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Routine and Sudden Terror - The Rest of the Story

Posted 7 years 275 days ago ago by Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar

Part 8   Fear and Panic:  "Eyes of Dead Man"

Fear and Panic are two different beasts. 

A helicopter pilot does well to ponder the difference. And research, study, envisage ugly scenarios, prepare mentally for them, and try hard to never be surprised. 

In this last endeavor, believe me, he will fail.  

I was lucky in some ways. Before I arrived in the Tuna Fields, my nerves had been stretched taut many times. I was  -and am-  a determined, pretty cool, methodical thinker under extreme stress. But lest this sound like a vain boast, or foolish self congratulation, let me quickly add my ability to cope is due to (all too frequent) practice. And let me also frankly confess to having been -too often- scared to death. When you think you are a dead man, your body reacts. Afterward, people who see your face, without a word being spoken, can often tell.  It's in the pallor of the skin, the gray, and in the eyes, hollow, sunken, haunted, bloodshot, and staring. Eyes that have seen.... the approaching shadow. 

I remember being in free-fall. Coming down at one hundred and twenty miles per hour. 

It was in France somewhere, at one of the many state supported schools. In those days we had simple gear. There were no automatic opening devices. If you didn't pull your ripcord, you were dead. If the parachute didn't deploy properly, you were on your own. You simply had to perform the emergency drill. 
And thus it was, that all had gone too well for too many jumps. I was getting used to normal deployment. 

On this particular jump, down from 10,000 feet I seem to recall, I was beautifully stable. Comfortable. And coming down right over the drop zone. I checked my altimeter. Time to pull. I was almost disappointed. I felt so comfortable, so good. 

Oh well.... And I pulled the main ripcord.

There was a pause.

And nothing happened...

I continued on down, in free fall, at a hundred and seventy six feet per second. I had twelve seconds before impact. But, allowing for the time required for a parachute to open, I had a lot less time than that to react.  I remember being shocked and incredulous. But more than that, vividly, to this day, I can remember the instant butterflies erupting in my stomach.  And I knew, with an absolute certainty, that if I panicked - and I was about to- I was dead. I remember the tremendous effort. To squash down the rising terror. To think of, and proceed with the emergency drill. And throw away the main ripcord. To reach for the reserve parachute. To locate the ripcord handle...  I remember my fingers fumbling. And Terror sinking its teeth into me.

I remember the airshow. I think it was in aid of the Boy Scouts organization. A fund raiser. I had been invited in my Christen Eagle biplane. I had a lot of time in biplanes. I had taught aerobatics. Or 'stunt flying' as the general population like to say. I enjoyed vertical rolls, loops, Lomcevaks, and snap rolls. I could pass along the crowd line inverted at any height you cared to ask for. I adored hesitation rolls, barrel rolls and Cuban Eights.

But I was no fool. I had seen pilots killed. I knew pilots who had been killed. Too many. And I had learned an important truth, and I tried to pass it along to my students. When it came to doing air shows in an aerobatic aircraft, I would repeat the advice I had received many times from the old pro's.

Never do an unrehearsed encore...

Fly the routine you have practiced. Stay disciplined. Focus on what you know. Leave the fancy dancy clever stuff that you are still practicing... for another day. Another airshow.

I taught that. And I applied it. I flew the air shows with increasing discipline. Until that day... the Boy Scout Airshow.

The last maneuver, the very last one, I forget what it was, but I performed it flawlessly. The whole show had gone like clockwork. It wasn't a competition, but if it had been, the judges would have scored me high marks. Good positioning, clean, and crisp. And there I was, soaring out of the last pre-rehearsed maneuver, a little higher and a little faster than I had expected. 


More height is good. More speed means more energy available. Also good.

Oh, what the hell...

