BeWARE OF THE FOAMER BONER
The flying is amazing, fun, and sometimes challenging in the Tuna fields! Making a landing to a moving rust bucket with 15 ft seas swells, as sea water crashes over the 40 ft high helideck, and ever so gently setting your choppa to a small helideck will give any pilot a sense of real accomplishment. On the particular Pilipino boat I am wisping off of in a helicopter, it is a mid-engine design that puts the massive exhaust stakes from the engines in a place which restricts 40% of the available space of the heli-deck. Upon landing the helicopter, about 7ft of space is provided between the exhaust stacks and the tail rotor of the H500 aircraft.
You must wonder, is this the most dangerous thing? My reply is "Hell no, it is not" And the very occurrence I am going to talk about I was warned about during my training. However, I got caught in the moment.
The hardest thing in the fishing ground flying is living by the montra of "No, really means no." The Korean officers understand the word no but explaining 'why' is the challenging part. To an extent many of them have a fair amount of experience 'sitting' in a helicopter. So naturally they know how to fly, right? Recently the Fishmaster -Captain- was insistent on continuing to fly on low fuel and he was 100% certain the bouncing gauge was faulty. He was quickly corrected as the low-fuel warning light began to flash 11 miles away from the boat.
This rather alarming low fuel situation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean started to occur well before this flight. At the butt crack of dawn the annoying loud speaker hanging above our beds belched in broken English "Choppppah Standby, Chopppah StandBY!" A normal occurrence every morning to go search for school fish.
Normally, the flights go for about 2 hours right to the 20-45 minute fuel reserve depending on how the boat was filled (weather the boat as slanted during fillup). After about 25 minutes, we received a message to come back to the boat because the boat was nearing a school of fish they were going to cast the nets for and capture some fish "Set the net." Shutting down on the heli-deck we were at 40 minutes total flight time. Usually, the procedure is to top off on fuel instantly upon landing. However, since we were about to set the net. The chances of doing fish herding were high. I got lucky, as in our Fishmaster likes to herd fish with a helicopter. Which can be risky but also it is incredibly fun! Requiring a lot of hovering and low level flying. Sometimes the power requirement can be high, depending on the wind and the type of low level maneuvering.
I looked at the fuel, we were at 300 lbs. I told the mechanic to hold off on topping the aircraft up. The less the weight, the better. Especially since herding may take only 20-30 minutes. So a little less fuel and weight the better.
Sitting on the heli-deck, waiting to set and get the call. Waiting…waiting… and there's the fish! And there goes the fish… The boat sailed right by the school of fish. Followed by a "CHoppaah StandBY."
"Ok, maybe we are herding, they are gonna turn the boat around" I thought. So I started the aircraft. Instead of the radio operator, the Fishmaster appears on the helideck. "Oh, we must be searching for fish then." With no time left to top off the fuel tanks and at flight throttle already, we depart the helideck in search of that tuna gold.
So there are some general metrics used for safety when searching for fish. Typically we go no further than 60 miles per 1 hr of remaining fuel. Additionally, I thought this would not be a long flight. Typically due to back problems, the Fishmaster only flies an hour to an hour and half. Additionally, a triangle pattern away from the boat keeps the helicopter within 35 miles of the boat at the furthest traveling point -most of the time.-
"Ok, no problem, we do not need fuel" I thought. Well, we departed straight south. At 30 miles on the gps, no turn…At 35 miles, no turn…At 40miles, no turn. "Shit" At 55 miles we circled another boat, a friend of the Fishmaster's boat. It was about 1 hr of flight time and we were headed back because I had motioned to the fuel gauge indicating 150lbs. Which would get us back right at the reserve time based on ground speed. Potentially, we had a small buffer with a prevailing wind from the south. This was verified watching our ground speed out to the destination and confirming it on the way back. So flying at an indicated speed of 75kts it was providing for 97 miles per hour on the boat gps that is installed aboard the aircraft. "Ok, no problem, at a lower power setting less fuel will be burned" I thought.
The next portion of the returning flight was where I made a poor decision that can only best be described as "a foamer boner." Two fully grown men got them in a helicopter at sea this day. Being on a tuna boat as a helicopter pilot is certainly fun flying but also the whole reason all 37 people on board a ship in the middle of the South Pacific is because of the tuna. Our purpose is purely to capture, millions upon millions of dollars worth of the apparent cheap canned fish found in Walmart and every grocery store around the world. After your first month on a ship, if you have not been captivated in the spirit of fish and finding fish, you should not be flying in this segment of the helicopter industry. It is like a community, at first you may not be captivated by the allure of finding this sea gold but surely if you like the crew, you will. Because they depend on you and each other as a team. The more you catch, the more money for everyone and the sooner you get to travel to a new adventurous port!
So a foamer is when all of the fish in a school come to the surface in a circular motion in a feeding frenzy. As Moggy describes…"A magnificent view of one of great mother nature's spectacles." So a "foamer boner" is when you see one and it means money, port, and fish!!!
