Open For Business (Dec 11)

My alarm cut through the black cabin like a klaxon jarring me awake, and all too suddenly for my liking as I was in the middle of a particularly good dream. I glanced up to the beeping and flashing alarm clock that I had mounted sideways and on the wall using Velcro so that I could see and reach it while lying down and noted that indeed, as I had set it, the alarm had gone off at 0430.

One glance down toward the foot of my bunk and I could tell out the window that the sun had yet to rise and that I maybe could have afforded 15 more minutes of sweet slumber, in my dream.

But the reality of the morning was that last night we had made it into the fishing grounds while everyone was asleep and that as of today it was game on. I’d kept telling the crew all day yesterday that I wanted this to be a 19 day trip, exactly. That would get us back into port (ideally not Tarawa again yet – someplace new and more developed) for New Years Eve.

Two days ago I talked to my parents on the phone and explained to them that I didn’t mind missing Christmas, as I would be celebrating it our here with a few buddies and it wouldn’t be anything really special. I had their gifts that they had sent with me when I flew out here last month, still wrapped and crammed into my bag, sitting and waiting for the holiday. I was content to spend Christmas at sea.

But New Years Eve, that’s when I wanted to be on an island somewhere in the South Pacific, with a bunch of buddies, throwing the biggest party the locals could handle. It would be a blast, we’d ring in 2015, and then a few days later be back at sea.

No in order for this to be a 19 day run, like I’ve been telling the crew, we’re going to need to catch some fish, and that means flying. So the reality in the darkness of that first morning in the fishing grounds was that even though the sun was not up – we were in fact, open for business.

I tossed my feet over the edge of my bunk and stretched for a minute, the snores of my two cabin mates (the mechanic and the observer) resonating almost in harmony with each other, and the whine of the air conditioner working overtime in the tropic heat, was all my senses could really take in because of the pitch black in the cabin. I reached behind me to the headlamp that I had hanging off of my Velcro alarm clock and snapped it over to the red light so as to not wake them up and then coaxed myself onto the floor and went to the bathroom.

The excitement of the day coming upon me, and the chance that I’d be flying the Hughes 500c helicopter that was sitting above my head, began to slowly replace the excitement of the dream I’d been pulled out of so abruptly. I brushed my teeth, my hair, and my beard which had now reached a length where without a regular combing in the morning would look wild and unkempt.
I thought to myself that taking a shower might take too long, and that I would just knock one out this evening after flight ops were closed, but then recalling the darkness I knew that I had time, so quickly I gathered a change of clothes and my towel and jumped into the shower. I’ve never had a reasonably hot shower on this boat, I just don’t think that is an option. But I should have waited a moment for the water to at least not be the stuff that had been sitting in the pipes next to our AC unit (they were running right by it) because I jumped into the shower into the coldest stream of water I could have imagined. Ok, now I’m awake. The fleeting fingertips of my dream that had been grasping at my foggy brain vanished instantly as a cascade of glacier water hit me in the face and chest.

The one nice thing about doing it this way though was that as the warmer water from the ships tanks came up through the pipes, though still cold, it gave my frozen body the impression of warmth. I lathered up in soap, rinsed off and hopped out of the shower in only a few minutes, smiling internally as I congratulated myself on another successful maritime shower where I managed not to consume all the water on the ship and more importantly, managed to balance on one feet as I washed the other foot with soap and not fall. Given the movement of the floor at all times, balancing on one soapy foot in a shower is a challenge becoming a trapeze artist or gymnast.

Now, showered and fully dressed, I moved back out of the bathroom and into the dark cabin where nothing had changed. The air-conditioner still grumbled at its labor and the snores still echoed in the room, the only source of light was the two tiny red LED’s on my headlamp as I moved back to my bunk and tucked my towel into a spot it could dry and my dirty clothes into a laundry bag I had on the floor.

