Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Artist and the Anesthesiologist

“Likely that the pilot was unaware the mast nut had been removed,” “a factor was the trees,” “resulted in fuel exhaustion,” “as to why the helicopter collided with the sea.” I read as many accident reports as I can. Some pretty fun phrases can be found in those reports. The conclusions rarely involve mechanical failure, which is good. It’s mostly poor decision-making that does pilots in, so the more one knows, the better decisions one can make.

Taking the time while on the ground to think about decisions that were made by others in flight hopefully prepares a pilot to make better choices while flying. As Cypress Hill opines, “When the shit goes down, you betta be ready.”

I’d been at Chief’s camp and tentatively made plans to take a family of four on a scenic tour when they returned from the morning game drive. The weather changed and I made the decision to head to Nxabega early to get a group of ladies to Maun International Airport early so they could catch their flight to South Africa. Ah well, I was looking forward to the scenic flight, the family seemed quite nice.

Four days later I flew to Xaxaba to do a scenic for a group of four. Turns out it was the same family I’d left at Chief’s. The old man flew planes years ago so I offered to let him have the front seat, those guys really like to point at gauges trying to figure out the dashboard while Africa whips by.

I was on my way to get a cup of coffee when the family asked me if they could go up again. “The only limits to spinning those rotors are your imaginations and your wallets.” “Well she’s an artist, she has a great imagination.” “Awesome, who has the wallet?” “She’s an anesthesiologist.” “How does an hour-long flight sound?”

The anesthesiologist sat up front. About 20 minutes in, the GPS went out, and by out, I mean off. No biggie, I’d been lost in this part of the Delta before, follow the Boro channel right back to camp. I checked the gauges, green is for groovy. I pushed the warning light panel test button. Instead of lighting up in bright colors with various types of impending doom, nothing happened. Quick glance up, no popped circuit breakers. Back to the gauges. engine and transmission oil now read zero, but without secondary indications like loss of power or people screaming as we plummeted toward earth, I felt good about continuing the flight. Fuel, 35 gallons. That’s odd, quick calculations meant it should be roundabout 40. Generator and battery, normal. Sweet, the radios just went. Generator and battery, zero. I reset the generator, nothing changed, except possibly my heart rate.

Mind you, this is over the course of two minutes, the family is still pointing out giraffes and zebras. Fuel 30. Weird, all those gauges now read zero, no GPS or radio, obviously an electrical issue. Why is the fuel gauge dropping slowly instead of going right to zero? Two problems? Why would I be leaking fuel? Why can’t I remember hearing about this in my 206 training course? Why am I having this debate in the air?

“Just so you know, I’m having some electrical issues. I’ve gotten a good look at this island, there’s plenty of room to land, it’s free of large mammals. You can stretch your legs while I get an engineer on the ‘sat’ phone and see if it’s safe to continue this flight. I do see some impalas but they rarely attack humans.”

I did two orbits scouting the island, one to double-check for lions and wind direction, one to find some Zen. No need to rush this landing and create a bigger problem. I did do a faster than normal approach, however, because the fuel gauge showed only 5 gallons remaining, too close for comfort.

I grabbed my sat phone and headlamp while the clients stretched their legs and the anesthesiologist offered everyone Xanax. Using the headlamp, I could see lots of fuel in the tank. Only an electrical issue after all. Time to call World Headquarters.

Mitch came in the other Jetranger, whisked the clients back to camp, and brought the external batteries so we could jump-start my heli and I could fly it back to the hangar.

The degree of acceptable risk depends in part on the mission. Risk a lot to save a lot. Would we save more babies if we went over gross weight? Will the world end if a chopper full of South African models misses the connecting flight back to Jo-burg? Will this family have a pleasant and unforgettable African experience? An unexpected landing in the Delta took care of the unforgettable, hopefully my demeanor and the Xanax covered the pleasant.


Steve Finnell said...

you are invited to follow my blog

cynicalbuddha said...

I really hope theres a book coming out of this.

Anonymous said...

Nice job keeping your cool, analyzing and decisions making buddy!