It’s always sad to read about air accidents involving loss of life or injuries; even more so when it is someone you have known, or operating in a similar environment. If you are flying, especially in areas where operational, natural or man-made hazards abound, it is a good idea to define one’s limits; and if it lies beyond that of the aircraft you fly, trim your own envelope. That could someday mean the difference between reading about an accident and being at the centre of one yourself.
Here’s an example from my early days as an Alouette IIIB pilot.
We were embarked on a naval ship deployed to support a survey mission in Andaman & Nicobar Islands, a string of islands in the Bay of Bengal. The ship was operating helicopter from alongside berth as winds and sea state was beyond the operating limits of Alouette. The South West monsoon had announced its arrival with a bang a few days ago with incessant rain and thunderstorms. Many of these islands are thickly forested, uninhabited and accessible only by sea or helicopter. The survey area was around 20-30 miles north of the berth and our helicopter provided the only communication link for the survey team. Given the topography of the region, any deviation from set track or errors of navigation could take you away from small, isolated islands into the wide open Andaman Sea.
The weather that morning was marginal for flying: overcast skies with ceiling below 1000 feet, intermittent rain and thundershowers. The Alouette, a light VFR helicopter, has a single Artouste IIIB engine, few air-driven instruments, powered controls and little else. Even hand-held GPS devices had not found their way into our cockpits then. Navigation was entirely dead-reckoning – a ‘moving thumb display’ enabled by your left thumb moving over a ‘million map’, and good ol’ Eyeball Mk 2 😛
The survey team was helo-dropped in the area early morning using an opportune break in weather. Thereafter, helicopter returned to the ship as there was only the return trip scheduled later that evening. We settled down to hot coffee and Bollywood movies in the ship’s Wardroom. Darkness often enveloped the ship with each passing shower, typical of tropical monsoons. Something told me it was not going to be an easy day.
Towards late afternoon, the showers became more intense and frequent with cloud base down to 300 feet and reducing. Hills touching 500 feet lay between us and the survey area. Meanwhile, the survey team radioed inclement weather and requested for an expeditious pick-up. They were facing considerable difficulty braving heavy rain & gusty winds without any shelter, let alone undertake meaningful survey. To make matters worse, radio contact with the team was lost at around 3PM local time.
By 3:30PM, the Command team assembled on the bridge to take stock of the situation. Considering the likelihood of worse weather that evening, it was decided to have an early pick-up and call it a day. The question was – how? The weather continued in full fury with only brief spells between passing thundershowers. The outlook for both, the weather and marooned team, looked grim. We assessed the feasibility of flying during one of the opportune breaks but the weather provided no set pattern for any such decision.
My heart went out to the survey team whose leader was an old friend. The Commanding Officer was rather keen to launch us though he refrained from dispensing an executive decision. The Navigating Officer’s face was as overcast as the sky. He suggested that the marooned crew’s fate may not be as bleak as that of a helicopter launched in the ugly weather.
The cut-off time for launch, in view of sunset, was 4:30PM and by 4PM no decision was forthcoming. Valuable minutes were ticking away. I pulled out that old trick for getting airborne when the weatherman told you otherwise. It’s called weather check.
I proposed to the CO that we could get airborne, carry out a weather check, and – if the visibility and cloud base permitted – recover the team in two quick shuttles. When no decision is forthcoming, even a poor decision can sound attractive. We received our ‘green’ and got airborne double quick!
Inflight visibility and cloud cover was pushing us into corners we would never have ventured. However, we managed to reach the area and evacuate the first lot of surveyors to the ship. Buoyed with the success, the ship approved 2nd shuttle and we rushed back to the area at boost power – 0.8 collective pitch setting (plus some) on the Alouette!
Onboard ship the mood was upbeat but not for long as bad weather was fast approaching the island from southwest and we were headed out on a north-easterly radial from the ship. “441, request expedite. Bad weather approaching from SW another 10-15 min”, a terse call from the ship alerted us.
