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The 45 Days Flight (True Story)

  
This true story 'The 45 Days Flight' happend in 1990. We landed on the ship’s deck just 10 nautical miles away from the nearest land. The Admiral disembarked as planned. Our helicopter engine and rotors was still running at full speed.

I made a radio call to the ship’s helicopter controller, “Hotel-Charlie this is Mike-Kilo, Permission to take off and return back to base.”

The helicopter controller replied on radio, “Orders from the Admiral, Switch off the helicopter on deck. Wait for further orders.”

I didn’t know what to reply because I and my Copilot were completely taken by surprised. But, an order is an order. And when the order came from an Admiral at Sea, we had no choice buy obey. We couldn't even dare to ask why.

We decided to stop the helicopter rotors but keep the engine running so that we can engage rotors again and take off.

I replied, “Hotel-Charlie this is Mike-Kilo, Roger, Stopping Rotors.”

Immediately the helicopter controller replied, “Shut Down Engine and Rotors.”

I replied, “Roger, Shutting Down Engine and Rotors.”

About an hour before this radio call, we were ordered to take off with the Admiral onboard for the Annual Inspection of the Ship scheduled at sea, land on the ship's flight deck at 10:00 am, disembark the Admiral, take off immediately for a 45 minutes Flight and return back to base.

Four hours later, at 2:00 pm, we were to go back land on the ship’s deck once again and await the Admiral, with the helicopter engine running but the rotors stopped.

Once the Admiral boards the helicopter, we were supposed to engage the helicopter rotors and take off for the base.

Once the helicopter engines and rotors are shut down, it is mandatory to carry out an After Flight Servicing immediately. Similarly, a mandatory Before Flight Servicing is also required to be carried out, without which the helicopter cannot be flown again, as per aviation regulations. Something inside me was already telling me that, this 45 minutes sorties is going to be a 45 days flight.

Pilots are not authorised to carryout any type of aircraft servicing. They have to use trained and qualified men and engineers to carry out each and every servicing, who will also sign the necessary documents. Only after that can a pilot accept the aircraft for flying.

Normally, if the helicopter is planned to switch off on a ship, then we would either carry the technical crew with us on the helicopter or position the crew on the ship before the ship sails out from the harbour in case they cannot be carried on missions like this one where an Admiral will be onboard our helicopter.

Both, I and my Copilot were fully aware that any violation of regulations might cost us our career. We did not have any ground crew on the ship because we were not planning to switch off the helicopter any time on the ship.

If we switch off the engines on the ship, then someone has to fly in the ground crew on board to carry out the after flight servicing and the before flight servicing, for us to be able to start the engine and take off with the Admiral onboard.

After switching off the helicopter we sat  ship’s bollard on the port side, unable to think logically. The ship was planned to sail for 45 days continuously, once the Admiral completes the Annual Inspection and is flown back to the base. The ship was to proceed for a Sea patrol mission to be undertaken 300 miles off the nearest coast.

We had to come up with a strategy immediately, because we had not come prepared to stay 45 days on the ship. We had nothing on us other than our flying clothing and gears, all of which we were already wearing namely, the flying overalls, a pair of boots and socks, one pair of gloves, one underwear, one flying bonedome and that is all.

We did not have any money or items necessary for our basic morning routine, night rigs, bathing towel or anything.

I said to my copilot, “We don’t have a choice. We will have to beg, borrow or steal to survive 45 days on the ship.”

My copilot thought said, “Sir, that won't be necessary. Neither the ship’s crew nor the non-aviator Admiral knows about the two mandatory flight servicing before we start the helicopter and take off."

I said, "So?"

He continued, "So, at 2:00 pm, we will just start the engines and take off with the Admiral back to base. We will log today’s sortie as just one long sortie instead of two sorties, adding up the time we flew.”

Although, I used to be a ‘By the Books’ guy, I replied, “Even I cannot imagine myself living, working, eating and sleeping in the same flying overalls I am wearing now, for 45 continuous days."

My copilot replied, " Sir, Why extend a 45 minutes flight to 45 days? In an emergency, everything is fair."

I said, "In a war everything is fair. In an emergency they are going to find fault with whatever we do."

I paused, looked at him and said, "I hope you understand that if we do as you say and someone checks the aircraft documents and finds out, your and my flying careers would be over.”

The two of us sat in the sun, thinking over the consequences if we didn't start the engines, deciding to sail for 45 days and also about the consequences if we decided to start the engines and take off with the Admiral back to base.

An hour later I said, “I go with your suggestion. We will start up the helicopter without the inspections, take the Admiral and return back to base at 2:00 pm. Buy it will be like a Cat drinking milk with its eyes closed to ensure no one sees it stealing milk.”

My young copilot’s face lit up with hope. But, the two of us were completely oblivious to what fate had already decided for us. My copilot walked happily to the Ship’s Officers Ward Room Mess with me for an early lunch, so that we could be ready to take the Admiral back to base.

The Admiral’s pilots always get a special treatment in the ship. It was of course a grand lunch. We met up with a few of our old friends in the Ward Room. After lunch we read a few old magazines lying around in the Ward Room and even had a game of Chess to pass time.

It was 1:30 pm and the Admiral would be leaving at 2:00 pm. We walked from the Ward Room towards the ship’s deck, to start the helicopter engines and be ready to fly the Admiral back to the base. The ship was still around 30 nautical miles from the nearest shore. I reassured my self, it is going to be a 45 minutes flight and not a 45 days long flight.

I finished the external inspection of the helicopter. Everything was OK. The time was 1:45 pm and I told my copilot who was already on the copilot seat and ready, “Start the engine.”

