The G.P.S. unit installed in our S-61 helicopter was state of the art. The company had spent a lot of money to make sure that we would always know where we were and for good reason. The mission was in the high Arctic and we would be flying our helicopter to dozens of remote fuel caches dotted over the Arctic Islands. In the Arctic, airports are very few and far between and we would be flying for much of the time with only sporadic HF radio contact and a satellite phone.
My first tours of the Arctic back in the early 70’s had been with HF radio coverage as well but navigation was mostly pilotage and believe it or not a sextant! I always consider my years spent flying off charts only, to be a bonus. When you rely on GPS almost solely for your navigation information, you can find yourself in a world of hurt when the GPS fails.
On this particular day we had a very long leg to fly from Resolute Bay to a fuel cache on an island about 320 miles to the North. It was Arctic spring weather with a ceiling of about 300 feet and a temperature dew point spread that had to be pretty close. Forward visibility was about 2 miles in light wet snow and we found ourselves diverting around foggy patches across the ice flows and open water. Our island fuel cache was about 50 miles ahead and we had used a bit more fuel than planned.
The GPS decided to quit. Resetting and cycling the GPS was of no use. Continuing on the same heading should have us arriving on the shoreline of the island but if we got a wind shift missing the island would be bad news. A compass is useless in the Arctic so a heading for us meant not diverting too much from the direction we had been pointing when the GPS failed. Diverting for low weather was going to be tricky. The chart was no use because the Arctic Ocean was a featureless expanse of nothing. As we approached where the island should be, ice rifts kept popping into view that had us thinking the island shore line was just ahead. White on white makes ice and land look pretty much the same. I had a small hand held GPS back in my helmet bag minus the “AA” batteries that I should have purchased back in civilization. The crew chief was rifling through spares boxes as we flew along and in a few minutes he had found the batteries. The shoreline was in view and the chart was in my hand. I handed over flight control to the other pilot and studied the chart and shoreline.
” Right turn” I said over the intercom.
“Are you sure”?, the other pilot answered. I was and as we moved eastward along the shoreline I knew what the other pilot was concerned about. We didn’t really have enough fuel remaining to be going the wrong way. My backup GPS was now working and naturally it was taking some time to acquire itself. The last time my little GPS had been turned on it, was 3000 miles south of our present position. I looked up ahead and told the other pilot that the bay coming into view was where our fuel cache of jet fuel drums sat waiting. As we turned into the bay the spot marked on the chart revealed no fuel drums in sight. The look from the other pilot said it all. I was staring at the shoreline and quickly inputting the coordinates for the fuel cache on my back up GPS at the same time. The GPS confirmed that I had indeed navigated us to the right spot, but it was looking like cold comfort as we stared down at the snow and ice still sitting deep on the shore of the bay.
“There”! , the mechanic shouted as he looked out one of the side windows of the S-61. “I can see barrels just barely sticking of the snow.
” It was going to take a lot of digging and ice chipping to get the barrels free but with all the adrenaline surging through our veins we would have all the energy we needed to get the drums out. A couple of hours later with the 61 refueled we were on our way. The fancy GPS never worked again but my little hand held, taped to the top of the instrument panel, worked like a charm. We flew for the next three weeks all over the Arctic working some long days and man handling a lot of fuel drums. The fuel caches were always where the GPS said they would be. I noticed however, that whenever the other pilot was not on the flight controls, he was definitely following our flight path on the chart as a backup to the GPS. Always a good idea, I think.