Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

28 November 2010

The Night Time..ISN'T...The Right Time

I don’t like flying at night. I mean I really don’t like flying at night. Let me explain.

I fly a single-engine helicopter over some fairly inhospitable, densely wooded, sparsely populated terrain (central Alabama). If I had my druthers, I’d always fly up high, day or night, up around four or five-thousand feet. Up there, I’d be in radar contact and could talk to an ATC facility. That way, if anything went wrong I could at least alert someone and get help coming my way. Aviation radios rely on line-of-sight communication. Thus, when I'm down low I'm out of range of any air traffic control facilities. They'd probably not be able to "see" me on radar either.

But my boss doesn’t like to fly high in helicopters. I fully understand this; with no wings and not much structure around you, many people feel very naked and vulnerable at high altitude in a helicopter. The boss likes to fly down around 1,000 feet above the ground. It’s where he’s comfortable. And since it is his helicopter, and since he pays my salary, I comply with his wishes. I may not like it, but unless there is some compelling safety reason for flying up high, I stay down low.

Flying low is risky but not dangerous. (If it were dangerous I would not do it.) The risk comes from the possibility of having to make an emergency landing. A single-engine aircraft is always subject to a failure of the one-and-only powerplant. In a helicopter, when the engine quits you can make a perfectly controlled landing (it’s called “autorotation” and we practice these often). But the descent angle is steep. You don’t glide around, casually looking for a nice, open, level, unobstructed place to land. You land on whatever is immediately underneath you. You better hope it’s something suitable. During the day, we helicopter pilots always keep a sharp eye open for potential emergency landing sites. It's ingrained into us from our very first flight lesson. At night, it's a little more difficult.

An airplane pilot friend and I were talking about this. I mentioned my discomfort about flying a single-engine aircraft at night. He agreed. He told of a recent trip in his airplane in which he was coming back from Tennessee at night and was worried about the engine quitting. I asked how high he was flying? “Nine-thousand feet,” he replied. I said, “What?! From 9,000 feet you can glide fifteen miles in that airplane!!” He'd be in the air for over 10 minutes. That’s enough time to call for help, select a suitable nearby airport, and then eat a sandwich on the way down.

Truth be told, modern turbine engines like the one in my helicopter seldom quit. Keep ‘em supplied with fuel and oil, and they just keep on running. So while the possibility is always there, I'm not super-paranoid about the engine quitting.

However, in a helicopter there are a couple of other things that can cause you to want to be on the ground
right now! There are driveshafts and couplings and gearboxes, that dang tail rotor, and various other mechanical bits…all of which must work perfectly in order to continue flight. Do such things fail often? Thankfully, no. But a helicopter is a complex piece of machinery that is designed, manufactured, assembled and maintained by humans. There’s plenty that can go wrong- we’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law. I’ve already had two complete tail rotor failures in helicopters. Both were when I was flying on offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were during the day, and both were caused by human error (mechanics leaving hardware loose).

So as they say, shit does happen.

As challenging as a mechanical failure would be during the day, it would be immeasurably more difficult at night. Despite the boss’s discomfort, I do fly higher at night – up around 2,500 feet. All this does is give me slightly more time to analyze and deal with whatever failure might occur. Seconds count. It doesn’t help in choosing a landing site; you cannot see anything on the ground at night. All I would do is head for a road (we follow well-traveled roads) and hope to find an open area at the last minute. I am under no delusion that it would be a nice, safe, pretty landing. It will most likely be a crash-landing. I’ve told this to the boss as plainly as I can. He’s okay with that risk, which he feels is not all that great.

Me, I’m not so sure anymore. I’m no kid. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t like taking unnecessary risks. I know, I know, you could say, “But Bob, you still ride motorcycles, and occasionally crash them!” which is true. Riding motorcycles is risky, I admit that. But so are a lot of things in life.

I’ve been flying long enough now that the risks of doing it at night in a single-engine helicopter are getting to me. I’m starting to feel that I just don’t want to be doing it anymore. We are done with football season, in which we do most of our night flying. With the upcoming hunting season, we’ll probably do very little flying at night. Then, as the days begin to get longer we won’t do any night flying at all again until summertime, and even then only sporadically.

So I’ve got a decision to make before we get into football season next year.


Jack said...

I'm not a pilot (yet). But I can tell you from my racing experience that most driver errors are caused by the driver (pilot) not being comfortable (for whatever reason).

This is particularly true with endurance racing, where drivers are not familiar with the night environment and the long sessions in the car.

When in doubt, if you're not comfortable, it's probably for a good reason, so don't do it.

One suggestion - perhaps a second pilot for the night sessions as a safety/backup?

Bob Barbanes said...

Hi Jack, your comments are noted and appreciated. You're absolutely right about the need to be comfortable in what you're doing.

Unfortunately, due to our passenger loads, it's not possible to take along a second pilot. That would mean making more trips, increasing my exposure as well as the number of night landings.

Sometimes you just can't win :-/

Greybeard said...

Your technical material here is fact. But I have a totally different take-
June 8, 1969 I was dressing for breakfast in Chu Lai, Viet Nam, when the 122mm Katusa rockets started falling all around me. It was the scariest few minutes of my life. The Division commander figured out a way to stop this from happening...
Do a reconnaissance-arc around the base just after dark each evening and just before dawn each morning at the range of the rockets. We were never attacked with them again.

This recon was assigned to volunteers. It meant you couldn't drink alcohol in the evenings, so many didn't want to do it. But if you volunteered, you were excused from flying the next (HOT, HOT, HOT) day.
Nights were cooler. The turbine ran cooler and was therefore less likely to fail. The helicopter would ACTUALLY HOVER! Less overall radio traffic meant the radios worked better. Less air traffic meant less chance of a midair.
Darkness meant if someone shot at you, you could immediately see when and where you needed to eliminate the threat. (The bad guys knew this too and seldom shot at us at night for that reason.)
I volunteered for this recon as often as I could and learned to love flying at night, and this was in an era when turbine engines were much more likely to fail than they are today. I still love night flying, and love to take newbies out for that first night flight back into the big city to see their reaction to all the lights.

I know none of this will sway you and I'm saddened by the thought that you are on pins and needles whenever the sun goes down.
I'm with Jack...
The extra stress that places on you has to take a toll, and may have some impact your ability to fly safely after sundown.
We've all read here that you're smart enough to be careful with the factor that is most likely to kill you there... unpredictable weather, particularly at night.
I wish there was a way to help you relax and enjoy the clear-blue and 22 evenings.

Anonymous said...

I took a JetRanger offshore to an oil rig off Long Beach for a video shoot for RJR. We flew back at night. Single engine helicopter over the pacific ocean at night, what could go wrong here? I was flying in a Tyler Middle Mount for my video camera and I had a Mae West on, and sitting in the removed door, I would have been able to get out REAL easy if we had of gone in the water, Depending on how hard we hit the water. Who knows if the other 3 guys could have gotten out of the ship in time?
Ron Snipes Heilo Driver