The copilot said, “Yes Sir.”

I stood in front of the cockpit awaiting the Admiral. Three minutes passed and I didn’t hear the engine starting up. I looked back at the copilot. He was frantically checking some switches, circuit breakers and was moving the engine throttle up and down. I knew something was not right. That is when he reluctantly looked at me and showed a thumbs down with his left hand.

My heart sank. The helicopter had some trouble and the engine was not starting up. What am I going to tell the Admiral and the Ship’s Captain. What reason was I going to give to my Flight Commander who had faith in me and had entrusted this important task of taking the Admiral to the ship at sea and back to base.

As I was drowning in completely in demoralising thoughts, the Admiral walked to the Ship’s Flight Deck with the Ship’s Captain and the ship's staff in tow. The Admiral stopped walking as he saw the helicopter still not started up. He had their piercing eyes pinned on me with an expression of disbelief. The aircraft engine should have started up and ready by the time the Admiral arrives on the flight deck.

I took two steps forward, saluted the Admiral and said, “The helicopter has an engine defect, Sir.”

The Admiral replied, “That is OK son, it happens sometimes.”

As the Admiral turned around and walked back I heard the Admiral say, “Captain, ask the base to send another helicopter.”

The Captain said, “Yes, Sir.”

The Captain stopped, looked at me with his expressionless face and said, “Inform the base on your helicopter radio about your inability to take off with the Admiral and ask for another helicopter to take the Admiral back to base. After that, push your helicopter inside the hangar to clear the flight deck for the next helicopter to land in the next ten minutes.”

I said, “Yes, Sir.”

I radioed to the base, “Approach this is Mike-Kilo, aircraft unserviceable on deck, request send another helicopter for the Admiral. Also, request the Flight Commander to send the technical team along with our aircraft documents in that helicopter for defect rectification onboard. We will disembark the ship post defect rectification.”

I moved our helicopter into the ship's hangar and secured it. Another helicopter was airborne in ten minutes.

When that helicopter landed on the ship 30 minutes later, I got my second surprise. There were just two pilots on that helicopter and nobody else. My Flight Commander had not sent any technical crew to the ship.

The Admiral came to the flight deck immediately after that helicopter landed, boarded it and the helicopter took off for the base. I stood there on the flight deck, watching the helicopter fly towards base.

Hope was still alive. My Flight Commander cannot ditch me. He is going to send another helicopter with the technical crew to rectify my helicopter. I waited on the deck till 5:00 pm. But, no helicopter came. And I had also noticed that the ship was on a constant heading with the coastline fading out of sight behind us, sailing into the deep sea.

As the sun went down into the sea on the horizon, my hope to go back home also drowned. We were now going to be sailing for 45 days on a ship, on which we were only supposed to just land, disembark the Admiral and return back to base.

Days passed. Each day was completely boring, as we had no flying to do and we were not even put on bridge watch duty roster, because the ship’s Captain did not want to see us anywhere on his ship. Everyday, I would spend most of my time on the flight deck. I go down into the ship only after I watch the sun going down into the sea, over the horizon.

Some of the ship’s Officers helped us by letting us buy our basic routine items from the ship’s canteen on credit. We were on the ship without any transfer documents from our base either for us or for the aircraft we flew to the ship. The two of us and our helicopter were all officially onboard but, staying illegally on the ship.

We survived 45 days of super boredom, sailing in the deep seas with nothing to see and nothing to do, wear our flying overall by day, and sleep in borrowed bathing robes because we had to wash our flying overalls ourselves at night and put to dry in the bathroom. In fact, after a week of being onboard, I was looking forward to washing my flying overall, because that was the only constructive job I did everyday.

On the 45th day the ship was closing the shore. I was relieved that our 45 days of boredom is finally going to end in a few hours. I hoped the technicians would arrive onboard in a helicopter, fix our helicopter engine defects and we could take off to base before the ship entered the harbour. The shore lines kept closing in. I saw the harbour mouth as the ship sailed towards the shoreline. Then we entered the harbour and finally the ship was tied alongside the jetty.

I couldn’t believe that my Flight Commander could have ditched us no once but twice in 45 days. The gangway was placed on the ship and sailors started disembarking to the jetty. With the helicopter still onboard the ship, the two of us had no choice but stay onboard until someone came and relieved us.

That is when I saw my Flight Commander on the jetty along with a long trailer with a few technical sailors. He had come driving his own personal vehicle. He walked up the gangway and came straight to me.

The Flight Commander smiled and said, “Son, how was your 45 days flight?"

Before I could answer, he continued, "Listen, our plan is to use the jetty crane, to remove the helicopter from the ship and place it on that trailer. We have to move the helicopter by road to the airbase. You will superwise the whole operation. OK?”

He gave me no choice and I said, “Yes, Sir.”

The Flight Commander smiled at me, walked down the gangway to the jetty and vanished in his vehicle as quickly he had come.

I got the helicopter moved out from the hangar to the flight deck. Then I supervised the jetty crane operator to lift the helicopter safely from the ship and place it safely on the long trailers.

We cleared the roads and moved the trailer with the helicopter loaded on it slowly by road to our airbase. Before sunset, the helicopter was back in our aircraft hangar, in the airbase.

I came out of the aircraft hangar relieved. I stood there watching the sun setting behind the trees for the 46th time since day I had landed on the ship. I was happy to see the sunset this time. I felt exhilerated at the thought that, tonight, I am going to sleep in my own bed, wearing my own clothes.


  
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