Part of me felt like flipping the light switch on and waking the other two men up, because I did not feel it was fair for me to be the only one up. But no, I know what it is like to be jarred from a good dream, I’ll not blind them with instantaneous bright white fluorescent light. Time to get ready for the day, I mumbled to myself, not sure if I had said it internally or actually out-loud. In the dark I gathered up a few things that had become somewhat of a tradition for my mornings and then grabbed my flight bag and made my way out onto the main deck. It was just as dark out here in the open sea air as it had been in the cabin, and there was as much indication of waking crewman. Even the two men on watch on the bridge were slumped against their chairs, arms crossed across their chests, not exactly sitting but more leaning with their chins tucked down as the slept standing up. I recognized it from my days in the Infantry training battalion at Fort Benning in Georgia. I’d slept standing up many times.

On the heli-deck I made my way over to the dark outline of the Hughes 500 and set my flight bag down against one of her floats, which was half deflated when we weren’t flying, and it settled into the blue material. I ran my hand along the tail boom feeling her skin for salt and any possible stress points. I walked around her tail and glanced at the stabilizer and the tail rotor assembly looking for anything out of place before moving back around to the other side of the helicopter. I continued my walk around in the dark, aided only by my small headlamp with the full white beam on. My hand traced the curves of the skin and rivets and everything seemed in place, and no real salt had built up overnight. Regardless though, I gave her a bath, a fresh water rinse from a nearby hose to get rid of any stray particles of sand and to get her fresh and ready for the day.

I knew my mechanic would do the same thing once he woke up but it had become tradition for me to come up here early and give a good rinse to the helicopter. Almost my way of bonding with her by caring for her and then expecting she’d do the same for me when we were flying together, man and machine merged into one. Superstitions of pilots run deep and come out of nowhere; I don’t recall a class at flight school or at the college that taught me to give the machine feelings and treat it like a beloved and prized horse or pet. There was no lecture on the emotions your airplane or helicopter feels when it is spoken poorly too or cursed. But regardless, I only ever spoke nicely to my helicopter, and I gave her baths; because she knew me, and trusted me, and I needed her to…because I trusted her.

After the rinse down I fished my cell phone and my GPS communicator out of my pockets and sat down on one of the pontoon type floats that was attached to my skids and paired the two with Bluetooth. It seemed like alien technology when placed against a helicopter built in 1972, on a boat built in 1984, but it allowed me to send position reports to my friends and family and to send short text message only 160 characters long.

My mornings were always like this, get up and wash the helicopter and then send a position report and a few messages and then turn the GPS and phone off and get back to my day. The phone paired with the GPS and made it so that I could text and communicate using the phone keyboard and screen instead of the clunky and clumsy interface on the GPS – it was a nice feature.

By this point the sun was starting to rise just off the left side of our bow, we were sailing almost exactly east and into the sun, and the sky began to erupt into the beautiful orange glow. The sunrises and sunsets at sea are some of the best I’ve ever seen, only coming in second behind perhaps those that I witnessed in Africa. I watched for a while as the star we orbit crested over the horizon, turning the clouds into fire and lighting the sky into an even brighter richer orange. I loved this part.

My stomach growled, and so I made short work of getting my flight vest and helmet into the cockpit and my Airhawk seat-cushion inflated and into place. Anyone who has flown one of these helicopters will tell you that the seat-cushion upgrade is a must, long flights on that tight cutting mesh seat will render your back and body tired and sore for a week at a time. I secured my gloves and faceguard under the helmet, which I had wrapped in a protective cloth to keep the sun from cooking it too badly, and then tucked my flight bag into one of the storage lockers up on the heli-deck.
I was ready, and we were open for business. As I made my way down to the main deck to find some rice and an egg for breakfast I passed my mechanic on his way up to do his crew chief duties and get the helicopter ready to fly.

Sure enough around 0850 as I’m settling in to start watching Saving Private Ryan the call I was both excited and anxious about came across the loud speaker.
“Helicopter standby!”

