I have written previously of some of the stupid student tricks we pulled while self training at Skyrotors, where I some how managed to become a commercial helicopter pilot.
Landing on moving trains and transport trucks was pretty dumb, but it actually served as a good primer for some of the ship board landings I was to make years later. My first landings to ships were on to the fan tails of World War Two destroyers. Now before you start thinking I am more ancient than the old man in the sea, I should mention that these ships were converted by the U.S. Navy to operate as remote controlled target or experimental ships. The Navy modified the ships that we landed on in the 70’s and 80’s and may still use them to this day. It was all secret stuff and I can talk about some of it now, I think? I didn’t know what we were doing most of the time, and had I ever landed on any of the Russian ships that followed us they could have told me more about my mission details than I knew. I was never that curious.
I had the very good fortune to have an excellent Chief Pilot instruct me in the timing and judgment required to place a small helicopter into the confined aft deck of a ship moving, sometimes sideways with a quartering tail wind, in a heavy swell. The ships we flew to were often dead in the water and sideways to the swell. The only folks who could get the ship going again were sitting quietly beside you hoping that this new pilot, (Me) didn’t dick up the landing and ruin everyones day.
But this was all fun that came later in my career. My first ship landing was some years prior. Instructions for landing the helicopter on my first ship included where to buy a few hundred feet of rope to lash the helicopter to the deck of the ship after I had set it on the top deck.
The ship was one of the largest ferry boats in Canada and sailed a regular route between North Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Port aux Basques Newfoundland – a journey of about 90 some miles across the chilly North Atlantic. It was safer riding the boat than crossing single engined without floats, although some pilots did fly rather than take the ferry.
I was happy to be landing on the solid steel decking of a ship in port and not moving. It was an easy landing and an hour later I had my rope purchased and rigged. I can only imagine some of the comments from the crew as they watched my efforts to secure the helicopter and guarantee my continued employment.
One old hand walked by, surveyed my lattice work of rigging smiled at me and said, “that ought to hold her, there by”. I could see his shoulders heaving as he walked away, but I didn’t care. I made a mental note to be up early in the morning when the ship docked. I knew some of my knots were going to be tough going after a night in the rain. I was ready. I checked the battery was disconnected a second time and said a little prayer that it wouldn’t be too cool in the morning. The battery had given a slow start when I fired the helicopter up and I had watched the ammeter drop down after several minutes on deck but I didn’t like it. On second thought, I pulled the battery out and took it to the warmth of my cabin for the night crossing.
The ships horn was sounding and after confirming the time and a quick glance out my port hole I rolled out of my bunk, dressed and grabbed my bunk mate. A warm and hopefully capable helicopter battery.
Stepping on the top deck with my battery clutched close to my heaving chest I was a little dismayed at the view. There wasn’t any. Dark, wind whipped rain and wispy fog to greet me after my morning climb up four flights of stairs with my 30 lb. battery. I decided to leave the battery in the warm stairway while I undid my riggers nightmare of ropes. In 15 minutes I was done. Done ever tying a helicopter to the top of a ship. Done ever tying another bolen/granny knot in wet weather. And done ever thinking that a leather flight jacket was suitable rain gear.
The ferry was bumping up against the dock as I tossed coiled ropes in the back of the helicopter and sloshed over to the stairwell to fetch my battery. The battery was in and preflight done but the weather was no better. I could see lights from vehicles off loading through the rain and fog five decks below me to what must have been the parking lot of the ferry terminal. Welcome to Port aux Basques at 06:30 on a rainy, foggy dark and cold September morning, Keith. Where was I going to land? From photos I had seen of the harbor I knew that everything around me was higher and rocky with the exception of the harbor and heading out to sea seemed counter productive and unlikely to improve my current situation. I would recon the parking lot and terminal on foot and find an area that had little or no vehicle access. I had better do it quick because the turn around time was about 45 minutes I had been warned.
Within a few minutes of searching the terminal area in the rain and fog I located a fenced off part of the port that was accessed by an unlocked gate. There would be no time for permission. Jogging back to the ship, I noticed that it was almost empty. The Port aux Basque vehicles would be loading shortly. I was breathing hard from the five deck climb as I untied the blades climbed in leaving the door open so as not to fog the interior and hit the starter button. It took about 4 seconds for me to confirm what I really knew in two seconds. That battery was never going to start this helicopter.The clock was ticking loud in my brain as i ran down the stairs out past the trucks loading onto the ferry. I ran to what looked like the maintenance shop at the terminal. After a very abbreviated explanation and plead for help I was given a 24 volt truck battery and some booster cables. Don’t worry about getting them back to us they said as I lugged the 70 lb battery and cables off to the ferry. I’m sure the crew man who met me at the top deck stairwell could hear me panting up the stairs long before he spotted me. Walking through the door he held open I explained my situation between gasps. He would indeed make sure that the battery and cables got put away. I didn’t have any room for them in my helicopter. I was packed to the ceiling.
The boost was enough to get a start and I walked unsteadily to the front of the helicopter on the pitching deck and disconnected the truck battery. The crewman took the battery and cables as I strapped in. With a quick wave I pulled pitch and moved sideways off the deck and clear of the ship which passed by me as I hovered above the sea at a height I could not gage.
Forward visibility was not much but I could follow the ships prop wash and after a long minute rock cliffs loomed ahead and surf crashed against it. Left or right ? I guessed left. Another minute of hovering along the shore downwind I was rewarded with the unmistakable pilings of a pier. Above me was the terminal and as I hovered up into the fog I could see the glow of several light standards below me. I had no way of determining my position in the terminal area. I opened my door and looked down at the glow of the lights in the fog The door banged against my helmet as I very slowly lowered down between light standards. It took me three tries to find an area clear of parked vehicles and equipment. With nothing around me I settled into the parking lot. There were trucks moving around some distance away and nobody seemed to pay me any mind as I shut down the helicopter.
I would have to get another boost when the weather cleared but right now I was just happy to be anywhere.
I would have breakfast at the terminal right after I called the Chief Pilot to request a new battery and relate my mornings adventures. The Chief Pilot promised another battery on the next ferry and mentioned the fact that it may have been better to have landed on one of the ferry’s trailers and have them drive me on and off the ferry.
Yes, I agreed that would have been a much safer solution. “Why had nobody told me of that less exciting option?” I asked.
“It was about $165.00 more to use the trailers.” he said.
I hung up the phone. It would be easier to claim that we were cut off than to remain on the line and make a job terminating remark. Time for a coffee if my hands would stop shaking.