And I proceeded to break the golden rule. I had been practicing a new stunt. A loop with two snap rolls at the top. A "Double avalanche".  I could fly a loop with a snap roll at twelve o'clock. At the very top of the loop. It's harder to place one at eleven and the other  at one 'clock. But it looks good.... I'd been practising it. But it was not part of my regular routine. But now, with both speed and altitude in hand....

what the hell....

I know the first snap was perfect. It was with extreme confidence that I pulled over the top of the loop, inverted, and kicked the second one...
Oh! Shit! F..ck...! 

To this day, I don't know what happened. Did I over-rotate? Did I place it wrongly? Too late?  I don't know...

But I do remember, vividly, the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, as I started to pull out.

The nose of the aircraft was pointing almost vertically down, and I was pulling back on the stick, trying to fly the last quarter of the loop.

But...I was too low...

I couldn't make it. I knew, I couldn't make it. I'd flown hundreds and hundreds of loops.  I was pulling as hard as I dared, but I could feel the wings shuddering. If I pulled any harder, I risked an aerodynamic high speed stall. I was -desperately- trying to milk my way around the last quarter. Pull back, feel the shudder, relax the back pressure a fraction, pull again...

The ground was coming up, and I wasn't going to make it.  Fear erupted through me. I was going to crash and burn. 
I had screwed up. 

And now I was going to die...

I remember the moment when the young British Army soldier was going to shoot me.

I couldn't blame him for being angry. I had indeed, broken the rules of engagement. This was Northern Ireland, in the early seventies, during the height of  "The Troubles". British soldiers were being killed regularly by the Irish Republican Army.

And now I, the dozy one, had gone and pulled off a neat trick. I had used my heavy motorcycle to ram, and knock over, a British Army Soldier at a check point. It was an accident, but he wasn't to know that. The IRA were known to be using motorbikes to transport explosives. Now he was down on one knee, in the classic sniper position, rifle raised, aiming straight for my chest. From that distance, thirty to forty yards, where I had slithered to a screeching stop, I didn't think he would miss. I also knew there were more snipers in the woods, hidden amongst the trees. That was their standard procedure. To combat IRA surprises. 

My heart stopped, and I was frightened to death. I couldn't breath. It seemed a strange place to die. This muddy road, dark and wet, with trees on both sides.  A musty smell in the air. Slowly, slowly, I forced myself to think. Fearful to make any sudden moves, I raised my hands. I wanted to run. To slam open the throttle on my Triumph. To get away... I willed myself to think. My hands were up. I was stopped. 

Don't shoot....

Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed movement. Slowly, slowly, I shifted my gaze. On my left, ghostly, from out of the misty shadows of darkness, two more figures had appeared, risen up from the bowels of the damp earth. 

That made it...

at least three angry rifles pointed right at me.

I knew there were probably more...

I remember that dark, dimly lit back street in the old town centre of Budapest, Hungary. I was tired. So tired.

It was after midnight, and I had been on my motorcycle since early that morning, before sunrise.


Determined, for some young man's reason, to head south and east. 

From Ireland, in the weeks leading up to this fateful day, I had crossed on the ferry from Larne in Northern Ireland to Stranraer in Scotland.  I had driven down through Scotland and England. Crossed on the ferry Dover to Ostend. Driven through Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Austria. Then, without a visa,

I had bribed my way, (with 'Lucky Strike' American cigarettes), through the Communist Iron Curtain. This was 1970, and the Cold War was in full swing.

Past the communist border guards, the tank traps, the barbed wire, the mine fields and the AK 47's... I drove, a young man, an adventurer and idealist, on his Triumph motorcycle. 

I had read Karl Marx. I had read about Stalin. The Hungarian uprising. The Polish ghetto under the Nazis. The Katyn forest massacre of the Polish Officers by the Russians. World War One. World War Two....     

Now here I was in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, tasting the History I had read so much about, speeding past Lake Balaton. I wanted to make Budapest. The ancient city, about which I had dreamed so much. I had crossed the Danube at midnight, and in my over tired state, I had heard the music of the "Blue Danube" playing through my mind, clearly and hauntingly.

