Monday, April 1, 2013
Safety Watch: A Matter of Perspective
Most things that happen in helicopter aviation can be viewed from more than one perspective, and sometimes achieving access to the correct viewpoint can end up feeling like a matter of life and death. During the 1970s, out of Borinquen, Puerto Rico, we enjoyed not only the pleasure of covering the largest search and rescue sector in all of U.S. Coast Guard operations with the exquisitely capable Sikorsky HH-3F (the heaviest, and most range-capable S-61 ever produced), but we were tasked with an enormously wide spectrum of remarkably interesting duties.
One of our particularly memorable chores in those days was a monthly resupply visit to a very lonely crew manning a LORAN transmitter site, located on one of the lesser islands in the remote Caicos group.
At that time, long before the advent of GPS, the Coast Guard maintained a staff of about 20 at that lonesome outpost, operating large diesel generators and supporting the elaborate electronics infrastructure required to keep transmitters on line, doing their part to sustain the worldwide array of “long range radio aid to navigation” facilities. These guys lived and worked in one of the most beautiful tropical settings on earth, but their desolation was total. They always swarmed our aircraft as soon as our blades stopped on shutdown, hungry for fresh groceries and the latest movies.
Their compensating asset, though, was an unlimited access to truly world-class sport diving.
I had acquired a diving background of my own during previous Navy service, and had been accordingly assigned by the CG to Borinquen Air Station specifically for the purpose of setting up a base SCUBA club, directly aimed at improving troop morale, so I always expressly enjoyed visiting the Caicos crews.
For some time they had been telling me about a huge grouper that lived on their reef, and they had asked, in fact, that I bring along a special “powerhead” speargun on one of our visits, since they reckoned that this particular trophy was more than conventional spearfishing equipment could handle. So on one trip I brought my special speargun, and was taken to see their fish.
We quickly found the spot where they contended that their outsized grouper could usually be seen through a hole in the coral. They took me down, and pointed through the opening, gesturing wildly. I peered through the hole, expecting to behold their monster fish, but I didn’t see it. Back on the surface, they insisted with great animation that the colossus was sitting right there.
I went down and looked again, and this time received the shock of my life when I realized that the fish was so big I was only seeing a small part of it, just a few huge scales which I had at first not recognized as any part of a living animal.
Completely recalibrating perspective on the situation, I had to tell them that even my shotgun shell-powered spears would not be enough to safely harvest their gargantuan fish, and that anything more ambitious than leaving the poor beast alone would probably end up killing us all.
A year later I was enjoying my last Caribbean flight, familiarizing an incoming pilot with our local operating environment, the former Ramey Air Force Base, one of the Strategic Air Command’s most magnificent locations.
We had a veteran crew, and near the end of our flight I asked if anyone would be interested in enjoying an air-conditioned H-3. Since air conditioning was only an impossible dream for tropically located H-3 crews in those days, they wondered what was being suggested. So, light on fuel, I started a spiral climb over Ramey’s 12,000-foot runway, eventually achieving a decidedly cool altitude, very unusual for us. Standard H-3 procedures at that time required that the flight mechanic disconnect from ICS and execute a walking safety tour of the aircraft every 10 minutes, so as his “high altitude flight check” was completed everyone on the aircraft was surprised to hear his reconnecting voice announce the startling fact that nothing was visible out the entire right side of the aircraft because everything was covered with transmission oil.
Reports of threats to main transmissions at high altitudes are not what helicopter pilots ever want to hear, so we expedited back to the deck as immediately possible, maintaining intermediate torque input and watching for secondary indications like hawks. Once safely back on our ramp, we were mercifully able to very thankfully celebrate the precious ground perspective which allowed determination that a small external oil return line connector had randomly loosened, admitting spillage of a harmlessly minuscule portion of the many gallons comprising our transmission oil supply, but the comfort of that perspective had definitely not been possible at 14,000 feet!