Be Flexible Part II (Jan 6)

In my post for January 1st I wrote about how you need to be flexible to do this job. I would stress even more the importance of that now. On January 3rd I wrote that I might be transferring at sea to the Shila Jupiter and that came true yesterday. The Captain of the Shila Harvester is apparently one of the older most senior captains in their fleet and every time he starts a contract he browses the helicopter pilots out there, looking for ones he knows and likes to work work with and if possible snaps them up.

That is what happened to me, the Captain of the harvester made a call to the Shila Corporation and asked for the pilot on the Jupiter to be his pilot. They can’t tell him no, so we made sail for a rendezvous with the Shila Jupiter. After dinner the night before we met them the Captain informed me that I needed to pack my stuff and that we would be meeting with the Jupiter in the morning for a transfer. He was a very nice guy, would have been nice to work with him and the D-Model more. Such an awesome helicopter.

The transfer was to be made using a net boat from the Jupiter. It brought the other pilot over to the Harvester we shook hands really quickly as I donned his life vest and asked him if there was anything I needed to know about the helicopter or mechanic I was getting. He told me the mechanic was one of the best, and the helicopter flew fine. I didn’t need to tell him about the helicopter and mechanic on the Harvester, he’d been the pilot on this boat a few weeks ago and had transferred to the Jupiter to train another pilot – who isn’t taking over on the Jupiter. I don’t know who it was but they must not have worked out.

While we had this exchange the crew loaded my bags into the net boat, I climbed into the little dingy and we were lowered into the water by the crane arms. The first big swell to hit us almost sent all my bags overboard, if not for the quick jump of the crewman riding over with us I would have been traveling a whole lot lighter. So he and I moved back and around the bags so that we could anchor them and ourselves to the little boat – I was starting to understand the lifevest importance at this point. The little boat dipped and rolled over the swells, water sloshing over the bow and railing and soaking my feet. The bags slid back and forth across the corrugated metal that covered the engine bay.

When we arrived at the Jupiter we ran into another problem, the sea was undulating and rolling under our boat, and when the crew went to hook us into the crane arms to get hoisted up there was either too much, or very suddenly too little, cable. The first attempt the back cable got hooked before the front one and then the ocean dropped out from underneath us, the front of the boat going with it but the back of the boat snapped hard against the tension of the cable and hook that was connected to it. Then the sea came up and they got the second cable hooked to the front of the boat just as the sea dropped out from under us again – both cable snapped hard against the chains on our boat and suddenly we were lifted into the air. The sea rose again and swept up our boat pushing us high above the cable ends, the sudden slack causing the rear hook to let go of the chain and as the sea came down we were thrown backwards as the rear of the little net boat sank into the waves.

This was crazy, there has got to be a better way to do this. All the while I’m holding all of my bags because the two crewmen are working to get us hooked up and hoisted up to the Jupiter. Finally a balance between cable length and timing is found and both hooks take their chain. The operator began hoisting right away trying to beat the next swell, which came lapping up at the net boat quick. Fortunately we were out of the water now, and above the swells. The crew were on the main deck and quickly pulled my bags over onto the Jupiter and then I jumped onto deck.

My mechanic was there waiting, gave me a handshake and introduced himself as Bob, or Franco – most people call him Franco. He’s a Filipino out of the air force where he spent 20 years working on the 500 helicopter. Since getting out of the military he’s allowed himself to grow a mullet, making him the first Filipino I’ve seen with a mullet.

The cabin is a third the size of the one I was just in on the Harvester, the bathroom half the size of the one on the Harvester, and the room smells of gasoline which can’t be healthy. It also smells of stale old smoke, and lots of it – as though the pilot and mechanic before me had chain-smoked in the room and let it fill up with smoke. The bathroom, which is shared between the pilot and mechanics room and the radio operators room, smells of smoke too – fresh smoke, I think every time the radio operator uses it he smokes one or two cigs. I had a bigger room in Iraq, minus the attached bathroom of course.

The first order of business, once all my other orders of business are complete, will be to build a shelf, I can’t believe this boat has been in service for 14 years and no pilot before me has built a shelf for their laptop and hard-drive. That’s essential, how else am I supposed to watch my movies in my free time. I watch a lot of movies out here.

I’d barely made it onto the boat and into the room when the XO came knocking, the Captain wanted to see me. So I grabbed my passport and transfer form from the Shila Company and went to report in. I was planning on headed there, but after I put my bags down. The Captain reminds me a funny asian uncle in a movie or on tv – he has big glasses and a patchwork mustache, slightly balding, and sporting a belly. He talks a lot with his hands and teeth forward in a smile between words. He wants me to go for a flight and prove that I can land on a boat.

Transferring boats in a high sea may not have been very good looking but I’m going to go for an early morning flight, and flying is my thing. I go up to do a preflight inspection on my yellow Hughes 500C, it reminds me of the paint that AIRFAST used to have on their helicopters and airplanes (an Indonesian company we used when I was growing up in Indonesia to get to and from town).

After an inspection and getting myself oriented on the different instrument console I set to work. My kind of work. I call for clear blades, which my mechanic signals back to – all blades clear. I flip master switch up and, after rolling the throttle all the way open and then back to the stop and into the cutoff position, press the starter button with my middle finger on my right hand. The familiar whir of the turbine engine spooling up, the clicking of the starter in the back, was music to my ears. All of this travelling and transferring and hotels had left me without a single flight all week long.

The throttle friction on this helicopter didn’t lock into place I noted, and the throttle travelled smoothly. Everything was set so I gave the thumbs up for the mechanic to release my last strap. As I pulled the collective up I twisted the helicopter around to face directly over the bow and I departed into a direct headwind. On my climb out I started to realize pretty quickly that I was having to put a ton of forward pressure and weight onto the cyclic to keep the forward attitude, so I moved my thumb up to the toggle hat for the cyclic trim and pressed it forward and waited for the trim to take the weight out of the controls. It’s as if the last pilot had trimmed it all the way back before leaving.

Once all the controls were balanced out I did a few S turns to get a feel for the helicopter, and then I turned back towards the boat. The Captain was watching from the rear deck, not wanting to be on the heli-deck in case I wasn’t able to actually land on a moving pitching boat; and this boat was certainly moving and pitching. They were bucking against the sea, spray from the ocean flashing over the bow in a fine mist, the wind was direct off of the bow which meant a solid crosswind on landing. The Captain was certainly out to see that I could perform under pressure. That – and he was in a hurry to get back to fishing, this little detour had cost him fishing time.

I took a deep breath of air and focused on my points. I’d come into the habit of setting myself up with successive checkpoints for my approaches. If I followed them everytime I would wind up at my spot. First, the leading edge of the heli-deck, I needed to be above it slightly and lined up almost perpendicular to the deck to keep my tail clear of the liferaft and antennas on the approach side. Then my spot moves to the small GPS antenna directly in front of where my left skid and pontoon should sit down, so long as I keep that in sight and fly down to it I almost always hit my spot. The parallax of the 500 pilot seat being so high makes it so that by shifting my spot forward of where I’m supposed to land the pontoons actually contact the deck about when I would want them to.

The Captain had asked me to make two or three landings, but this one was by far my best landing on a moving boat, and when he saw how smoothly and precisely I had put it down he waved me off and told me to shut down the helicopter. He was happy with the landing and that was all he needed. I logged a .2 doing a demonstration flight showing off that I could, in fact, fly and land a helicopter. Now it was time to unpack.

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