Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Startled in Deadhorse
I once enjoyed the privilege of spending the cold, dark midwinter months in Deadhorse on Alaska’s North Slope, qualifying for civilian IFR competency in Bell 212s, and proving along the way that unexpected safety challenges await in all environments. This exercise was accomplished as a byproduct of participation in one of the most interesting rotory-wing operations imaginable, wherein Alaska’s most respected helicopter operator routinely flew IFR sling load logistics deliveries to a major arctic petroleum drilling/production facility, some 55 miles offshore. In the endless darkness of December, far north of the Arctic Circle, it was impossible to differentiate land from ocean, with everything from horizon to horizon existing as a vast, flat, frozen expanse of ice.
The environment was utterly alien and categorically unsurvivable to conventional human life without extensive artificial support. Bare skin could not be exposed to open air, even briefly. Vehicles could not be shut down and allowed to cold-soak, and were therefore left with engines running for weeks on end. And each helicopter sortie generated some $1,200 in expense additional to all normal operational costs, since hanger doors had to be opened once for launch and once again for recovery, and 600 1989 dollars of reheat expense were incurred each time the hangars were allowed to flash cool for even a moment. It was in this brutally harsh setting that helicopters resupplied energy production activities by transporting the wide range of materials required, most of which were carried as external cargo, suspended below an unusually hearty breed of helicopters and professionals flying these external loads on instrument flight plans, necessary because of limited visibilities and inadequate VFR contact cues available in this highly unusual environment.
Grocery supplies that could tolerate extreme freezing were a routine load for these flights, and such materials were normally bundled into heavy strap netting. To this day I’m not sure what the ramp personnel were paid, attaching these netted loads to the cargo hooks of hovering Bell 212s, but I’m certain it was not enough. Once airborne, though, after the requisite instrument takeoff, standard practice dictated stabilizing at 55 knots, observing the brightly floodlit external cargo in large, convex mirrors mounted outside chin bubbles, and heavy bulk loads would usually fly in stable fashion. On one of my flights, however, we were tasked with transporting two snowmobiles, and I was impressed with the way the freight-packers had secured these machines to a large wooden pallet, and had centered the whole package in tight nylon strapping, incorporating a rear-mounted “vane,” intended, obviously, to “fly” the load correctly.
Preflight activities were normal, and the “hookup” was accomplished quickly. During hover checks, prior to my ITO, I was pleased to observe our “snow-machines,” as they were known in Alaska, hanging peacefully. By usual standards the load was relatively light so we obtained our release and launched without further complication or delay, and I assumed normal instrument scanning, being careful to maintain stable parameters through transitional lift changes. When airspeed was above 40 knots and slowly climbing, and altitude showed a comfortable cushion between us and the unseen icescape below, I glanced past the cargo mirrors to make a cursory check of our load, and immediately found myself struggling to process an electric shock of first realization that OUR CARGO WAS GONE! WHAT? I’m sure that a couple of seconds passed as I tried to make sense of what I was not seeing, and I may have reduced collective slightly, trying to come to terms with having somehow jettisoned our cargo, when, like a flash, I saw the snowmobile bundle zoom past the mirrors, floodlit like a Broadway dancer springing from stage right, crossing the center of my visual field, and disappearing again stage left. To say that I dumped power and slowed airspeed quickly does not really do justice to my reaction.
Eventually, after a seeming eternity of diminishing oscillations that probably consumed only a few seconds, the snowmobiles resumed a peaceful repose, allowing a quick return to the departure ramp for aerodynamic modification. But the entire episode proved once again that the helicopter world will never cease, in every conceivable environment, offering up an absolutely endless kaleidoscope of unexpected safety challenges.