At this particular time, this foamer was next to a log, a large log. This is the #1 sighting for a good catch. I saw this out of the corner of my eye. I thought "Shit, that is a good catch, don't Mike, don't you f*&^king dare mention this to the Fishmaster. Or else you will be persuaded to hook a satellite buoy with dangerously low fuel reserves 25 miles from the boat!"
Without thinking, similar to the same lack of thinking that occurs with a normal boner at the sight of an extravagant women… I said, "look" pointing my finger at this nature's spectacle. The Fishmaster leans over and jumps! He gets on the radio and screams something in Korean for about 30 seconds straight… Then he says, "go, make hoveerr, buoy! BUOY!"
I point at the fuel gauge, and 20 mile distance on the boat gps. "No fuel." The fuel gauge was indicating below 100lbs maybe 90lbs or so. The Fishmaster with an angry voice says "It is wong, wong it is! We have time. 2 hourahhhzz" Well I tried to explain that we did not fill up after the morning flight and the 1:30 minutes on the clock was in fact the equivalent of 2 hr t10 minutes combining the previous flights fuel burn. The machine has a total flight time of 2 hours and 45 minutes pushing it to bone dry and depending on if the aircraft was filled on a level plain or not. So at this point we had maybe 30 minutes of fuel, and 20 miles away from the boat.
The fishmaster looked at me with an angry Korean face "kinda looks like the normal face, hard to tell the difference." As I leveled out towards the boat he started screaming, and said "you set Buooooy!." "Shit" I dropped the collective and swing into a spiral at the lowest power setting right above an autorotational glide. Planning the level and quick stop into the wind I pushing forward on the cyclic to level at 50ft above the ground -water- and 200feet in front of the log. Leveling with 20 knots speed to keep the power setting as low as possible and a slight decent and deceleration into a hover. "go, set the buoy Master! Faster master, faster master!" The 50 year old Korean set the buoy like a 19 year old man.
I instantly pulled to 40 psi, slowly climbed at 55kts. In the 500D, with the C20B the max continuous power is 83psi -depending on TOT-. Essentially, the power setting I was using was about half power. I was able to get 400 feet per minute at the best rate of climb speed of 55kts. I chose to level at 700ft because in the event of a flame out due to fuel exhaustion this is an autorotation height which is used in training in many US flight schools and that I am familiar with and provides for some time.
Directed towards the boat at 75kts indicated, the gps with a tailwind indicated 98 miles per hour. "thank god for the tail wind" If these wind conditions were reverse in this situation, I am sure a landing at sea would have occurred by choice. Ok, so now we were headed back to the ship the needle was right above the red mark… "Gulp" At the red mark approximately 37pounds remain of fuel. Which is 7 gallons or 15 minutes before a potential engine flameout. On the clock we had now been on this flight for 1 hr 35 minutes…Which meant 2hrs and 15minutes used.
About 5 minutes later, we spotted the ship. "Ok, that's good, ship insight" So with the ship in sight about 11 miles (estimated away). Things were ok…Until about 1 minute after this thought of thinking things were ok, that lovely "low fuel" warning panel started flashing. The gauge was bouncing up to 37lbs and below.. "fawk fawk, fawking sh*t." At 700 agl, I started a slight decent into a glide path towards the ship. Kept the power setting because any lower and the speed reduction compared to the fuel burned to keep the compressor N1 turbine spinning would have been negligible to the fuel consumption rate. At a slight decent we were able to get a ground speed of 107 miles per hour on the gps. At 1000 ft away from the boat, managing a minor anxiety attack, and looking for places to land, it was time to transition into level flight. I had two concerns with the needle reading around ZERO gallons.. The first, slight turns or abrupt non-level movements could cause the fuel to slosh away from the fuel feeder and cause an engine flame out. The second concern was pulling excess power right before the helideck would exhaust the fuel.
A very slight leveling occurred reducing the speed and stopping the slight 300ft a minute decent. Within 100ft of the helideck a slight decent until over the heli-deck while matching the speed of the boat during the approach at very slight changes to avoid leaning the helicopter too far to the right side. Then a gentle set down. My hands and forehead had rolling sweat. The Fishmaster nods his head "OHHHH nice lannndind" and hops out of the aircraft without a care in the world and strolls down to the bridge like a giddy little kid.
"Thank you little 8lb 6 oz baby jesuz!" As I rolled down the throttle the boat hit a swell up and then a swell down…on the way down the engine compressor made some sputtering noises and almost stalled…. The mechanic, Pato, comes running over and looks at the blinking light and fuel gauge "Oh Amigo! No Bueno! Ok, you alive!"
So never again have we ever decided to not fill "Hester" the helicopter up again upon touching skids down. It is all about the fish, and the familiarities that the Fishmaster has are his certainties. In this case, the lack of my ability to communicate with broken English could have been the demise of Hester the helicopter, myself, and the fish master.. Lesson learned, do not change the system if you are not able to explain it… And of course "No, means no, even with a Foamer Boner!"
Note: the catch from that spotting resulted in 170 tons of fish in the high season market of $2800 per ton… So it resulted in roughly $476,000 USD…