We clipped at maximum speed and as soon as we turned back with the last three evacuees, a grim sight confronted us. A thick wall of sinister black cloud – blacker than we had ever seen – stretched from one end of the horizon to other. It was closing in on the ship rapidly but I assessed (wrongly, as it turned out) that we might still make it to the ship in the nick of time. About half a mile short of our destination, weather closed down over the ship. Between us and the ship lay intense sheets of blinding rain dancing to the occasional strobe of lightning.
It was like nothing we had ever seen – a tropical thunderstorm in full fury. I did a quick-stop and turned 180 degrees to avoid getting into it. The CO was by now personally on the R/T giving us radials that he thought would help us circumvent the weather. But there was no way we would have made it without entering the squall.
It is a good idea while flying light singles to always look out for places to force land. During one of the earlier sorties we had noticed a small clearing surrounded by tall palms on an adjacent island. My co-pilot pointed it out to me and we half-dived, half-autorotated down to that clearing. The cloudburst was over us in a minute. The airspeed indicator flickered on ground with winds gusting 30-35 knots. Intense rain prevented us from stopping rotors or switching off; swaying coconut palms around the landing site threatening to tear up our rotors. Time to sunset: 20 minutes, safe endurance: 20 minutes. We were getting boxed into Murphy’s corner.
Time to sunset: 10 min, endurance: 10 min, and situation only marginally better. I decided to lift off as the shore was faintly visible. We hover taxied just above the leaping waves with electrical indications going haywire, aircraft buffeting with control difficulty, pilots & passengers drenched to the bone (we fly Alouette without doors over sea), and R/T and intercom knocked out due to water ingress. Finally, when the ship broke into view, the pilots and passengers were ecstatic. It seemed like ages. We had only flown about 20 minutes in that weather! We half slid, half skidded onto the flight deck and switched off, much to the relief of the ship’s crew who were almost convinced they lost us.
My initial jubilation at pulling off a dramatic evacuation was short lived, despite cheers of ‘well done’ all around. After a quick shower (this time in hot water from the ship’s bathroom!), I had many lessons to learn from the experience. Sharing the important ones here:
- The decision to launch was questionable. Often, we find ourselves in such situations where the temptation to fall for some or the other ‘humane’ or ‘operational’ compulsion becomes overwhelming. It may be done in good faith, but could result in a difficult situation in flight. Weather must be respected and heavy rain / thunderstorms, that too, over unfamiliar or hostile terrain, is a definite NO GO for VFR flights.
- The decision to abort, divert or terminate the mission must be taken in good time before situation takes the initiative away from the pilot’s hands. In this case, the last-minute force landing before weather closed down over ship saved the day.
- Let no imaginary fear of censure or bad publicity deter you from force landing when the situation so demands. In this case too, the temptation of taking off for the ship after the force landing was laced with numerous risks that were totally avoidable. Another day, another crew may not have made it. If you want to push your luck, push it on ground.
- When things go wrong, they have a propensity to do so in the most unfavourable combination. Here we had a classic example of encountering bad weather with a VFR aircraft low on fuel, sunset fast approaching, and total radio and intercom failure.
- If flying in marginal weather becomes inescapable, the pilot should have a diversion plan ready in mind. It need not be an airfield or helipad for helicopters. Any suitable clearing can serve as a helipad to ride out the storm. Diversion plan should invariably be discussed in preflight briefing.
- Difficult conditions can test the resilience and harmony of the cockpit. A healthy cockpit environment and authority gradient is paramount to safety. Task allocation and coordination between Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring helps in breaking down the workload, thereby enabling better decision-making. This is not a given. It has to be rehearsed and built up in better days.
- In peacetime there is no mission except live search & rescue (SAR) which cannot be put off for the next day. Then again, how many lives are worth risking for saving one? That’s a debate for another day! Military flying has its own rules and exceptions.
Remember the old axiom – ‘a superior pilot uses his superior knowledge to avoid getting into situations that might require the use of his superior skill’ (a gender-neutral truism).
You may have more lessons; do share. Happy flying, folks!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is an updated version of the original written by the author for Indian Navy’s Flight Safety Journal ‘Meatball’ in 1999. Views are personal.