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Lost at Sea in a SeaKing Helicopter - A True Life Story

This is a true life story based on a real incident in which I almost lost my life, as I was lost at Sea whilst flying in my Seaking helicopter, with no hope of being able to land on a ship and no fuel to go back to main land at least 300 nautical miles away, thus leaving me with no option but to crash land into the sea, or do a controlled ditching of my helicopter into the water on that dark, moonless and cloudy night, never to be found again, by any rescue team searching the Sea for me, in those Shark infested waters of the Bay of Bengal. It is nothing but God's Grace, that I came back out of this real life threatening incident in one piece and that I am able to write this true life story for you to read.

Such experience in life leaves a permanent impression in the memory that cannot be erased. The Seaking Helicopter picture you see below, is the helicopter which I have flown for over three decades, over the sea, looking out for enemy ships trying to enter our territorial waters and enemy submarines that would lurk underwater to sink our ships. During a war, once the helicopter finds any enemy ship or submarine out at sea, they are as good as dead and defenceless, against the weapons like missiles and torpedoes carried on the ship and the helicopter.

The True Life Story of A Helicopter Pilot Getting Lost At Sea Begins

That fateful day, I was on board our ship at sea. The ship was sailing indepently. Normally, a naval ship of about a hundred metres in length will carry about 300 sailors and officers onboard. Add another 30 sailors and a few officers if the ship can carry a helicopter on its helicopter deck. The helicopter deck is usually at the back of small ships with one or two hangars which can house one helicopter each.

Seaking Helicopter

But an aircraft carrier can carry dozens of aircraft and may have a huge hangar below which is capable of housing all those aircraft and the flat top deck acts as an airport with a runway marked on it. The aircraft are brought up to the top deck for flying using a huge hydraulic lift capable of lifting the largest aircraft the carrier ship operates. The small runway can be used to launch aircraft using a catapult and lands with a hook that engages steel wire ropes to stop.

The flight briefing for a mission was completed at 10:30 pm which is well into the night. The sea was rough and was feeling sea sick because the ship was rolling to both sides, pitching up and down and the entire ship was heaving as it was being lifted up and thrown down by the huge waves. When everyone else was preparing to sleep that night, the four of us were preparing to go for a four hour flying sortie over the sea, in a complete dark night starting from midnight till 4 am.  We had a Tea in the wardroom to keep us awake in flight.

Zip Lip Caused A Helicopter Getting Lost At Sea - A True Life Story

The Wardroom is a place normally used in the ship for dining as well as for recreational purposes like watching TV or playing agame of Chess etc. All Officers are usually found there when not on watch or duty. After the tea, the four of us, that is I, my copilot and my two rear cockpit crew, left the wardroom or the Officer's mess and proceeded towards the helicopter deck discussing about our mission which will be ZipLip. ZipLip means that we will not speak a word to the ship from the helicopter, from time we get airborne until the time we land back on deck, after 4 hours.

We know what to do after getting airborne and come back to a predecided point over the sea where the ship would also come back after doing her mission at the same time to allow us to land on her deck. ZipLip in otherwords means absolutely no talking at all with the ship, which also means that, the will talk to the ship only if there is an emergency in the helicopter requiring us to land immediately or we are not able to find our ship when we come back for landing at the pre-decided position, over the sea. Otherwise we don't know where the ship is and the ship people have no idea where we are flying the helicopter except that we know what the plan for ship and helicopter are during that time.

How To Start Up Engines of a Helicopter - A True Life Story

I went around my helicopter to ensure everything is ok. Then I went into the cockpit and strapped up on my seat. I pressed the start button after doing all the necessary checks and the left engine started up. Then i checked everything is ok like the engine rpm, oil temperature, oil pressure and the hydraulics etc. I checked all the controls for full and free moment to their physical limits, at the same time looking at the rotor blades of the helicopter outside, through the perspex window to see whether they are changing their angles according to the way my cyclic and collective control levers are being moved.

The cyclic lever is used by the pilot to move the helicopter left, right, forward, rearward in hover and to increase or decrease speed and turn left or right when in forward flight. The collective lever is used to take the helicopter up or down in height. The rudders yaw the aircraft in the horizontal plane. With these three controls the pilot can fly the helicopter the way he wants. Then I did my autopilot checks and pressed the start button of the right engine. This was followed by allowing the engine to start rotating the main rotors of the helicopter, bringing up the rotor rpm to 100%. I increased the rpm of the left engine also, to ensure that both left and right engines are now sharing the rotor load equally.