That was my cue, both my mechanic and I jumped at the call and began to move with purpose. I paused my movie on the dreamworks opening scene with the boy fishing from the moon to make sure I didn’t miss anything and then grabbed my gloves, sleeves, and buff and headed out behind Roxy.

On the flight deck I found him working already, the blade tie downs were removed and he had begun taking the passenger side door off. The deck was basting in sunlight as the rays through the bright blue, nearly cloudless, sky baked the green paint. I could feel the heat radiating off of it and the wind blowing across the bow was a refreshing reprieve from the temperature. I climbed into the cockpit and grabbed my flight vest and strapped it on. An old tan army vest it had my life vest attached to it, emergency locator beacon, survival and first aid kits, everything a man could want floating in the middle of the ocean. I pray I don’t have to ever use any of it.

Once my vest was on I unwrapped my helmet and set it beside me, reached over my shoulders and grabbed my harness and strapped into my seat, uncovered the collective (which had a plastic bottle on a string covering it from the elements) and then put my helmet on. After the straps were fastened and my helmet was plugged into the helicopter communication system I turned my attention to starting the Hughes 500.

All of my training came down to this moment and the sequence came back to me and my brain relayed to my fingers without hesitation. Turn the key and then flip the master up to battery, check the throttle wide open, back to the stop, and then flip the lock up and roll it even further into the cutoff detent position – check. Get the all clear from my mechanic who was standing nearby, check the mirror for the blade tie-downs, and then punch the starter button with my right middle finger, then wait, serenaded by the rhythmic clicking of the starter in the back desperately trying to ignite some fuel
“Click, click, click, click…”.
As the N1 gauge needle reached twelve percent I cracked the throttle open past the idle stop and squirted just a bit of fuel into the turbine engine bringing this beauty to life. She roared as the fire lit off in her belly; and her blades began to twist over my head, slowly at first but picking up speed with each revolution.

Wait one minute, then flip the electrical and comms switches to the on position and fire up the GPS, set the altimeter to zero. Once the GPS has a signal create a waypoint – this is your ticket home to the boat. One more minute.

Jose had told me that I most likely would not fly with the captain first, as a new pilot, he would send the first officer up on my first few flights to assess me and not risk his own skin, which seemed smart to me; I would probably have done the same thing if the roles were reversed. Sure enough the first officer came walking across the heli-deck, crossing in front of the nose of the helicopter and he climbed in.

Roll the throttle up to full open, don’t exceed 20% on the torque though while rolling it up. Nice and smooth. My wrists gently twisted the throttle away from me increasing the rpm on the engine and rotor blades together as the needles on the gauge for each “had married” and were now working in unison with each other.

While all of this was going on Roxy had undone three of the straps holding the helicopter to the deck and was standing by the passenger door on the fourth and final strap waiting for my thumbs up for release. I did one more quick check of all my instruments and the GPS – everything looked good – and after turning the friction knobs on my controls off, gave Roxy the signal. He let the strap loose and tucked it under the net I used for landing, the first officer checked his side and gave me two thumbs up signaling both straps were off, Roxy checked the far side, and then my side to make sure the straps were clear. He ran a knife-edge hand up through the air signaling to me where he was looking so I knew he was checking both tie-down points. Then he gave me two thumbs up meaning I was clear.

The pick up was smooth, the departure was nice, the wind was perfect and not before too long the XO began to give me headings, areas he wanted to check for tuna. We flew at 80 knots and 1000 feet above the heli-deck (where I had set the altitude to zero) and circled, then turned, and circled more. He gave me several headings in sequence and then asked for more turns. I was confused, I didn’t see anything to turn over except one small school at one point – that he was entirely disinterested in. More headings, more turns. This went on for half an hour – I didn’t care though, because I was one with the helicopter, man and machine, flying a beautiful Hughes 500 over the open vastness of the ocean.

