Every pilot crosses those ‘log book milestones’ when you feel that extra ounce of confidence and panache in your flying skills. This symptom, if not tempered with abundant caution and sound knowledge, can sometimes land you in trouble. To the protagonist of this story ‘Keen Kumar’ (KK for short), this feeling came during his second operational tour.
As a young, ‘fully operational’ pilot in an Alouette III search & rescue (SAR) helicopter flight, KK’s log book was inching towards the first one thousand hours and the aircraft had started feeling almost like an extension of his hand. Independent assignments come early to the Alouette pilot; so do the hazards and pitfalls of unsupervised flying. KK had done his bit to get there and sometimes the thought did cross his mind that there is probably nothing more to learn from this simple machine – a common folly while flying light singles.
The year was 1998. KK’s squadron was tasked to do monthly flying displays along the beach front for promoting the Navy’s recruitment campaign. No hard and fast rules, no specifically cleared profile, no check sorties for clearance, it was all being done under a loose dictum from headquarters and plenty of good faith. KK for one couldn’t complain. He had seen enough spectacular displays in air shows and nursed that desire to be the centrepiece for far too long. The situation was ripe for leaving his autograph in the sky!
His boss, a veteran of many such flying displays, was a man of few words. He was keen to hand over the mantle to his deputy who had recently shown signs of brilliance in the cockpit – something that belied his modest log book totals. The pre-flight briefing was frugal in content, true to the boss’s personality and the fact that it was close to pack-up time on a Saturday.
“KK, take that bird 447, fuel is 450 liters, go to beach road, make some low passes – don’t go below the rule book, do some tight turns & figures of eight, and if the winds are good, thoda beatup sheetup bi kar lena, OK? (meaning, try and attempt some wingovers) And hey, don’t pull out any rivets. I need the aircraft for SAR standby tomorrow.”
So they went out into the warm evening sun, KK and his able 20-something co-pilot; a recent graduate-with-flying-colours from helicopter school. The keenness to do a good job of the task in hand set aside the fact that KK had never ‘officially’ received any instructions on the nuances of manoeuvres that he intended to perform. However, KK never broached this issue during the briefing with boss. After all, he couldn’t disappoint his young co-pilot with such basic questions, could he?
KK announced his arrival at the display venue with a classic low overshoot. The sea breeze was stiff and blowing much against their impromptu, pre-flight plot hatched over a hasty cup of coffee. No problem, will cope. A few more low passes and tight turns were executed to near perfection for capturing the crowd’s attention. By now, KK & Co were playing to a full gallery of applauding onlookers and passers-by. It was time for some beatup sheetup.
Now, the ‘wingover’ or ‘crop duster’ turn is an energy exchanging aerobatic manoeuver in which the aircraft makes a steep climb, followed on the top by a flat-turn reversing direction by 180 degrees. Seeing is believing. KK had seen some crop dusting turns and believed he could do it. In order to gain a vantage, he decided to execute this pièce de résistance along the coast, even if it meant pulling up downwind on one of the legs – a risky proposition! Starting at about 200 feet, within first two wingovers, the sea seemed to be drawing closer & closer. So did the collective lever, which by now was approaching KK’s sweaty armpits! With one eye on the cheering crowd, young co-pilot did his job, “Sir, please mind the power lever!”
It was too little too late. By the fourth wingover, KK’s helicopter was plummeting towards the waves – every ounce of energy having been extracted from the rotors. KK’s attention was drawn to the sinking feeling by the co-pilot’s shrill callout “Sir, we are losing height!!” KK made a desperate attempt to build up forward speed and seek the windy quadrant with a combination of cyclic and rudders. When in doubt, always keep the wind on your nose, his instructor used to say
How KK managed to cheat near disaster and pull away from the leaping waves was probably more about luck and aerodynamics than pure flying skills. Maybe a freak gust of wind which brought them back onto the right side of the power curve, or the last couple of feet of height reserve which bailed them out. Or maybe it was God.
KK & Co returned back to base in silence. The young co-pilot couldn’t hold back “Sir, don’t you think that was a bit close?!”
“Any closer and we would have become fish food” KK admitted grimly, deflated from the harrowing experience.
The incident was debriefed in detail the next day with the boss and Flying Instructor. KK was programmed for a check sortie to sort out some procedures. Turns out, it was a case of incipient vortex ring condition (a potentially dangerous condition of flight where the helicopter may sink rapidly). High sink rate, high power setting and downwind flare – you don’t have to be Ray Prouty to figure this one out! Several helicopters have been lost to this dangerous condition of flight (see YouTube link below for a close approximation of what could have happened that day).
In his inimitable style, my instructor Lt Cdr Brian Thomas (Retd) recalled a wise, old saying about display flying, which is worth remembering when any pilot is tempted to perform impromptu flourishes in the air.
- Popcorn & ice cream soda vendors in the audience are also popular and will be drawing crowds long after you have finished your display.
- If you think you are creating a big impression, remember you’ll leave an even bigger impression if you crash.
It is a lesson I carry to this day. Never attempt untrained manoeuvres without understanding and correlating with basic principles of flight.