When planning my column, I mostly think of the readers first. After all, these words are useless, if not at least mildly-entertaining for their writer, without someone to read them. Jokes aside, I like to make the content as broad as possible for the layman, but also interesting enough to give enjoyment to even seasoned whirly-birders.
When I joined my current employer nine years ago, I’m pretty sure that my boss, Waal, had thought up some exciting things to do and places to land with our Robinson R44, which Protea had recently acquired. Coming from a background in helicopters during the ‘South African Border War’ in the 1980s, Waal was used to setting down in some pretty wild places and remains a very competent helicopter crew member to this day. When flying with me, he will point out a power line running across the horizon five miles away. That may seem annoying to some pilots, but I’ve learned never to answer him or any passenger with the obvious “Ja, I know …” but rather to thank the spotter, even when the wire or obstacle is obviously evident. It’s nearly always the obvious wires that helicopter pilots hit. In an operational helicopter environment, teamwork is crucial, not only to mission success but, more importantly, to safety.
Thinking of Waal’s history, and of teamwork and safety, led me to this week’s topic. That is, a characteristic of the helicopter that makes it almost unique – possibly challenged only by ‘Tundra’ tyre toting Cessna 185s in the Yukon – the ability to land and operate off-airport. I think that most helicopter pilots are to some extent bush pilots. I’m not talking about Indiana Jones or the dare-devil Gene Ryack, (played by Mel Gibson in the movie Air America), but rather, more simply, pilots who fly into unprepared, sometimes unfamiliar, landing zones.
Many professional fixed-wing pilots never venture too far from an ILS (Instrument Landing System) or fly below MORAs (Minimum Off-Route Altitudes) let alone find themselves dusting off their shoes after an arrival on a sketchy dust strip. I say arrival, because a landing is meant to be a graceful reuniting of machine and earth, whereas a bush pilot needs to stop the bird exactly at the end of the 100-foot, too-short, postage-stamp-sized strip, as it’s nearly impossible to take off again without landing gear.
Anyway, let’s return to rotors, as the aim of this column is to look into the realities of helicopter operations far from the comforts of civilisation.
I was schooled by Waal early on that there are five P’s to flying, namely, Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. There’s actually another ‘P’, but that’s just a noun at the end, usually added after not having planned properly. When possible, planning is always advisable when anticipating operating away from home. When I fly charter on a fixed wing or helicopter, I generally have plenty of time to plan the flight, routes, fuel, and weather, as well as to file flight plans etc. In that world, these are usually worked out days before the flight, along with numerous contingency plans.
In the world of security helicopter flying, all planning – and more – sometimes needs to be done in minutes, not for the lack of care, but simply because crime waits for no man. Unlike charter flying, there is no co-pilot to share the load and most of the time your hands are ‘HOTAS’ (Hands on Throttle and Stick) with no autopilot. This means that you need to adapt the way you fly in order to serve the mission. You need to learn to fly right hand, left hand and cyclic between the knees.
Things like pre-flight inspections need to be done the day before, with a modified quick walk-around before the call-out to ensure the vitals are checked. With larger helicopters, an engineer will often pre-flight the ship and be ready to lift when you arrive. It’s always good to know your engineer well because a great engineer and good communication with said engineer is vital to a successful mission. Thank them – often.
Fuel is another critical consideration. Know the ship well. At a glance you will need to know if you’ll be able to make a diversion (or a new final destination) with what’s left in the tanks, or whether you will need to dog-leg to an alternate fuel stop while considering the needs of the mission. On many occasions I’ve had to radio the ops to check fuel availability en-route to some one-horse town. I must also confess that I’ve landed in the local Co-Op’s parking lot for fuel.
One person who’s always helped comes to mind: Riaan, at Secunda airfield. He once refuelled my craft in under five minutes, from skids down to skids up. That takes friendship and trust. Communication is possibly the most important key when flying hot on the trail of the wrongdoers. We often use mobile phones and WhatsApp to co-ordinate flight-following. When I’m off the job at home in bed at 3 a.m. I’ll often get a “safe at base” message on an operational group, to which I’ll reply with the obligatory ‘thumbs up’ icon, just to let my pilot colleague know that he or she is being looked out for. We watch each other’s backs. Heck, I’ve often done SAR (Search and Rescue) for friends of friends, mostly with good outcomes – launching helicopters to find someone, not usually aviation related. I’m their guy. You just never know who’s going to require air support next or where.
Off-airport landings are a given and best done with help, either on-board or with trained ground crew. We were taught the text-book ways of safely landing a helicopter out in the sticks during PPL training, kind of like precautionary landings for fixed wing guys. Only, we called it “confined landings”. The lesson covered how to set up a high reconnaissance, checking your intended LZ from higher up, before setting up a circuit and landing after a low reconnaissance check. This works well for the average pilot who doesn’t often find him or herself landing off-airport. For our security operations, we generally have less time to drop or pick up support crew. In some cases, we are close to a fire fight and want to minimize our target profile, or we have to sneak into a tight LZ stealthily at low level to avoid being detected by the target. In such cases, the textbook gives little reliable reference. It’s in times like this that you appreciate a Waal.
We essentially wrote our own textbook for our operational training, drawing on military resources and a wealth of experience from field operations and those operators that served on the border. Realising how many things had to be learned in a risky mostly self-taught manner, Stewie (another of our pilots) and I sought a way to pass our information on to future pilots, to avoid the risks we needlessly encountered. Last year we identified a pilot who seemed to fit our unusual mould. We took him from a private license pilot, taught him and trained him from the left seat (helicopters are generally goofy foot, PIC on the right). We spent about 40 hours teaching Carl Nichol all that we were never taught, almost killing ourselves as we learnt the hard way. We flew advanced manoeuvres, confined landings, ground support missions, and expedited tower crossings – anything that could catch him unawares. We crammed as much of our experience into his 200 hours as we could. He tested in December 2018 and Buzz found him highly competent as a commercial helicopter pilot. Well done to Carl, may he go from strength to strength!
Why have we gone to so much extra cost and trouble? We believe it’s our responsibility to carry our knowledge and experience over to the next generation – especially when it comes to out-of-textbook situations. I know that I have gleaned and continue to glean much from my mentors, whether here or departed. Many of their lessons are still imprinted on my muscle memory.
Yes, we can learn a lot from theory, but I have found that in the end, experience trumps theory. Developing new operating procedures and training pilots based on our combined experience is the least we can do!