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Friday, June 1, 2012

Safety Watch: Cat Skinning, Part 1

By Terry Terrell

Having always stood with one foot set lightly in airplanes and the other planted firmly in helicopters, I’ve often enjoyed contending to fixed-wing-only operators that safely accomplished rotary wing aviation will always maintain a smug status as much more challenging and demanding than their version of flying, which consists, as anyone can see, of mindlessly driving a relatively simple and foolproof aerial machine from “A to B." Mechanically, of course, helicopters, compared on a size and weight basis, are much more complicated than their fixed-wing counterparts, but composite operational complexities do not end there.

Flying an airplane from departure to destination is largely an repetitious exercise, following a standard cookbook recipe which specifies in precise fashion flight planning rituals, weather briefing, fuel scheduling, checklist execution, some minor motor skill demonstration of actual aircraft handling (if the autopilot will allow), ATC compliance, systems monitoring, utilization of chart data, adherence to approach plate directions, and usually nothing more than theoretical consideration of emergency systems protocols and contingency accommodation. You leave one city, dutifully execute all the above, and presto, you step out of your airplane in another city, hopefully the one intended.

Helicopter missions, in inevitably stark contrast, can entail all the above, plus an almost infinitely unpredictable additional set of optional operational variables. In fact, helicopters very often face tasks which end up presenting the possibility of multiple solution strategies to crews, calling to mind the old “more than one way to skin a cat” wisdom.

Often, when helicopters undertake missions (in contrast to embarking on simple flight), precise navigational data, along with precise tactical implications, are yet to develop. Flying a heavy Coast Guard Sikorsky S-61, we were once tasked with investigating a reported American charter airplane crash in the mountains of northern Haiti, to include likely body recovery.

Our first challenge, since communications with Haitian authorities were extremely poor, was to establish presence on scene, and to document the situation. This encompassed assembling personnel, with consideration given to the potential need for medical competencies, and moving our aircraft from its base in Puerto Rico to Port-au-Prince—absolutely our only reliable fuel availability in the region. When we landed at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, our operational adventures began as we were surrounded by President Baby Doc Duvalier’s armed commandos. In Haiti during the 1970s we never knew whether these paramilitary police commandos were there for our protection or otherwise, but on this occasion we were informed that several of these uniformed “assistants” would be accompanying us to the tiny village of Jean-Rabel, near the northern coast, where it was believed that the natives had observed something which had been interpreted as a storm-driven airplane crash into the mountains.

After nearly an hour’s flight out of Port-au-Prince, landing on a flat patch of barren earth in Jean-Rabel, we were treated to the sudden and somewhat mysterious appearance of a seemingly very apprehensive party of native residents, from which was ejected an old man we took to be the local voodoo “witch doctor.” This gaunt figure, dusted pure white from head to toe, dropped to his knees directly at the nose of our HH-3F, under the still spinning rotor blades, casting an assortment of dried bones onto the dirt. The commandos immediately took action by jumping out our cargo door, chasing down the unfortunate, and viciously beating the offender to submission, manhandling him away to parts unknown. It was later explained to us by a Catholic missionary, the only English-speaking individual in the village, that the commandos would have shot the old voodoo man, but they “didn’t want to appear brutal to the Americans”.

We learned, from the highly superstitious natives and through the missionary, that indeed a “screaming bird” had been observed crashing, and directions toward the disaster were provided with lots of yelling and pointing. Getting airborne again, we were finally able to find the wreckage, but were disappointed to see that most of it was at the base of a cliff at about the 2,000-foot level, completely inaccessible to any possible helicopter landing zone.

We were able to eventually spot a rocky ridge-top, downslope and many hundreds of meters from the crash site, so we landed there in order to consider our options. It took more than an hour for us to walk up the steep, muddy terrain to the wreckage itself, where we were obliged to confirm eight non-survivors and the obliterated remains of a piston-powered cabin class Cessna, along with the presence of a few transfixed but fearful local residents, and we could see that getting the bodies aboard presented huge problems, both physical and, perhaps, metaphysical. (To be continued...)

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