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Spies in the Oil Field

Posted 8 years 330 days ago ago by Randy Mains

If I were to answer the question as to why I love the helicopter industry so much, I would have to say it’s because of the quirky characters I’ve met and worked with over the years. Characters that immediately come to mind are guys like “Lofty” because of his extraordinary height, “Bambi” because of his doe-brown eyes, a Brit we called “Captain Kleenex” because he had a sinus condition that caused him to leave tissues strewn about all over the cockpit, “Too Tall McCall” because he was short, and an Australian we all called “Trackless” because he was even shorter than Two Tall. (In fact, he was much shorter because his legs were so short his butt would drag behind him and wipe out his tracks, hence the name.) There was also Robert “Don’t call me Bob” because that’s how he introduced himself, “Squeaky Cheeks” because he had an odd walk, a New Zealander we called “Sumo” because he resembled a Sumo Wrestler, a Brit we called “Crusher” because he landed on a load handler hooking up an underslung load on a wellhead in the oil field and “slightly” crushed him.

Then there was a Canadian we called “Hollywood,” so named because of his lackluster personality, unlike anything anyone could ever expect to see from a Hollywood actor. In the total wardrobe that was the colorful ensemble that made up the quirky tapestry of the 160 pilots at Abu Dhabi Aviation, Hollywood would be the white socks and brown shoes.

Hollywood had been with Abu Dhabi Aviation for seven years. He was an excellent, very competent pilot who could easily puff down three cigarettes on a 30-minute break. He had a good sense of humor and came across firm, but always delivered his point of view with a smile on how he liked his cockpit run. He was not judgmental, but he did like things done his way for the most part.  

I was flying one afternoon as copilot with Hollywood in a Bell 412EP. He included me in the decision-making process as we were flying in marginal VMC weather skirting low clouds on our way back to the airport from the Zakum oil field, located 50 miles offshore from Abu Dhabi International. I didn’t think anything about the fact that we were flying over a broken cloud layer, then occasionally punching into a solid cloud layer for a few moments, then out again, then back into a solid cloud layer, then making the decision to leave 1,000 feet for 500 feet in an effort to get into the clear using the radar altimeter bugged to 200 feet above the sea in our gradual descent. We both agreed to use 200 feet on the rad alt as our decision height if we didn’t see the Persian Gulf. At that point we agreed that if we didn’t see the water we would level out and rethink the situation. That is, until he told me what alibi he was going to use if anyone had seen us flying back to base in something less than visual flying conditions.

Like I said, I had not given much thought to what we were doing until he told me over the intercom in sort of a defensive tone, “OK, I’ll just say we’re flying in thin broken clouds if anyone should ask. That’s legal.”

“OK,” I answered a bit puzzled at his statement. I was happy with what we had done under the circumstances and what we were doing now.

He looked over at me with kind of a nervous, pained expression on his face, “You gotta be real careful you know?”


“Yeah.  Real careful. There are spies out there you know?”

“Spies?  Out where?” I asked, sitting more erect in the copilot’s seat scanning the sky.

“In the field. There are spies in the oil field that would like to get me in trouble and report back to the boss if I was seen to be breaking the rules.”

 “Are you sure? Don’t you think that’s being a little bit paranoid?”

  He looked at me with that same pained expression on his face. “The boss and I have a history you see.”

“A history?”

He nodded, “Yep a real history. He’s got it in for me, you know?”

“No, I didn’t know.”

Hollywood didn’t let me in on what that history was and why the boss had it in for him, so I didn’t ask. “Well,” I said, “We’ll just say we descended because we saw some weather up ahead and decided to go down to 500 feet. No problem, as far as I can see.” I wanted to reassure him I was with him on this.

“Don’t lie,” he told me. “Never lie.”

I wondered if what he was talking about required us to come up with a story falling into the category of “plausible deniability” that another eccentric and mildly paranoid pilot, Phil Lee, had spoken to me about on a flight earlier that month. Or maybe what we were doing was categorized and listed in the safety officer’s “matrix of punishments” Phil had also warned me about during that same flight.  

I thought about it for a moment. Wait a minute, we had just descended out of solid IMC and he was calling it “thin-broken,” as if we could see the water below just now—which we couldn’t. So he was in fact lying (at least to himself) but he didn’t see it that way because it was probably a better rationalization of plausible deniability than the excuse I had just come up with, although it is one used by pilots all the time. I didn’t say anything more on the subject, as I felt we had hit an impasse in the logic. I just took the incident for what it was: confusing, lacking any sort of plausible deniability … and of course, extremely paranoid.


About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected]