09 April 2012

Night Cat Whisperer

The weather has changed. Gone the moody monsoonal gloom prevailing over dark of day and black of night. The sun exacts his vengeance on the proceedings of the peoples, making hot the air that they breathe, slower to quench the lungs, too slow to cool in the late hours after he has sailed to the other reaches of the world. The moon hangs over the bejewelled curtains of night, haunting, honeyed and low upon the road that leads home, watching over the pilgrims upon their nocturnal dealings, peering over the hilltops in her dying moments as the sun pursues the limits of her tenure while drawing forth yet another haze-choked day.

There have been days behind me when I doubted my very substance as a breadwinner and an aviator. I presume that this is a common thing amongst pilots. My approaches to the platforms have till a magic moment ago, refused to yield to the descent path I trace in my mind as the flat green shelf creeps into view from whence I fall with very little style onto that shelf, only to end up hovering short of it and then in embarassment and mortification, air taxy like an alien spacecraft to land in the centre of the circle over the 'H' and let the rig workers off. There have been enough portrayals in Hollywood of a tormented bronco buster on a mustang's back being raced to the edge of the corral and then tossed off as the horse yanked its handbrakes at the periphery of the grounds. That's what this doggedly deviant and donkeyed Eurocopter was doing to me. My approaches would begin with academically picturesque precision, till about 200 feet from the deck edge, during the mild flare to arrest slamming into the deck, the Eurocopter would shake off the reins and behave like she had a mind of her own and I would end up wrestling her hard with failing composure to a hasty touchdown. Just like a horse, she seemed to know whom she could bully into a loss of self-worth.
Then one magic moment ago, I could feel her readying to toss me off, when I kept my eye on where I wanted to go and kept her nose down to the spot of my intended hover over the 'H'.

I surmised just in time, that I must always bear in mind that I am not at the controls of a conventional helicopter. This aircraft is ruled by computers. Gone are the hydromechanical lags of the old Sea King, that gentle, ladylike waltzing to slow down upon application of the collective that I was more at home with. The EC225 was virtually instantaneous in reaction to control inputs, and any application of collective on an approach was to be done when needed only, so as not to end up in a premature hover. This, and its abundance of power, gave her the muscle to bully me into defeat. Till that magic moment ago. And since then, my approaches have been consistently good even if I say so myself, because there is no chance that any aircraft captain will.

Perhaps it was just in time that I learned to feel her Gallic nuances, as my 'cat' was upon me. And yes, with it was my 'cat fever'. My head was buried in the manuals, trying hard to trace the logic of French translated into English by a people who hate the language to begin wth, and tying what residual sense all that made to their schematic diagrams and peculiar electronic symbology without a key at the bottom corners of the diagram.

This time, my categorisation, which the civil world calls Base Check, was to be done at night. I was paired with a Thai First Officer whose check was due to expire, and we consulted each other as to how to tackle the Base Check with the newbie examiner. We anticipated that a technical questionairre would be given to us, and so we decided to pore through our Certificate Of Test exam questions to refresh our long neglected ground school knowledge.

This proved to be useful on the night of our Base Check because when the examiner finally turned up, he tossed us a questionairre on the aircraft limitations. Being prepared for this helped set a positive tone for the rest of the night, as it seemed as if we could handle the paper, and so how hard could the flying be?

I am surprised at myself for the way I flew my base check. The examiner will of course differ, but I think I did quite well for a mere 4 months of operational flying on an aircraft we don't really fly hands-on because of all its automation. The civil aviation requirements for a base check do not allow for extensive use of automation. Therefore much of the test is done without upper modes and with hydraulic boosts turned off. If you were flying an older aircraft, with more hands-on flying, this would be pretty much routine. The dilemma of being an EC225 pilot however, is that flying by automation is required by the company and engraved in company policy and operating manuals but base checks are done without these 'upper modes'. Nice isn't it?

But then again, some of my happiest moments in the squadron were during training sorties, working against the aerodynamic loads and feedback by flying with auxiliary servos off. So this night, when my examiner switched off the hydraulic pumps. I listened carefully to the EC225, straining my ears for her whispers. I began overcontrolling a bit and then I stopped all input to correct her. She settled, and much like Bucephalus, required gentle coaxing away from her shadow and not brutal bronco busting to cower her into submission. Right, there she was, and just before she ran away with herself with each control input, I would hold her steady with a whisper of a movement.

I do not get quite enough training hours in the EC225, and that is the case with anyone in a commercial flying unit, but if I did I am certain  could have her eating out of my hand in weeks. Now as I walk out onto the flight line, I no longer see her as a beast or a foe, but as a willing ally, whom I have been dealing with the wrong way. I speak her language now, and though I am not yet her master, this is indeed the beginning of a meaningful relationship. She is a beautiful machine to fly, rumbling through the clouds with nary a complaint. Now that I have set things straight with her, I do not begin the workday with dread. I think I am back.

And it's so good to unclench!!


  1. Your work and what you do is not for the faint-hearted Sir. I salute thee...I'm in awe, you describe it so well, felt as if I was in it too ...haha... Cheers to the your new beginning with the beautiful machine.

  2. Angie, THIS is a true compliment indeed!!!
    And in essence, THIS is what I would intend.
    That as you visit, you are transported to being in the cockpit and enjoying an air experience of your own.
    Thanks. Nice of you to drop by.

  3. Just wanna say hi...I really don't understand about aviation..

  4. Hi Lady Windsor, good that you arrived.
    There isn't anything TO understand...just go along for the ride!!!