The story I am about to narrate harks back to the lessons we learnt as boys & girls scouts in school. The scouts’ motto ‘Be Prepared’, as per Wikipedia, means always being in a state of readiness in ‘mind and body’ to do your ‘duty’.
The duty for a young Alouette pilot that day – call him ‘Scout Ready Kumar’ (SRK for short) – was to take-off from a naval airbase, fly a ‘general handling’ (GH) profile of about an hour & thirty with his copilot and aircrewman diver, fill a ‘triangle’ on the Operational Readiness Return (ORR) tote board hanging in his Senior Pilot’s office, and return home by lunch time. Basically, an easy day in office.
Well, the navy had other plans. About 20 nautical miles into the sea, a practice torpedo firing exercise (TFX) was unfolding, unbeknownst to SRK and his crew.
Practice torpedoes are meant to surface after completing their ‘kill run’ so they can be recovered and reused. In fact, navies world over have Torpedo Recovery Vessels (TRV) for this purpose. As per standard procedure, a helicopter was embarked on one of the participating ships for TFX to locate the underwater projectile after it runs out of propellant or software.
Torpedoes – especially experimental ones and those of dubious origin – have a mind of their own. So do antiquated helicopters like Alouette IIIB that have been flogged for many decades by a navy that is still unable to field suitable replacements for them.
The torpedo turned ‘rogue’ that day, leaving many ships and participating submarines hunting for something that was meant to hunt them in the first place. To make matters worse, the Alouette embarked for TFX decided to call it a day and turned ‘Aircraft on Ground’ (AOG or grounded as unserviceable). In this case, ground was a few hundred metres below the keel and about 20 miles from SRK’s idyllic naval airbase by the sea.
Soon, airwaves were buzzing with an ’emergency’ requirement for replacement helicopter. Headquarters initiated a Grade 1 diversion through ATC for RK and his ‘Chetak’.
Young pilots from Search & Rescue (SAR) flights are expected to respond like an airborne fire brigade to such calls. SRK lived up to his 321 Flight’s exalted motto “We Dare, You Survive”. He abandoned his GH sortie, pelted at VNE (Velocity Never Exceed) to the scene of action and joined the search force for the truant torpedo.
Day turned to night, still no torpedo. A 3-day search exercise for the erring underwater missive was brought into force by naval regulations. As the sun set over Bay of Bengal that evening, SRK & Co found themselves onboard a warship when they should’ve been tucked in bed in naval quarters ashore.
For those of you who have missed a check-in bag, this must be deja vu. Only difference – out there at sea, there’s no Sears, Walmart or Big Bazaar. Only endless vistas of blue and black, and a ship’s canteen that offers ‘duty-free’ soaps and deodorants but no underwear.
SRK & Co lived and breathed the boy scout motto ‘Be Prepared’. Out of SRK’s blue coveralls with secret ‘glove compartments’ and a small sling-on bag, came everything required for two crew who get washed up on an uninhabited island. Freshly laundered undergarments, toothbrushes, shaving kit, spare T-shirts (the lightweight ‘dry-fit’ kind that can be easily folded into a small bag), pajamas, a torch with spare batteries, storybooks, diversion data, etc. – all of this were pulled out of SRK’s collection. He had enough thingamajigs to match three arduous days the navy extracted unannounced, out of a flexible air vehicle called ‘helicopter’ and its crew.
To most of us in the 21st Century flying modern, state-of-the-art helicopters, this may sound pedestrian. Yet, when I look back three decades, there are only two kinds of crew: those who live & breathe the boy scout’s motto ‘Be Prepared’ and those who don’t. Remember, the Scouts’ motto never came with any small print or ”conditions apply’.
So in essence, when the chips are down, ‘boys’ will be differentiated from ‘boy scouts’ ( I use ‘boys’ in a gender-neutral sense). Here’s the bottom line: aircraft don’t differentiate between boys and girls; situations, and how we handle them, do. You can scream any number of excuses. Before that, promise you did everything to “be prepared”.
It is 2019. Humans are still in the cockpit. Drones and e-VTOLS are spreading their wings and churning the air around us, slowly elbowing pilots out of the game. Technology is making flying out to be some kind of ‘plug & play’ orchestra, leaving technologists and B-school graduates to believe pilots are a burden on the balance sheet. I wish them good luck.
I am not worried about what happens in future. The future will most likely be ‘unmanned’. It’s the transition phase between manned and unmanned flight that is going to test us.
Remember, when Zomato or Uber Eats fails, it’s Mom who makes sure you sleep on a full stomach.
Be prepared. The Scout motto still endures.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @realkaypius.