In the Belly of the Blob – Flying Risk

In the Belly of the Blob – Flying Risk

In the Belly of the Blob – Flying Risk

From a three-foot hover, I nosed the Bell 47 over the edge at the main base of West Cameron 180, an offshore oil field near Cameron, Louisiana. Descending toward the water toward our blistering sixty-knots cruise speed, I made my wake-up call to the company radio operator in Intracoastal City: “Tango Four Seven is up and around, West Cameron One Eighty, local.” After a few seconds the operator came back with, “Good morning, Tango Four Seven, how’s the weather?”

“Clear and calm,” I reported. And warm, I thought, for early January.

“How’s the viz?” the operator persisted.

Bell4715_RJI gazed at the sun on the horizon. “About 93 million miles,” I smirked, “Why?”

“You’re the only one flying today, so far. Everyone else is shut down in fog. Keep a good eye out.” He didn’t need to caution me about weather. Though I had a helicopter instrument rating, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s Army, my trusty old Bell’s panel was bare – not even a turn-and-slip. This was strictly a day-VFR operation.

I let my riders off at a “toad stool” pumping platform about two miles from base. As I idled, they went below to retrieve data cards that recorded the natural gas flowing ashore overnight. With the cards, I’d return to the main platform for my next two operators. With all six teams delivered to their work platforms and all cards retrieved, I could look forward to a short break and breakfast.

The company VHF net was indeed quiet. Nobody was reporting up. I heard none of the light-hearted banter that was usual just after first light. It was an eerie silence.

“Tango Four Seven, you better git on back now,” said a voice over the FM net from the base platform. “We got fog comin’ in.”

I acknowledged and wound up the rotor to encourage the pumpers to get a move on. Less than a minute later, the junior member of the team appeared with the cards, pointing to the west and gesticulating wildly.

I didn’t wait for Moise to clear the deck but lifted off immediately, swinging the tail rotor away from him as I dove into translational lift. Seeing A Platform, I was awed at the spectacle. The white cliffs of Dover were marching across the oil field from the southwest, like the Blob that ate Santa Monica. B Platform, 300 yards west, was already obscured, as were all the toad stools to the west and south. But A Platform was still clear, bathed in bright sunlight, just two minutes away.

Pushing the nose over and pulling maximum manifold pressure produced 75 knots with the big neoprene floats. From a mile away, I figured I was going to make it. The platform was still silhouetted against the fog, but the Blob was gnawing at its western corner.

From a half-mile, the helideck was beginning to look fuzzy. I could only make out the outline of the platform from 500 yards away, and it was fast fading into the fog.

I shifted my approach to the auxiliary platform, on the southeast end of the base platform. It looked like a completely independent structure, jutting out from the face of a limestone cliff. The base platform had been wholly swallowed by the Blob, and as I continued flogging toward my safe haven, just 200 yards away, it began to gobble up the aux platform.

I was way too fast. In my haste, I’d been pushing redline, and now it was time to transition for landing. A hundred yards from safety, I pulled the cyclic stick way back and bottomed the collective to slow down fast. Between my feet on the anti-torque pedals, I watched the helipad rapidly fade to white as I closed another fifty yards toward the deck.

Man, I said to myself, this is not going well at all. The hair stood up on the back of my neck but real panic had not yet set in. My forward momentum carried me into the fog bank as I continued to decelerate – 50 knots, 40, 30. For another stubborn moment I clung to Plan A, believing I could slow to a hover and find the platform lurking just ahead in the fog.

Glancing down to get one final visual reference before I surrendered to the Blob, I was alarmed to find that I could barely discern the water just fifty feet below. That did it. Finally, I realized my only option was to go around while I still had flying speed and at least a fleeting outside reference: Plan B.

A go-around in a piston helicopter is a complex operation, even in perfect conditions. I knew I didn’t have time to smoothly transition to climbout attitude, so I just ignored the engine/rotor gauges and airspeed indicator, focusing on the barely-discernible water below. I simultaneously pushed the cyclic forward to lower the nose, pulled the collective lever up to my armpit, wrapped the throttle grip open, and fed in nearly-full left pedal. In the second or two it took to establish a ten-degree nose down attitude, I didn’t care whether I oversped the rotor or overboosted the engine.

With an approximate climb attitude established, I reduced collective slightly and adjusted pedals to keep the tail straight behind. When I looked inside the cockpit, airspeed was 30 knots and increasing, a good sign. Manifold pressure was in the yellow but engine and rotor rpm were in the green. Since any change in pitch, power or antitorque would affect all the others, I determined not to change a thing. I checked my attitude relative to the water. Nothing but white. The Blob had me.

Caught By The Blob

The limits of Plan B were obvious. How do I transition to instrument flight without any instruments? How do I stay right side up without even a turn-and-slip indicator? And how do I make a one-eighty to get out of this mess alive?

Panic grabbed me by the throat! Suddenly, I was aware of nausea, ringing in my ears and tightening in my chest. Please, God, don’t let me die scared and stupid! I forced myself to think. My altimeter showed 70 feet and increasing slowly while the VVI indicated a slight climb. Hoping to clear the platform ahead, I resolved to freeze the controls right where they were.

