Skids Up No. 16: A Time to Act

In this blog, I hope to demonstrate what all the ‘Skids Up’ articles have led you as the reader to prepare for.

In my last post, I talked about emotional context during operations and the value of training. In Guatemala, we are still flying rescue missions post-Hurricane Eta, but we have shifted our focus to humanitarian and medical aid for stranded, remote communities. This edition of ‘Skids Up’ will focus solely on one of those days and some of the concise decisions WE need to make as aircrew that involve some form of COST. It may be long, but this is a real narrative, so it needs to be. I also include the key lessons learnt from the end of mission review.

To set the scene for the reader, our mission is to deliver 1000 lbs. of internal/external cargo (potable water filters and ration packs) to a community that has created a rough Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) at the top of a hill. The area is only 20 minutes flight time over a mountain range from the nearest city.

After our external cargo drop, our plan is to land, drop the volunteer Doctor from Global Response Management (GRM) who is onboard and internal cargo, and then ‘island hop’ approximately 6 minutes to collect the rest of the GRM Medical Team and return.

Cargo goes as planned; We land on and conduct a Rotors Running PAX unload. The Doctor is on the ground and surrounded by a community desperate for help. We take off, fly to the other end of the valley to collect our group of 5 PAX (Passengers and Stores) who are staying overnight in another remote and flooded village. Avoiding dogs, turkeys and starving people, we successfully land and load the passengers.

Pilot: “T’s and P’s correct. No warning lights or captions. Ready in the back?”

Me: “Ready in the back. 4 PAX secured. I’m on harness. Obstructions as briefed. Clear right and above. Clear for forward flight.”

The helicopter moves into full flight power, and you feel weight coming off the skids, slowly releasing the bond with the ground. What only can be described as an ‘unnatural wobble’ occurs, and our 2mm of height is reduced to zero instantly.

Pilot: “Chris, we have a problem.”

So, order of business, no panic. I give the international hand sign to the rear cabin passengers to stay put and do not move. I disconnect the restraint strap, but remain on the ICS wandering lead. This allows me enough freedom to stand next to the pilot’s door and still communicate.

The Pilot is attempting to move the cyclic, but it is not ‘free moving’. It requires exceedingly difficult and strenuous movement. So, now there is a BIG problem. But due to having knowledge of the airframe as a crew member (not self-loading passenger), I know ‘slow is smooth – smooth is fast.’

We are on the ground. The PAX are safe where they are. This is where your aircraft systems knowledge comes in. The problem is the flight controls. These are operated hydraulically. With the rotors still running, the Pilot follows his Boldface, Non-Boldface and Normal Checklists. So what is my job as a crewman? I have a responsibility to the Pilot and to the safety of the aircraft including the passengers. They are still strapped in, so a walk-around is called for; first looking underneath for any fluid leaks. I don’t see smoke, fire, or problems with the main/tail rotors. I give hand signals to the Pilot to do a head and tail pedal check and see no real visible movement of the swash plates. I then give the mandatory hand signal to shut down. The aircraft shuts down. PAX are unloaded. Now what?

We are on a remote HLS surrounded by water, providing humanitarian aid. Simple:


  • Protection: We are in a village. Although they have extremely limited resources, a shelter would be available overnight.
  • Location: As per SOP, the Pilot presses the ELT immediately. On aircraft shutdown, we have good cell signal. (Each crew member has a different cell provider, so usually one will work.) The ELT is turned off, and our phones come alive as the entire world (who knows exactly where we are) attempts to communicate to identify the problem.
  • Water: We fly with a bag of water bottles and a packed lunch as part of SOP. Plus, we have individual water bottles and survival sachets that each of us carry individually. Although we are surrounded by water, you cannot drink it.
  • Food: We had breakfast and can pay locally for some of the food we have brought here, if needed.

So, our PRIORITIES OF SURVIVAL are complete. Only NOW do we fault find.

Yes, we know it’s hydraulic; either a servo, jack, filter, or the pump. As aircrew, we only know where to look. We do not carry the tools to take things apart. What we can do is follow all the fault-finding procedures in the Flight Manual, so that we can communicate results to the people that KNOW: THE MECHANICS.

The mechanic who is 20 minutes away (by air) or 2 days by car, foot and canoe is briefed and a favor is called to fit him on another helicopter that is operating nearby.

Now the dilemma we face: We all carry survival gear (hopefully you do). They know EXACTLY where we are. Survival gear is usually expensive. Do I need to use any of it? Our Priorities of Survival are complete, but we are completely filling the rudimentary HLS that has been cut out of the jungle. For us to fit another helicopter in, it will be in an uncleared, potential slope, so they need to land EXACTLY where we can identify from being on the ground. So, do I use expensive equipment? YES, I DO – Simple as that. I need to amplify our LOCATION to make it SAFE for others. So, to show ground to air exactly where this and any future helicopters are safe to land, I need to use my equipment and helicopter marshalling signals.

I chose the SeeRescue streamer from my vest on this occasion as it would give the incoming helicopter Pilot a ‘center line’. Using marshalling signals, I could then move the aircraft along this axis to fit it in between the hidden tree stubs as opposed to a simple square ‘VS17 signal panel’ which is only useful to mark a spot on the ground. This is more technical than that.

We hear the helicopter long before it approaches due to being in a flooded valley. It flies a high then medium orbit before committing on ‘Long Finals’. Thankfully, the Pilot knows our team and responds to the marshalling signals, lands safely, shuts down, and the mechanics get to work.

The hydraulic filters are checked out. It’s actually the main hydraulic pump that has failed. By the luck of the gods, we were on the ground. It could have been a very wet and painful ditch/crash scenario in the seconds prior to or after this point in time. The pump is replaced in the field, a test run-up is completed, and we depart back to the city; 1 hour now as the weather is deteriorating. We are now tired and cancel all future taskings for the day.

So, after my rambling, these are some of the lessons learnt from the debrief:

  1. KNOW YOUR AIRCRAFT. Even a rudimentary understanding of its systems helps the Pilot and mechanics to do their job and allows timely decisions to be made to make us SAFE.
  2. KNOW when an emergency is time critical, when you can slow down slightly, and what YOUR INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS need to be. KNOW how to perform panel checks, check for fluid leaks, and whether the rotor system is normal. The Pilot cannot see these, because they are sat in the cockpit.
  3. BE RESPONSIBLE for your patient/passengers. Our role is to do what is best for them, but to keep the aircraft SAFE.
  4. We all carry a grab-bag of survival gear and spare gear for overnight stays. These were all removed due to Weights and Balance. IF IT IS NOT ATTACHED TO YOU, YOU WILL NOT HAVE IT.
  5. USE SURVIVAL GEAR EARLY. The ELT, Marker panels, etc. are no good sat in their wrapping and collecting dust. Worry about the cost later – It’s why you carry it.
  6. Do you have survival training? Are you underwater egress trained? 78% of ditching’s are on inland water. This was nearly my number 5 ditching event. The Pilot and I would ‘potentially’ survive with our training and equipment, but even with an open door, the passengers would have probably died.
  7. Just because it’s only a 20-minute flight doesn’t mean an emergency can’t occur. You need your equipment ALL OF THE TIME.

‘Skids Up’ is called that for a reason. STAY SAFE!

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