I was looking for a cheap hotel, when I turned down the narrow side street. The engine noise bellowed of the grimy, dilapidated buildings. the windows shuttered up. No dice. No hotel. I stopped, and started to perform a U-turn. Suddenly figures loomed out of the darkness. Three, five....no, eight to ten men barred my way. They were drunk, and seemed angry.

One lurched forward, and I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He shouted something, wild eyed, into my face. 

Another grabbed my arm, and I was surrounded.

They were yelling at me, in Hungarian. It meant nothing. I didn't understand. 

Fear clutched at me. The fear of being assaulted, beaten up, maybe killed, in a large, foreign city.

Alone, on a motorcycle, in a dimly lit side street, in Budapest, Hungary. 

Thinking furiously, on the verge of mind destroying panic, I willed myself to appear calm and unruffled. Then, with a faint, nonchalant smile, I pronounced one of the very few Hungarian expressions I knew.  Translated, it meant:

"Good evening..."

And after all that, after all the crazy stuff I'd been through, and survived, I was going to die, right here, in the Tuna Fields. 

I couldn't see the rope that secured me positively to the large -heavy- submerged tree. There was very little slack. My captain had unexpectedly taken off his headsets and climbed out of the cockpit, completely unaware of the instant predicament. There were large waves rolling through, and I had to lift up for them, lest they snag the tail rotor and cause a crash. But worse than that was the imminent dynamic roll-over. I knew what was coming. We had talked about it in bar sessions. Between the smoke and the bullshit, the jokes and the exaggerations, the wild tales and the wind ups, nonetheless, no helicopter pilot mocks the extreme, mortal danger of dynamic roll-overs. Your controls respond differently. Erratically. As the unseen rope goes tight, the helicopter may roll, perhaps to the right. But if the helicopter is hovering (say) to the left of the anchor point, then an instinctive left cyclic input, the pilot's normal corrective action, will further aggravate the situation. The helicopter simply can't roll left and level. The rope is tight... Instead, a left cyclic input will cause an unwanted climb, and an equally unwanted, increased roll to the right. If the pilot panics, and inputs even more left cyclic, (perhaps with a panic collective pull) then within two seconds, the machine will swing neatly around the arc. And crash, semi inverted, with the pilot's brain reeling with confusion. Yes, in certain circumstances, your controls are effectively reversed. 

However. It gets worse.  Even if you know what's going on, you can't just try and reverse inputs. Which sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. (Believe me.) But you're experiencing both normal control response, and reverse response.  

Depending on whether the rope has gone slack, or is tight. And depending on where the fulcrum point, the attachment point, is relative to your vertical axis. (see Note 1)  

Factor in the waves. It was gusting, twenty to twenty five knots. Eight, ten, twelve foot waves.  I was desperately trying to keep the rope slack. But I had to lift up for waves coming through. I wasn't sighted that well. I had to guess. Stay as low as possible to try and keep the rope slack, but not too low that a wave caught me.  Inevitably, I felt a small tug through the machine, followed immediately by a harder tug. The left side of the disc came up. Furiously, heart in my mouth, I was trying to input the smallest possible control movements. A small left cyclic input aggravated the situation. In a panic, I moved  the cyclic slightly right. A totally illogical, counter intuitive, unnatural feeling. We leveled again. 

And so on, so forth. I wrestled -concentrating desperately- for what seemed like hours, but what was probably only two or three minutes.

One tug from the rope going tight pitched the nose up so abruptly, that I was convinced the captain must have fallen off.

Somehow, with fear gnawing at my mind, I managed to deduce the correct sequence of normal and reverse control inputs to bring the beast back under control. This couldn't last, and I knew it. I had already used up all my luck for the next ten years in one hit. 

