Most of the time, flying helicopters is pretty mundane. I cruise overhead, busy with a particular project or task and watch people commute to work, from my little cockpit office. You see, helicopter pilots are normal people too, you know!
We have jobs, homes and families, gardens, pets and all the usual gadgetry to sustain a balanced, middle-class life. Yes, you heard me, middle-class. Although we’re also captains of our aircraft, we don’t typically feature in the high-stakes poker games of the international airline pilots’ clubs. The difference between our line of work and your traditional 9 to 5 jobs is that occasionally we get a hefty shot of adrenaline along the way.
In my case, like most normal people, I also need to relax and be available as a husband and dad to my family. This involves many social activities, including my daughters’ ballet recitals, having friends over for braais and other entertaining, which my wife and I love to do. But due to the nature of my flying career in the security industry, I try not to be surprised when I need to drop everything and help when called on for a flying emergency. Although my role has changed somewhat after a few years in this game, where initially I was ordered to respond to an incident by my supervisor, I now often respond in duty to a friend. Friendships are easily formed in the middle of the battlefield when you have no option but to stick together. Maintaining those friendships in suburbia sometimes requires sacrificing one’s own comfort and convenience.
This column is about that bond.
Like many other public holidays before it, on the day in question, my wife and I had arranged a social braai around the swimming pool. It was spring. The days and the pool were becoming warmer, the kids needed desperately to work on their tans (but not me, of course) and I was keen to just chill with friends, as we do on a holiday. Sadly, I had a bit of a sore throat and the sniffles, caught from one of my snot-nosed offspring. This meant no beer for me: my body just wasn’t keen. We welcomed our guests, their kids playing with ours right from the get-go, and we fired up the braai with a little help from a squirt of Jet A1. No sooner had we put the meat on the braai than my phone began to vibrate in my pocket.
I have a policy of no phones at mealtimes, blocking most messages and calls, but between flipping boerewors, I took it out to read the message. It was from Gert, one of my “battlefield friends,” who needed help. I called him back, and slowly moved away from the braai. My guests knew that all was not well by the concern in my voice during the short call.
It turned out that one of the members of a specialised unit in which Gert was involved had been shot, while responding to a robbery attempt. Subsequently, the gang had raced away under hot pursuit through a suburb and abandoned their stolen vehicle in a nearby wooded area. The call was made for air support to assist the now-growing law enforcement squad to apprehend the armed suspects. My wife knows me well after 12 years of marriage and almost as many flying. She could see immediately that there was a flight on and that she would be entertaining our guests without me.
I knew that my right-hand man Stewie was away for a well-deserved break, and so immediately got on the phone to my other pilots. You need to know your crew well, including their experience level – not only log-book hours but actual field exposure – to know who you can send at the drop of a hat. I called around looking for one of those pilots who might have been closer to a helicopter than me, but to no avail.
But wait, I had not been drinking. I could go. The only problem was that I was at least 20 minutes away from the heliport, even at motorcycle speeds. I quickly called Ally, my trusted hangar hand, to get a helicopter ready for me. He, it turns out, was also away for the long weekend. Thwarted!
I did some quick head calcs: travel to heliport, 20 mins, get chopper out, 10 mins, start up, 4 mins, target ferry, 13 mins. This was going to take time. I called Gert back, “I’m going to be on target in about 40 minutes, is that ok?”
“Please come,” he entreated.
The urgency in his voice was all the encouragement I needed. Within minutes I had apologised to my gathered guests, said my goodbyes and taken off towards the N1 at “response” speed. If I had a flashing light and siren on my bike, they would have been on. Motorcycles can be dangerous toys. But they are essential in the business of helping friends. Quickly. All kinds of thoughts go through my mind as I’m racing down the highway in “operational mode”: fuel, getting the aircraft out fast, etc. As I drove into the heliport, my heart skipped a beat in joy as I saw one of my trusty Robinson R44s ready and waiting out on the pad!
Had someone called ahead? Was it a fluke? I never did find out. All I knew was that I’d been saved 10 minutes! That’s gold. I quickly parked my bike and swapped my bike helmet for my trusty MSA helicopter helmet. As I started the heli, I was already on the phone with the task team members, now moving in slowly to the wooded area, close on the trail of the assailants. Google maps pin on hand, I propelled the warming chopper skyward in a crow’s flight line to the target. Soon enough, I was overhead the target area setting up a landing zone to pick up a crew member. The target area landing was well over 8,500 feet density altitude. That, combined with a full fuel load, led to some careful performance-limited flying. As I’ve said many times before, it’s good to know your mount well, especially when the pressure’s on.
As we got airborne, my crew briefed me more thoroughly, including that the thugs for whom we were searching were well armed with AK 47s, amongst other weapons. Immediately after take-off, we circled the area to identify positions to secure a ground perimeter. But on our first pass, the ground teams radioed us, “They’re firing at you!”
Immediately I raised the collective, yanking the chopper up, with my crewman’s anxious shouts, “Get higher, get higher!” ringing in my ears. We banked out of harm’s way and put ourselves a good 1,000 feet from the danger below, but from which we could still survey the area. We looked at each other nervously and checked the craft for any signs of having been hit. Experience has taught me to fly with a level 5 Kevlar vest under the seat whenever going out on an operation of this sort. It’s just what I do.
In their foolhardy attempt to shoot at us, however, the suspects had given away their position. The ground crew moved in towards their quarry, while we surveyed them from above. It didn’t take long to apprehend the criminals after that.
Another bit of encouraging news was that the member who had been shot was set to make a full recovery. All in all, we could write this operation up as a success for the team. I had never imagined that our taking fire would be the key in a situation like this. But as helpful as it was, it’s not something I’d wish for, that’s for sure.
Two things came to mind as I called home to apologise to my guests for my rude departure. The first was that friendship often requires sacrifice. The second: helicopter pilots are normal people too; normal people who just happen to get a shot of adrenaline sporadically, while sitting in their little office in the sky.