After doing a few more checks I was ready to pick up my helicopter from the ship's deck to a hover. The flight signaller also called as the marshaller on ships, stands in front of the helicopter, to tell the pilot, when to take off or land. The Stop/Go light on the deck turned green from its original red colour indicating that I can take off when ready. I indicated to the marshaller, to remove the chocks and lashing which are used to tie down a helicopter to the ship's deck. The marshallar got them removed and showed me a green light he had in his hand to indicate that my helicopter is free and can take off now.

The Helicopter Took Off And Flew into The Night Over Sea - A True Life Story

I, once again ensured everything is ok inside my helicopter cockpit and pulled my Collective lever slowly to bring the helicopter to a hover on the deck. At hover I did a final check of engine, rotors, autopilot and all other parameters are fine and took off to the port or left side of the ship as winds were coming from that side. All aircraft and helicopters always take off into the wind direction. We flew off in our helicopter into complete darkness past midnight, with no moon and the sky completely cloudy over the sea. It is a very scary situation as a pilot can get disoriented and crash an aircraft for no reason.

Most pilots don't want to fly in dark nights as they are scared of disorientation caused crashes. Disorientation can happen to any pilot irrespective of his flying experience. We completed our four hour mission and returned back to the place where we had expected our ship the be at that time, to let us land on her deck. We were left with a 30 minutes mandatory reserve fuel, which is not to be used normally for safety reasons plus another 15 minutes fuel to fly around, find our ship and make a safe landing. Our GPS or Global Positioning System equipment indicated that we were at the pre-decided position over the sea.

The Helicopter Was Lost At Sea Flying in Dark Night Conditions - A True Life Story

But we could not find our ship anywhere up to 30 nautical miles. Where are we going to land. But we patiently waited for a while there. If the ship was around, we should have seen its red and green port and starboard or left and right navigation lights and its yellow mast head light if she was sailing towards us or only its tail light and its mast head light if she was going away from us. We circled in the same position looking for our ship's lights. Nothing was visual at 1000 feet height we flew at. This was something I was not prepared for and had not expected to happen.

We searched for 10 minutes without results. There was five minutes to go before we start consuming our 30 minutes mandatory reserve fuel also. Now we were becoming restless and continued to strain our eyes into the darkness outside, trying desperately to find even a single light anywhere around. I was left with only a total fuel which may keep my helicopter airborne for another 20 minutes maximum, after which one by one both the engines will fail and we will crash into water.

The Ditching into Water Procedure of Helicopter - A True Life Story

We continued to circle in the same place for another 10 minutes and still no sign of our ship. What will happen after our fuel finishes in about 15 minutes? The four of us discussed and decided to prepare for a controlled ditching or landing our helicopter in water before both her engines failed on their own due to fuel starvation. In a controlled ditching, I will have to bring the helicopter into a hover very low over water and allow my two rear cockpit crew to open the rear door and jump out of the helicopter into water first, followed by my copilot.

Then, I have to move my helicopter about 20 metres away from them, land my helicopter on water and shut down the engines. Once the helicopter rotor blades stop rotating, I will have to get out of the helicopter myself through the small window and swim away before the helicopter starts sinking or topples over due to the huge waves, if I am lucky.In case, if it is an uncontrolled ditching where the helicopter crashes on water on its own and starts sinking, then we all will have to wait till the rotors stop rotating due to hitting the rotor blades hitting water.

Then, we will have to unstrap our seat belts and swim out through our individual small windows, which is a difficult procedure, especially when the aircraft is sinking and we are holding our breath under water. And at night there is no way to know which way is up once you are disoriented under water. People have swam to deeper waters after ditching at night thinking that is the way up, lost breath control and took water into their lungs.

Ditching Procedure Useless, Helicopters Crash At Night Over Sea - A True Life Story

That is the procedure. But will we all be able to do this procedure, in a dark night ,when we are not even sure if the helicopter is vertical or upside down inside water, despite all our training in the swimming pool back home, is a million dollar question. That is when I decided to break ZipLip as now we were facing a very grave emergency to our own life in a perfectly working helicopter, only because the ship did not turn up in the position where she was supposed to be at that time and our helicopter did not have adequate fuel to keep us airborne for any long time.