Factor in the lack of references. Everything is moving. There is nothing else floating there. No fixed object. You cannot reference yourself to anything. Are you drifting sideways? Backwards? Forwards? But that horrible, sharp tug, coupled to the response of your tiny control inputs, will tell you... 

Normal sense...

Reverse sense..

(tug, yaw, roll).

Normal sense...

Reverse sense...

(tug, yaw,roll).

The concentration was beyond intense.  One small error, and we were going to crash. The ship was fifty miles away, and they only had a rough idea of where we were. It would take them five hours to even get anywhere near. It would be long past dark by then...

He slid back in, with a satisfied grin. He was all pleased with himself. He had succeeded in untying the knot. 

We were free...  He looked at me, and the grin abruptly disappeared. I never said a word. Concern erupted across his face.

"Moggy? What wrong? Moggy! What problem...??"

I was too exhausted to speak. The death mask beside him just stared hollowly out the windscreen. 

"Gott! Moggy? What...what happen...??"

Captain Chan told me afterward I was gray. He said my eyes were  "like eyes of dead man".   When I finally explained to him what had happened, and how close we had come, he was beyond shocked. And terribly sorry. 

I survived. We survived. Despite, between the two of us, riding the chariot simply way too close to the edge. 

He saw, in his broken Taiwanese-English, "eyes of dead man"

I saw, in that eternity of frantic wrestling with erratic controls, and mind blowing horror and helplessness, amidst the wind and the waves, the spray flying, and the storm clouds racing across the Pacific sky...

in all its worth and puny fragility,

my life...

Francis Meyrick (c)

Note 1:  the rope will almost certainly be tied off from the right undercarriage gear leg. Maybe 5 to 7 feet sideways from the vertical axis. (Yep, a nice moment arm in the make) It will not be tied off from the belly hook. (Which would have been nice in one way, as the attachment point would then have been aligned with the vertical axis). If the helicopter slides over the vertical log, (remember, you are unsighted) you now have the rope running tight over the outside of the float, running back in underneath the helicopter. This situation is almost begging for a dynamic roll-over. And I knew it, while this event was happening. 
Draw it, and you'll see what I mean.  (See my attempt in Ch.3-H-1)

But in trying to avoid that, you may drift the other way, (or forwards, or backwards) and the rope may extend all the way and then go tight. This situation I have tried to show you in the second drawing in Ch.3-H-1.

You will only really know the rope has gone tight when you feel the 'tug' and the rotor disc tips up in some way. Now your control response becomes erratic. You may experience partial reverse control, or even momentary 100% reverse control. The danger here cannot be over stated. 

Note 2:  it is imperative that a tuna helicopter pilot instantly appreciates the difference between a log he can clearly see (e.g. floating normally on the surface) and a rare 'vertical floater' which he can't see. The second type is potentially much more dangerous. 

A Little About Moggy  - Francis ‘Moggy’ Meyrick (www.chopperstories.com) admits to not being terribly bright, but he did first grace the skies (more or less) totally on his own some forty-five years ago. He is rumored to have solemnly intoned these memorable words on the downwind leg. “Holy Molly McBride! NOW what have I done…?” He is working dutifully on his eighty-sixth incarnation (he does, admittedly, get sent back a lot – for another try) , and he describes himself as a ‘chopper jockey’. He says it’s basically a case of a nut, hanging under a nut. (BIG nut, though).  Compared to trying to attain Wisdom (he was a Buddhist monk once) (before he got demoted to galley hand), he reckons it beats working for a living.  It ranks right up there with being a happy penguin, and spending all day sliding down icy slopes. Moggy loves spinning a good yarn, and his greatest reward is simply your enjoyment. His many friends caution you he does tend to tell his bar stories with verve and gusto, and much arm waving, so you are advised to move your pints and other drinks safely out of his way. He is also the author of “Moggy’s Tuna Manual”, a Tuna Helicopter safety initiative, available on ‘Smashwords’.