My instruments showed I’d established a 50-knot, 900-fpm climb. At that rate, I’d climb out of the fog in a minute or so, I thought. My whiskey compass had finally settled down on a southwesterly heading, near as I could tell. Now, if I could just hold those parameters. . . .

The first indication I was losing it was the noise. I heard an increase in air rushing past, even before it showed on the indicator. When I looked, I saw 65 knots, increasing, and rate of climb was decreasing through 500 feet per minute. Thinking I might have inadvertently decreased pitch attitude, I increased cyclic backpressure. After a second, I saw no change in the trend. I felt like I was straight and level, but I knew I was in a bank. The question was, which way? The compass showed a slow turn toward the south. My best guess was that I was in a left bank. I decided to put in about an inch of right stick and wait to see how the trends developed. If they increased toward a downward spiral, I would reverse inputs immediately and double it until the trends reversed. I could feel the blood pounding in my neck. I had to force myself to breathe.

I moved the cyclic and waited a couple of potatoes; no change. Airspeed was up to about 70 knots and the VVI showed 400 fpm downward but was steady. Why was that? Think! If I were in a right turn, I reasoned, both rates should have increased a lot very quickly. Must be that I had only put in enough right stick to stop the increase in left bank but not enough to roll out. I gave the stick another inch or so to the right. My ears rang. I fought down the bile in my throat.

Slowly but perceptibly, the airspeed noise began to diminish. The ASI needle began to unwind and the VVI needle started to rise. I kept right stick in until the VVI reached 500 fpm upward, then centered the cyclic and hoped I’d allowed enough for the lag in the VVI. Altitude showed 400 feet and climbing.

The VVI maxed out at about 800 fpm and then immediately began to fall off. Airspeed decreased to 50 knots and then began to increase again. Right bank, right bank! I screamed at myself. I displaced the stick half-way to the left and fought the temptation to pull back, as the VVI plummeted through 1,000 fpm downward. Airspeed noise was increasing and the altimeter unwound rapidly. I muttered another prayer while I waited for the VVI needle to stop falling. Or to impact the water, whichever came first. Dead man waiting to die, I thought.

IMG_1418At about 1,200 fpm, the VVI needle finally reversed and began to climb. This time I centered the cyclic while the VVI was still in the bottom half of the indicator and tried not to change any other controls. The altimeter was still decreasing but its rate was slowing. The VVI needle continued to rise, although it slowed as it passed level flight. The altimeter bottomed out at about 150 feet and held steady. A quick glance at the drunkenly-pitching compass told me nothing; for all I knew, I was flying deeper and deeper into the belly of the Blob. I held my breath and concentrated on the gauges that could provide useful information to keep me alive for another thirty seconds.

I was still waiting for the instruments to settle down when I popped out the side of the fog. BAM! Just like that. One second I was fighting for my life, deep in the bowels of the Blob, the next I was bathed in the morning sun with all my life’s opportunities before me. Thank you, God. I breathed deeply and laughed out loud.

I landed on the closest platform and called for the workboat. Just as I finished strapping down the old Bell the Blob arrived. By the time the MV Dora arrived to take me back to base, even my feet had begun to look fuzzy in the thick fog.

My entire excursion into instrument conditions had lasted perhaps two minutes, though it seems a lifetime when I examine it. I was thankful the fog grounded me until the following day. It gave me time to analyze my actions and reflect on what the experience had taught me.

Assessing Risk

The lessons, of course, are obvious. But it’s oversimplification merely to remind others of the hazards of VFR-into-IMC flight. That is the consequence of flawed decision-making, not the cause.

My decision to continue in the face of obviously-deteriorating conditions is inexplicable. I simply made up my mind that I could do it, then focused on accomplishing what I’d decided. When a successful outcome became less assured, I threw out all the stops in an attempt to complete the approach. Even as I was entering the fog, I was still determined to complete it, rather than to consider an alternative course.

In my subsequent 24 years as an Air Force fighter pilot, I benefited greatly from a concept we called CRA, for Combat Risk Assessment. Simply stated, CRA requires the decision-maker to weigh the likely cost of a course of action against the likely benefit. Factors to consider include the probability of success, the value of the best-case success, the cost of the worst-case failure, which conditions affecting the outcome are known and controllable, and alternative courses of action. I approach all decisions (OK, most decisions) from a CRA framework.

God looks after dumb animals and fools. If you’ve ever been afraid for your life, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Not when death is only a possibility. I’m talking about when you’re virtually certain you are going to die, you have a few seconds to contemplate your mortality, and you still retain some control over your ultimate fate: Never give up. Even when you know you’re about to die, force your brain to focus. Think! Don’t be the guy who rides an Airbus 38,000 feet down to the Atlantic in a full stall. Make yourself use all information available, however incomplete it may be, to stay alive.

Better yet, before you introduce yourself to a near-death exper-ience, conduct your own CRA whenever there’s some degree of risk. What do you gain if you succeed, what’s the likelihood of success or failure, and what’s the cost of failure? And remember this: No decision to eject is irrevocable until you pull the handles.T&T

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