I had left my comfort zone several miles back in the dark. What had began as a mission with acceptable risks had rapidly changed into something worse.The original flight plan was to fly the shore line route along Lake Ponchartrain to the FBI building in New Orleans.It was a night flight and the local fog was low and patchy as we entered the restricted area surrounding New Orleans.
I called the AWACS about 25 miles out when I could get a word in on their very busy frequency. The traffic was going to be mostly military helo’s over the hurricane and flood ravaged New Orleans area.Katrina relief efforts were in full swing and the flying was 24 hours a day with most of the flying thankfully conducted in daylight hours. There was just way too many helicopters and almost no flight separation outside the immediate area of the international airport. By immediate area I mean that on several occasions I heard the already over loaded controllers make a call in the blind on tower frequency that went like this; ” all traffic in the vicinity of the airport,shut up and listen”. “Unless you are inbound to the airport within one half mile going to triage on the south side of the field,stay off frequency”.
It was see and avoid for the rest of us. At night it was stare and hope to avoid. The military folks had NVG and discrete frequencies,call signs and two trained pairs of eyes looking outside. I had the shoreline route along the beach at beach buzzing altitudes that would keep me clear. Clear of traffic and obstructions until a few miles back when the mission had changed. We were deviating to a ” location” within the city.
If you have over flown cities at night you know that it takes a while to get your bearings. If you know the City. My knowledge of the area was limited to the previous two days flights. My FBI buddies knew the area but it was obvious after a minute that a completely blacked out city with water where streets used to be was going to make surface reference navigation difficult. Could I fly a little lower, came the back seat request?
Did you see that last tower that went by I asked? “Not until it went by”, came the answer. “Then thats a no, I guess”,he added.There have been at least three helicopters cross our path that I know of, I said and one of them was much closer and slower than I had originally thought.
I have every light in the house on and flashing I said but if we can’t get our bearings here soon I think we should scrub this portion of the flight. Turning one way or the next every few seconds to check a reference on the ground makes see and avoid more difficult for me and those other folks in the BlackHawks and what ever else is out here tonight.
Common sense prevailed and we flew back to the shoreline. As I low leveled along the shoreline on my side of the route we passed several military helicopters of various size and closing speed. It was the ones coming up from my rear that concerned me. Faster and fatigued just like me they were welcome to pass overhead. Down here I could deal with nighthawks, fog patches and maybe gulls. Anything more substantial than that and we would lose. The FBI compound had some emergency lighting on by the front gates and my grassy helispot of the previous days flights was clear and a welcome sight.
Once on the ground the special agent in charge asked me if I could sling some sealed filing cabinet sized containers weighing about 500 lb.s back with us that night to Baton Rouge.
No, I answered. That is a daytime flight that I would only conduct solo I said. The agent seemed to be thinking of another option.”We would have to fly with you”, Keith. Its not allowed, I said. Against the rules and if my guess is right, you probably want me to sling these containers into your facility in downtown Baton Rouge?
“Correct “,he said. I can not sling objects over built up areas for several miles, I said. Won’t happen.
Ok, Keith,we will figure something out ,but we sure aren’t getting much accomplished tonight are we ?
We are staying alive Sir, I said.