It seems that the more I fly, the more I see how much I still need to learn (about flying). 

1 The Author and his ALEO Timo de Swart.

Learning takes on many forms in the cockpit and it always seems easier when you have a great teacher. Interestingly, and here comes a real bit of ancient wisdom, you can find the most unlikely teachers when you are most teachable.  

In this month’s article, I aim to look at how to become a safer and more confident helicopter pilot, and the roles others, not specifically fellow pilots, play in filling our experiential gaps.  

In several articles over the past few years, I have written about the need for experienced pilots to mentor and guide young aviators. But as important as that is, even experienced aircrew are continually shaped by their environments, and until the day we hang up our helmets, we all need steering and moulding at various points in our logbooks.  

I was fortunate to find both a great flight school and amazing instructors when training to be a pilot. However, away from the safety and the controlled flying environment of the flight school, as I embarked on my new career in the sky I realised that I was pretty much on my own. I wish I could say that I learned some important lessons quickly, like, that if I was to succeed, I would need to learn to adapt (or die) and that I should never be too proud to accept support and advice.  

My first flying gig was in the security industry, flying on a vehicle tracking contract. It wasn’t a very difficult job, the most stressful part being to learn to traverse the busy Gauteng airspace (something I will try to cover in a future article). Most days it was like being in a cops and robbers movie. Every boy’s dream. A lot of waiting around, punctuated by frenetic flying to try to catch car thieves in the act! But not exactly the kind of job for a 100-hour fresh com pilot. A year down the line, with 600 hours under my belt, I thought I was a super pilot. Oh, did I have a lot to learn! 

My second (and current) flying job came along soon, this time in the broader security solutions sphere, managing helicopter operations. As a relatively inexperienced pilot, I was tossed into an industry that knew little about how to safely use a helicopter for security in the highly-regulated aviation domain.  

The helicopter is a most convenient tool in the time-pressured, action-filled industry of private security in South Africa. How to use it effectively within the safety, financial and legal confines was the challenge I faced. Also, balancing the expectations of a boss with military operational experience and the pressures of a volatile cash-in-transit business with the necessary oversight requirements was a daunting task for this young (in aviation) pilot. I had to learn to say “no” when required, and to stand my ground, with facts to back me up. In so doing, I also realised that I had to have not only a reason for my “no” but, more importantly, an alternative, without which my employer may have failed to see the point of owning an expensive helicopter with a pilot seemingly unwilling to fly it.  

Not only was I managing helicopter operations, however, I was also trying to find my feet flying (as it were) in the specific industry.   

At this time, I met one Timo de Swardt, who had just started working in the task team at Protea Coin. Timo was a long-time SAPS member, having worked as an ALEO (Airborne Law Enforcement Officer) at the Pretoria Air Wing. These guys fly with the pilot to help use the helicopter more effectively in its role as a preventative and reactive crime-fighting tool. Timo had cut his teeth as a K9 “hondeman,” as they are affectionately known in the SAPS. He had then moved on to becoming an experienced ALEO on Hughes 500, Airbus H125 Squirrel, BO105 and BK117 helicopters at the National Heliport in Pretoria. Law enforcement was old hat to this experienced operator.  

In those early days at Protea Coin, I had to make many decisions without really knowing what the situation I was going into looked like. In order to survive and succeed, I regularly found myself flying by the seat of my pants and needing to lean on friends I had made in my short time flying. It was then that I realised how valuable crew members, not only while flying, but also for insight during pre-mission planning, are.  

For example, conducting a confined landing is exponentially safer when you have another set of eyes glancing backwards to the tail rotor.  This was where Timo’s experience in the SAPS Air Wing would come to the fore as he would guide me easily into what could have been a difficult landing zone. To this day, I rely on Timo’s uncanny ability to judge whether our Squirrel, which is particularly difficult to land off-airport due to its long and low tail, will fit into a tight landing zone. Before I can ask, Timo is peering out of the left door, looking around and then calling “two foot left, one foot forward, okay, down!” 

I also learned to rely less on the aircraft’s GPS, with Timo’s shortcuts around Gauteng’s airspace allowing us critical time-saving when most needed! Operating covertly at low level is also made significantly easier as obstacles, such as “aircraft harvesting” power lines, are called out by your crew. There is no better feeling than knowing that you’re in safe hands! 

I clearly lacked experience in dealing with the unknown in a criminal’s environment as well as working in team with experienced law enforcement professionals, in my early days in the industry. With the help of crew like Timo, I quickly gained a better understanding of the basics of helicopter support. Oh, did I have a lot to learn!  

At the time, I also had very few helicopter types on my license and under 1,000 hours of flight experience. The Robinson R44 Raven II that I was flying is a great ship for aerial observation but not very helpful as a tactical platform. For example, in order to drop support personnel into an active engagement, you need a helicopter large and powerful enough for the task. So, along with the security solution skills that were needed, I also had to learn to fly aircraft such as the Airbus H125 Squirrel. In my opinion, the Squirrel is the best tactical light single-engine helicopter for our needs, due to its oodles of power, large, flat-floor cockpit and sliding doors, which enable quick trooping access. As my flight hours slowly built, so came the opportunities to progress onto such types.  

On a recent mission in the darkness of the East Rand, Timo and I worked together on a multi-discipline operation. Drones had been deployed from our sister company UDS in a six-month-long covert operation to track and trace diesel thieves. In order to pinpoint the kingpins in this specific crime ring, Timo had to spend many nights lying next to the drone operators as they gathered all-important evidence to guarantee a successful conviction. At the same time Timo carefully plotted the take down, including when he would call me in and how. On the morning of the bust, we started out at 4 a.m. in our Robinson R66 from the Ultimate Heliport in Midrand. In order to execute an arrest, we needed to catch the perpetrators in the act, as they loaded up. The flight was around 35 minutes to target. At the same time, we maintained communication with the drone crews as briefed in planning. We arrived precisely as planned overhead to provide air support to the officers taking down the suspects, allowing no room for escape. 

In my industry I could quite easily see myself as lord of the skies, grand poobah and top banana, without whom no operation would be successful. But in reality, helicopter flying is only one cog in a well-crafted multi-discipline operation.  In this case, drone, helicopter and ground force working in unison.   

Timo and many other team members have been crucial to my development as a tactical helicopter pilot. As we forged a crew relationship flying together, so we have also become great friends. Which has led to greater trust, and a more seamless crew interaction.  

But specifically, after close to a decade flying with my own ALEO, Timo, I continue to learn from him.  Armed with a heavy tech bag filled with all kinds of tactical trickery, treats for Ferro, his trusty Belgian Malinois, and a “blikkie” or two of bully beef, Timo has left an indelible mark of always “be prepared” on me.  

My hope for you is that as you grow in your flying career and prowess, you may find your own “Timo” to help you on your way.  

Footnote – This column is dedicated to my friend Mark Stoxreiter:  22-3-1980 to 21-1-2021.

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