into each other on the landing pad for a quick catch up. We both gained in flying experience, while Shaun not only completed his commercial license but also went on to finish his instructor’s rating.

Eventually, circumstances and time dictated that I learn to fly a new helicopter. One of our large corporate clients had asked us to develop the capability to fight fires from a helicopter in order to protect their premises. Naturally, I didn’t wait for the client to ask again. Immediately, I located a suitable helicopter with all the necessary bells and whistles to satisfy the requirements. It was an old Sud Est Alouette III, an authentic relic from the 1980’s ‘bush war’ on our northern borders. The only problem was that I needed an instructor to train me to fly it and to teach me how to use it to fight fires.

It was my pleasure to find that my friend Shaun was the designated instructor for this aircraft. The Alouette III is the grandmother of the modern helicopter. It’s a tough but stately French lady that requires finesse and care. When it was originally produced, Teflon-lined bearings were non-existent, necessitating steel-on-steel ball races which needed to be lubricated with copious amounts of oil and grease, some per flight, some per day and some in 25 to 50 hour intervals. I quickly learned why a flight suit was mandatory! After a week of conversion-to-type training, consisting of 10 flight hours and many extremely thorough technical lessons, we were ready to begin with sling-load training.

Sling-load flying brought back memories of yo-yo competitions in the schoolyard. It is all about predicting where the pendulum is going to end up and flying the chopper a few steps ahead of the under-slung 220L drum-in-a-net, 10 metres below the helicopter. It was initially easier than I thought it would be, flying solo with the aforementioned sling load, while listening to the eager, if somewhat nervous, patter from Shaun on the hand-held-radio below the hovering helicopter. And I must say, it was comforting having a friend on the ground, guiding me.

Once the yo-yo was mastered, it was time to learn about firefighting.

The first lesson was to attach the Bambi Bucket to the helicopter and to ground test the electrical and mechanical release. Next was taking off with the bucket, which starts off next to you on the ground. You takeoff very carefully, manoeuvring the chopper over the bucket, before gently lifting it off the ground. That was easy enough. What took time and practice was the next portion of my training – learning to fill the bucket with water. To do this you need to hover over a dam, watching in the rear-view mirror as the bucket floats at first, then submerges.

Next I had to learn to pick up the 500L of water, the entire underslung rig weighing in at about 630kg when full. Shaun would be firm, calmly correcting my slightest error over the radio. His professional, unflappable guidance from the ground improved my feelings of security and confidence. Then we concentrated on the dispersal patterns of the water at different heights and speeds, with particular attention to the release of the corset style dump valve.

Shaun drummed into me the importance of these details becoming second nature if I was to become a fire bomber. Practice, practice and more practice was the order of the day until eventually I would be able to release the load with enough accuracy to drench Shaun on the upwind sector of the practice area run-in, each success confirmed by the good-natured curse words flying in over the radio.

Shaun was a thinker and loved to study. What made him such a good instructor, in this case in aerial firefighting, was the fact that he would devour all the training materials and theory that he could lay his hands on. But more than that, Shaun knew that possibly the most fun you could have flying a helicopter was sharing it with a friend.

I was fortunate to spend many days together on operations. Shaun was a firm favourite of our clients, and always asked after by name. His cheerful rapport and cheeky laugh would light many a conversation and face. But work wasn’t everything to Shaun. He was also an amazing husband and dad, who would fly long distances home to attend his children’s school sporting days.

Sadly, Shaun was killed in a helicopter accident the year after he trained me, while assisting rangers under fire from poachers in the Congo. Shaun paid the ultimate price showing greater regard for other men than for himself.

I wouldn’t be the pilot that I am today without my good friends like Shaun who I sorely miss.




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