If you can imagine water as far as the eye can see in all directions, deep blue, the sun burning a bright white line down the middle of it (which makes it impossible to see anything when turned into the sun) and the horizon distorted by water and heat to look as though you’re actually high enough to see the curve of the earth. White puffs of clouds dot the area just above your head and you’re flying, alone in the sky except for some birds. It’s very liberating.

I guess our search was over, after some Korean conversation on the radio he directed me to go back to the boat, which I found in the distance and made a straight line for. Landing is the hardest part of flying, ask any aviation safety expert, or crash investigator. The workload, and stress load go up, no matter where or what you are landing. Adding elements to it like a ship that is moving at 13 knots, with wind across the bow at 10 knots giving you about 23 knots of cross wind to land in all while the deck is pitching and bobbing and bucking against the sea makes it even more stressful. Not to mention this was my first landing on a mission, and not as a “student”. No dual controls, no senior pilot, just me and a very brave Korean.

Slow down, relax on the controls, stay a bit high, get over the deck, get your reference point (for me I use one of the small gps antennas that line the edge of my flight deck instead of the paint) in sight, slow, easy, set it down. The skids came down nice and smooth and level on the deck in what was by far my best landing on a moving boat to-date.

I couldn’t help myself as a big cheese eating grin came across my face, in my head I was celebrating that we made it to the deck safely and that it looked damn good (the one exception being that I was a teensy-bit to the right of my spot), and the first officer looked over at me with the same smile and gave me a big thumbs up again. That was a good sign I told myself as he climbed out of the helicopter and walked around the front, giving one more thumbs up – shaking it at me a few times. I think I just passed the Korean fishing check-ride.

After shut down I jotted down my trend test numbers (TOT, N1, OAT, ALT, TRQ) and my hobbs, a grand total of .7 hours in a 500 chasing tuna. That was fun, and after we had secured and refueled the helicopter I made my way down to the cabin to write this experience down.

I did not get that chance. Moments after firing up my word processor and opening this file up there came a knock at the door which was almost as brief as it was short before the door opened. In poked the head of our second officer, who asked for Roxy.
“Mechanic, helicopter fly again, ok?”

They wanted to take it up for another flight? I knew that it would be ok to go, we’d been on the ground long enough for the turbine to cool down, Roxy jumped up to go verify that, and I went to the bathroom – not knowing how long it would be before we were back to the ship I wanted to make sure I left with an empty bladder. Then I geared up again and went up top.

This time the Captain of the boat walked around the front of the helicopter and climbed in, the first officer must have given his blessing for the Captain to fly with me, and we were airborne. This time we had one specific heading, and then a turn, and then we spotted a small school of tuna feeding on the surface and basking in the sun. As they broke the water they frothed it up into a white “foamer” and the Captain had me make five loops around it while he surveyed the fish. We had flown toward another fishing vessel I think in part to scope out their catch because their nets were out, but also to see if there were any reasonably sized parts of the school still left for us to catch.

He told me to fly straight, and then left, and then straight again. This whole time the ship and he were bantering back and forth in Korean – I was ok with just sitting silent and following directions, I focused on my instruments and on the helicopter to make sure she was feeling fine. Then I spotted a big foamer, right in front of us, or I thought I spotted it – when I turned to tell the Captain, the excitement in my face drained away as I realized he was sitting already looking at it, no emotion on his face, just fixed on it. This was an intentional heading. The school was big, some broke the surface, more swam just under the surface. It was crazy seeing so clearly from 600 feet (he had me descend) so many fish in the water. After about 4 loops over the school he waved his hand to get my attention and said over the radio
“Ok pilot, back now”.

I pointed my nose towards the Caribe, which I had seen on my passes multiple times so I knew exactly where she was. Once we met up with the boat I made a pass behind her and came up alongside the starboard side and then approached to land. Again, I was off set to the right and would need to work on landing a bit more left.

I’m happy to say now that we’ve set around that large school and I’m hoping they get a big catch out of it – I think that would go a long way with giving the Captain a favorable opinion of his new pilot, if on our first flight he got a big catch.

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