As a helicopter pilot, one is used to juggling numerous variables while operating with ships. Apart from the usual weight, altitude & temperature, there is type of ship, ship’s work up state, weather, sea state, configuration, crew experience, wind over deck, special procedures etc to name a few. Into this eclectic mix, if we add more sauce like emergency on a non-standard aircraft running low on fuel, developmental trials, motley crew comprising civilians, scientists and even naval personnel on ceremonial parade – it takes things to a new level.
It was the last day of flight trials for an indigenous airborne sonar. Flight crew comprised test pilots like me followed by the usual long tail of engineers, scientists and technicians on ground. Since the trial involved airborne sonar, failure states such as ‘dunking sonar stuck outside the aircraft’ etc. were discussed in daily briefing. Elaborate procedures were drawn up for emergency recovery, both ashore and afloat. However, undertaking this procedure on ship was assumed ‘avoidable’ due to limitations of aircraft, size of sonar array, crew requirements etc. The recovery team ashore comprised a mix of naval and civilian personnel from different agencies who had never rehearsed this procedure together. Having put the sensor through its paces for last couple of years in several phases of graduated trials, there was a certain sense of relief having reached last day of trials without any untoward incident. Murphy must have sensed a brilliant opportunity to show up, because he did. And true to his style, at the most “OMG! Not today!!” moment.
It was the day for Annual Inspection ceremonial parade at a coastal naval air station. The last thing that anybody wants during such an important event is a dispersal teeming with civilians and scientists. So they were told to take shelter in porta cabins, wet canteen etc away from the parade ground (read aircraft apron). Daily pre-flight briefing for the assorted team was given a go-by that day as briefing rooms and corridors were being ‘holystoned’ with ‘mansion polish’. Even the apron was at its ceremonial best with aircraft on static display, potted plants, red carpet, colourful pennants and so on. Sidestepping this martial setting, the Dhruv, or Advanced Light Helicopter in trial configuration departed for exercise with polite requests to please ‘stay out’ for next couple of hours. The Chief Guest was expected at 8:05 AM, by which time the helicopter would be reaching end of first sortie and preparing to land onboard ship for refuelling, some 50 miles out into the sea.
Well, we echoed those sentiments equally in the aircraft. Having managed to pull through the entire exercise over two weeks without incident, the last thing that anybody wants in the last sortie is an emergency. Having stretched the sortie past diversionary fuel in looking for that submarine (which remained as elusive as likes and comments on my blog page!), we were reeling in the sonar and preparing to land onboard a naval ship in the area when the sonar system decided to call it a day. Despite all efforts by rear crew, the sonar array refused to close and come home. It was around 8:00 AM and the bugler must have been sounding ‘Alert’ at base.
Scientists are a strange lot. They spend years designing, improving and fine tuning systems in their labs and workshops. They fight denial regimes, setbacks, time and cost overruns, pessimism, cynicism, criticism and the lot, to finally deliver a system. And when the system walks out on them in an aircraft at the most inopportune moment, it pretty much leaves them distraught and speechless. However, there were decisions to be made – and fast. Fuel was running low and nearest land was 1500 metres below us – also known as Davy Jones’ locker’ in seaman’s language! A yawning 40 mile distance separated us from shore with the added limitation on cruise speed with sonar body hanging below the helicopter. Recovery onboard ship was ruled out as too dangerous under the circumstances. Cutting the cable and sending the sonar array all the way down to Davy Jones’ locker was an option, but would mean a dramatic end to a project of national (or ‘notional’ as some critics argued) importance. Having been involved with ‘the body’ and its (tor)mentors for last few years, there were shades of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ also at play in the cockpit! There would be several broken hearts and long faces waiting for us back ashore, which again was not a comforting thought.
It is at times like this that crew resource management, that rare force multiplier, lends a helping hand. A feeble but timely reminder from our tactical coordinator (TACCO) ‘Happy’ Baweja that we might as well work out our chances of getting back to shore prompted some quick time and space calculations. Speed of decision making on part of the flight crew to RTB (return to base) saved the day and a project of importance for indigenous airborne sonars. My opposite member in the cockpit, test pilot ‘Lanky’ Gulati probably knew the secret reserves in the helicopter’s fuel system and agreed to give it a try. We did feel a tinge of guilt for gate crashing into the parade at base though. Grimly, I punched the PTT and radioed our intentions.
The air traffic controller who monitored my call must have hit the crash alarm with a heavy heart. Standing at rapt attention in their best turnout for the Commander-in-Chief’s inspection, the last thing that anybody wants is a siren announcing aircraft emergency. The Commanding Officer and his ‘Air Boss’ must have surely gnashed their teeth in unison! To their credit, they marshalled the resources in double quick time, albeit in ceremonial attire! The civilian recovery crew on ground had taken the advice to ‘stay out of sight’ quite literally and it took precious minutes to track them down through calls and text messages as ‘Lanky’ burnt the manufacturer’s hidden reserves of fuel overhead.
In the end, all’s well that ends well. And so it came to pass that the precious little ‘baby’ of indigenous R&D called the LFDS (Low Frequency Dunking Sonar) was safely delivered alongside ceremonial divisions just as the parade GI ordered ‘dahine mud visarjan’ (Turn right, break off). And not a moment too soon. Fuel was down to minimum prescribed for being anywhere above ground level.
How is this relevant to operations of helicopters from ships or offshore platforms?
Unlike civil aviation where it is mandated, military helicopter crews seldom discuss diversionary and non-diversionary flying while flying out at sea. But the fact is that with advent of various types of positioning systems, data links, AIS, ADS-B, ‘maritime domain awareness’ networks etc, helicopters are opening out further and farther from shore and ships. There are several things that we take for granted while operating offshore – that landing back on terra firma is always possible, crash boat or rescue crew will always get to you, archaic safety devices will always work, weather god will play ball and so on. This incident in lighter vein is a grim reminder for ships, rigs and helicopter crews in the business of offshore flying to recap whether we have got everything worked out for that day when Mr Murphy comes calling.
So that when he does, you don’t go “OMG! Not today!!”