Who Am I?

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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?

04 December 2010

Night Time Ain't The Right Time, Part II

Okay, let me explain. In my last post I wrote about my discomfort with flying at night in a single-engine helicopter at low altitude over inhospitable terrain. That will never change. I'm not going to find a way to "relax" or come to terms with it in any way. It is a risky endeavor; it will ALWAYS be a risky endeavor. Is it riskier than flying at a higher altitude during daylight over good terrain? Yes. How much riskier? It's hard to say. But it is that higher level of risk that makes me uncomfortable. Any pilot who downplays or minimizes the risks of flying at night is being very naive and not looking at things properly.

Okay, back up for a second. Yes, night flying can be beautiful, often spectacular, especially when it's "severe clear" and calm. For some psychological reason the aircraft noise seems muted. It seems to run more smoothly. You fly along, feeling strangely insulated in your little cocoon, under a dome of twinkling diamonds, above a carpet of sparkling, flashing red and white Christmas lights (white house and streetlights, red tower obstruction lights and the tail lights of cars). It seems that you can see forever. Even the passengers are less boisterous than they are during the daytime, and have more of an hushed tone in their voice when they talk on the intercom. With the right XM music channel selected the experience can be indescribable.

Cities and towns show up clearly at night, even from very far away. "See that glow of lights off the left? That's Birmingham. How far away? Oh, about 60 miles." Closer in, the green and white airport beacons beckon alluringly...comfortingly. As your eyes adjust to the darkness you find yourself turning the instrument panel lights down lower and lower. Sometimes, when there's a full moon out, it can be almost like flying in the daytime, such is the detail you can make out of the terrain below.

Flying at night can be beautiful. From a couple of thousand feet up...in an airplane...a night flight can be one of the most sublime, awe-inspiring experiences man can have.

That's the good news. There is bad news.

For one thing, not every night is clear and calm. Clouds don't magically disappear at sunset, nor does the wind inexplicably lay down. Fronts don't always move through when they're "supposed" (i.e. forecast) to. And fog sometimes forms behind them when it's not supposed to. And that's just for starters.

When we take off from Tuscaloosa, Alabama headed for my boss's hunting camp (which is out in the middle of 4,000 very dark acres), we are usually right at maximum allowable weight. With a full load of people and bags, I cannot carry much fuel. If for some reason I cannot land at our camp (which has happened), my only alternate is the airport in Selma, which is unattended at night and out in the middle of nowhere. If I cannot make it into Selma (which also has happened), we might have enough fuel for a return to Tuscaloosa...or we might not. I have been thrust into this very situation once...which was more than enough. Thankfully, it worked out and I was eventually able to land at the camp. As I've always said, I'm glad I was born lucky instead of handsome.

You give me an airplane...any airplane (but preferably one with two engines), and let me go up high where I can talk to ATC and show up on their radar...you give me a clear night with light wind, and a nice, lighted runway to land on at the end of the flight...and then I'll say that I'm comfortable at night. In fact, I'll fly until sunrise. I'll even say I enjoy it! Until then, in my present job I remain with a certain level of uneasiness.

Does this uneasiness or discomfort compromise how "safe" I am? Honestly I do not know. That's hard to assess. All I can say is that I am aware of it and I try to not let it affect me. There are other things in my life that I am uncomfortable doing; that does not mean I don't do them well.

Not only that, but all helicopter pilots fly along with a certain level of uneasiness whether they admit it or not. It has to do with the nature of these peculiar machines. The truth is, helicopters have a WHOLE BUNCH of things that can go wrong at the exact wrong moment. You cannot just sit back and fly blithely along as if you were paddling a canoe down a lazy river. I'm not saying you have to be overly-paranoid, but you have to be ready for anything. Certain emergencies do not give you much time to respond and react. Sometimes all you have is a few seconds to analyze and perform corrective action before the helicopter does what we coyly call "departs controlled flight." Which is to say, "it crashes." Which is not a good thing as you can imagine.

Back during the Viet Nam War, ABC newsman, the late-Harry Reasoner composed a little treatise about pilots and the machines they fly. To him the difference was striking. Here's what he had to say:

The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interrupted with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously.

There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.

This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why, in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know that if something bad has not happened, it is about to.

Granted, nobody is shooting at me, and helicopters are more reliable than they were back in 1970...but most of us old-timers have to admit that ol' Harry pretty much nailed it. Most of what he said is still true today.

It is about 80 miles from Tuscaloosa down to our hunting camp. Even something "simple" like a chip light would be problematic. See, we have these magnetic plugs in the engine, main transmission and tail rotor gearboxes. If the plugs begin collecting metal, indicating a developing problem with that component, a light comes on in the cockpit. According to my Bell 206 flight manual, the response to *any* chip light is to "land as soon as possible." What does that mean? Bell tells me: "Land without delay at nearest suitable area (i.e. open field) at which a safe approach and landing is reasonably assured."

Not so difficult during the day. Kinda hard to do at night.

Assessing the level of risk, hazard or danger in any given task is very personal, and depends on a lot of things. What might seem unreasonably dangerous to one pilot might seem perfectly acceptable to another. In my case, I guess I've become too much of an introspective anticipator of trouble. (Which is odd, considering that I fly airplanes too. I would have described myself as a clear-eyed extrovert! Damn.) Nevertheless, perhaps it's time for a younger, more-bulletproof and less brooding pilot to take over this job.


Anonymous said...

Hello Bob,
I'll keep it simple.....with age comes wisdom, period. Lots of things I used to do and not give second thought, I now realize might not be such a good idea. There is an old saying I am sure you are familiar with, "The pilot is the first person to arrive at the scene of the crash". Kinda makes you stop and think about what you're doing.....
Take care,

Greybeard said...

No argument on most points. Look at the statistics...
More fliers are hurt or killed at night than during daylight hours.
Part of it is because we are daylight animals. We lose a big chunk of our vision when it gets dark.
Part of it is because we're not so proficient at night. Most of us do much less flying when the sun drops below the horizon.
Part of it is mentioned in your post... weather can catch you by surprise before you know it.
Part of it is get-home-itis coupled with the above factors...
Folks that should not be flying will take a risk to get home at night to Mom and the kids and that familiar bed.

The answer is SO simple:
Don't do it.
I tell my students, "If your gut is issuing you a 'red alert!', listen to it".
Your gut is issuing you sensible warning about chip lights and flying over miles and miles of coniferous trees at night.
If your boss wants to do that, I think you need to start an education process. It's his life/limb on the line as well as yours.

Readers should know this-
I fly an eggbeater with TWO of 'em burnin'.
I fly it almost exclusively at night.
I put in a LOT of time beneath the moon and stars.
Two engines means if one quits, all I have to do is slow down a little... the machine will continue to motor on.
But I've learned important lessons flying all these years in dark air, and the most important is the word NO.
I watch closely to insure fog, fronts, freezing rain, etc. don't ruin my night. I listen to my gut a lot.
NO! comes outta my mouth A LOT.
So we agree more than we disagree.
Except for maybe one thing...
I'm also dual-rated. Given bad weather, mechanical problems, or just a nagging gut, it's been my experience most dual-rated pilots would MUCH rather be in the whirlybird, one engine or two.
Is that not true for you?
It sure is for me.

Bob said...

Hey Bob . . . I'm catching up a bit and just read your last two entries. Yeah, you have a lot to consider. I look forward to reading more as you deliberate.