Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Helicopter Operations

The crew prepares for a flight.

The ship is filling back up again with passengers as we head into our final week of the cruise. We picked up last year’s Gough Island science team and turnover staff and are now back at Tristan de Cunha. For the previous two weeks, the five ship-based scientists have pretty much had the place to ourselves. Other than the ship's crew, there are twelve men that make up the helicopter crew who have been onboard the whole time. They did not get to join us during the unique down-time us scientists got on both Tristan and Gough Islands (see previous posts). Instead, they were busy shuttling passengers and cargo between the ship and the islands.
A container is flown to Gough Island.

There are two identical helicopters stored in the hangar on level 5, and they have flown both on this trip, though only one at a time. They are used for both scientific and logistic purposes. Containers full of supplies are brought out from the ship's hold and connected to a quick release device hanging down from the helicopter (see picture at left). At least one of the helicopter crew members are on the ground to ensure the containers are set down safely, and then the pilot presses a button to release the cargo. The process is reversed when bringing empty containers back to the ship.

It’s a very cool operation to watch from the sixth floor lounge, which has a bank of windows from which you can see the helicopter’s approach. It hovers over the deck in the space between the ship’s bridge and forward crane. Conditions have to be just right in order to safely conduct these operations, and the ship often moves to position the wind most favorably.

Flights were also taken to survey other areas of the island, and to drop scientists off at otherwise inaccessible areas. This turnover cruise is one of only a few times all year that a helicopter is available on each of these islands. A few trips were also taken when we were off-shore of Nightingale Island in order to supply the scientists who will live there for the next six months.

The crew are a friendly bunch of guys, ready to chat over meals; it's like having a bunch of uncles and cousins onboard. Many of them have visited the lab and I got a tour of the hangar and helicopter in return. Apparently over the course of this five week cruise, they will be in the air for a total of 20 hours. At first, this might not sound like much, but each run only takes a few minutes. Not to mention that during the days the ship is near the islands, the helicopter crew is basically always on call, as they need to take advantage of any good weather window. As you can see in the picture at the bottom of the page, there’s a GPS screen on the dashboard, just like in a car. In this case, it shows trip after trip between the ship and the base on Gough Island, as well as a few longer trips to other areas.
The twelve members of the Ultimate Heli team.
While waiting to get back to science operations, I've spent some time in the hangar observing maintenance, as well as the start up and shut down procedures. The blades can be rotated so that all four are in line with the body of the helicopter, so it takes up less space. Before each flight, the helicopter is rolled out onto the flight deck and engineers move the blades into position (see top photo). Fuel is added, the doors are put on, and a whole checklist of other operations are performed. On the cargo runs, one pilot, one co-pilot, and an engineers acting as a spotter are in the helicopter. Three men are dressed in fire gear and standing ready on the flight deck in case of emergency.
Many of the crew members have worked all over the world, often in remote areas. Even compared to their standards, a trip like this, to the most remote islands on Earth, must be something special. It takes the whole team to get the job done, and these guys really seem to enjoy the challenge.

Engineer Phillip spots for landing on Gough Island.
Agulhas II in the background.

Gough base as seen from the helicopter. Note the GPS on the dash.

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