It is a land now or crash into the sea. Finally, I pressed the radio button and give a call to the ship, asking the ship for its position and telling the ship's crew, that I have been circling in the pre-decided position for over half an hour. No reply came. So, I transmitted my message once again. Two minute later I heard the voice of the Navigating Officer of the ship saying, "We can't tell you the ship's position, but we are coming towards you at full speed. Don't worry".

I felt like laughing at him even when we were losing hope of seeing the sun rise a couple of hours later. In a ship, full speed means maximum 50 kmph. They did not even tell us if they were holding us on their Radar. I asked them again, with respect to me which direction is the ship, so that I can also fly towards the ship. But no reply came from ship and we continued to circle losing both time and hope.

The Helicopter Was Low on Fuel Flying At Dark Night Over The Sea - A True Life Story

The fuel low level warning was now on for the past five minutes, as the communication was going on. There was enough panic already in the cockpit and we were preparing for landing on water in a dark night which was more of a gambling with our own life than any science involved. So, the fuel low warning light was adding more panic inside our helicopter in this dark, moonless and cloud overcast night over the sea with no ship or shore within sight to land on. I didn't want to fly that aircraft any more. I wished I had not taken off that night. I announced to my crew, "Now that our ship probably knows where we are, I am going to climb to 4000 feet height and I will switch off left engine to conserve fuel.

The Helicopter Announced Emergency - Lost At Sea - A True Life Story

Even if the right engine fails at 4000 feet, we will have adequate gliding time to start the left engine before we hit water." All three crew agreed with my decision, because by putting one engine off, we will spend less fuel and the 10 minutes fuel for two engines might last us for up to 13 minutes with only a single engine running, which is enough to keep us flying, as the helicopter was at least 4000 lbs lighter after burning four hours fuel on board than the helicopter weight we took off with. I started a gentle climb and transmitted a nessage which I thought would be my last in this life, "XXXX this us YYYY, We have nine minutes absolute endurance to remain airborne before we crash. Intend climbing to 4000 feet and shut down one engine to extend endurance to about 12 minutes from now. LOST AT SEA!"

The Squadron Commander Confused The Lost Helicopter Pilots - A True Life Story

Afew seconds later, I heard a familiar voice on the radio, "Mats, all lights on, Diwali onboard. Look north." It was the voice of my Squadron Commander, who must have been much more tense at the thought of losing his helicopter and crew sitting on the ship, than the four of us in air flying a helicopter about to crash in a few minutes. I immediately turned my helicopter towards northerly direction and started looking out for Diwali my Squadron Commander mentioned.

Diwali in India is a festival of lights. All houses and streets are heavily it up in the night of Diwali festival. My Squadron Commander must have meant that all the external lights of the ship have been switched on for us to see the position of the ship and start flying towards her, as ZipLip prevents transmission of ship's position.

In the Navy we don't break rules, come whatever may. Unfortunately, all these two dozen red, green and amber lights including the 'Do Not Land' flashing red light are all fitted on the helicopter deck which is at the rear end of the ship and will not visible to us when she is heading towards us. I felt like laughing out aloud once again at my luck. I stopped the climb and put my helicopter into a shallow descent towards the earth and headed for the north pole, to save fuel.

The Helicopter Pilot Sees A Ray of Hope At Night Over The Sea - A True Life Story

Just then, on the horizon, I saw a faint light. It was my ship coming towards my helicopter at her full speed of 50 kmph. After landing I quickly switched off the engines before the engines decided to flamed out on their own due to fuel finishing off. As the helicopter engines were shutting down, I looked at my fuel gauges. The forward fuel tank showed zero fuel left, the aft fuel tank showed zero fuel left and the centre fuel tank also read zero fuel left. With all three fuel gauges reading zero, I may have been flying with just the fuel left in the fuel lines between the fuel tank and engines.

As I hit my bed after going through this beautiful incident at 5:00 am, the ship's crew were waking up in the morning, as the quartermaster was announcing with his pipe "Hands Call" on the ship's broadcast system, as I slowly slipped into a slumber after a long and a blissful helicopter flight which I will never forget in my life. This is a true life story.
  

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