Every pilot crosses those milestones when you feel that extra ounce of confidence and panache in your flying skills. This symptom, if not tempered with caution, can sometimes cause accidents. To some, this feeling comes as early as advanced stage of flying training. To KK it came a trifle later; at about the time he neared the first one thousand hours of flying.
As a young, ‘fully ops’ Keen Kumar (or KK, for short) vested with the senior pilot’s responsibility of an Alouette search & rescue (SAR) helicopter flight, log book inching towards the first one thousand hours, aircraft feeling almost like an extension of his hand, life couldn’t have been better. Independent assignments come early to the Alouette pilot, so do the recognition and pitfalls. KK had done his bit to get there, and sometimes the thought did cross his mind that there is probably nothing more this simple machine could teach him. In short, KK had arrived.
1998. Recruitment must have been at a low ebb, because the flight was tasked to do monthly flying displays along the beach front on east coast for generating interest in the Navy. ‘Shopwindow’, an epithet for the monthly display, was a ready invite for letting loose KK’s creativity in the air. No hard and fast rules, no specifically cleared profile, no check sorties for clearance, it was all being done under a loose dictum from HQ and plenty of good faith. KK, for one, couldn’t complain. He had seen enough displays by his seniors and nursed that desire to be the centrepiece for far too long. The situation was ripe for leaving his autograph in the sky!
OK, hold on to your hats, the pre-flight briefing went something like this….”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 copilot, a recent graduate-with- flying-colors 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 in ‘beatup sheetup’. However, KK never broached this issue during the briefing with boss. After all, he couldn’t disappoint his young copilot with such basic questions, could he?
KK announced his arrival at the 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, which included, among others, children, balloon wallahs, pani puri wallahs, office goers on their way home etc. It was time for some beatup sheetup.
Seeing is believing. KK had seen some helobatics and believed he could do it. In order to gain a vantage, it was decided to do it along the coast line, even if it meant pulling up downwind on one of the legs – a risky proposition! Starting at about 200 feet, within first two beatups, the sea seemed to be drawing closer. So did the collective lever, which by now was approaching KK’s sweaty armpits! With one eye on the cheering crowd, young copilot did his job, “Sir, zara collective ka dhyan rakhna”(Sir, please mind the power lever!). It was too little too late. By the fourth wingover, the helicopter was plummeting towards the waves with every ounce of juice having been extracted from the rotors. It seemed all downhill from here! KK’s attention was drawn to that sinking feeling by the young co-pilot’s scream “Sirji, 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 is probably more about luck and aircraft performance than pure flying skills. Maybe a freak 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 “Sirji, 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, Cdr Brian Thomas (Retd) who flew the check ride with me recalled ol’ Richard Bach’s low down on display flying, which every pilot should know.
- Always remember that popcorn & ice cream vendors in the audience are more popular than you.
- If you think you are creating a big impression, remember you’ll leave an even bigger impression when you crash!
It is a lesson I carry to this day. Never attempt untrained manoeuvres without understanding and correlating with basic principles of flight.