Monday, February 07, 2011

The Scary Orientation Flight

Just before the start of Desert Storm itself, three additional team members were assigned to our platoon. One of the new guys was a Kuwaiti (I'll call him Ahmad) who was going to school at a university in The States when the Iraqi Army invaded his country. The other two were Arabic linguists from Fort Stewart, Georgia.

One of the two from Fort Stewart was called "Jed" because he was the oldest guy in his unit and "Jed" was similar to the Arabic word for "grandpa." He carried around a hollow body Gibson guitar, which he played rather well if memory serves. The other I'll call "Slim." he was a nice enough guy, but seemed a little skittish when he first came around.

One of the first things the three needed to do was take an orientation flight in the aircraft. First we gave them some instruction on the workings of the aircraft itself, then the equipment, safety procedures, routine flight procedures and other appropriate information. Once they were issued the flight equipment, we took them up for a ride.

The one my team was assigned to take up was Slim. We took him out to the flight line and showed him all the pre-flight procedures. We pulled a fuel sample (which was saved to burn in our Coleman stove), checked over the mission equipment inside the aircraft and helped the pilots check over the outside of the bird.

As we walked around the helicopter checking this and that, Slim kept mentioned a couple times that he was nervous about flying. I tried to reassure him that there wasn't anything to be nervous about and that he'd enjoy the experience. As I was showing him how to properly put on his survival vest, he flat out told me, "Sergeant, I'm really afraid of flying." I was looking away when he said this, and as I turned to try to again reassure him, I saw The Scrounger standing behind him with a big smile on his face. The only thing I could stammer out at that point was, "You really shouldn't have said that." I don't remember what Scrounger said, but I think it was something like, "Oh, don't worry, you'll love what we have in store for you."

After we ran up the aircraft and went through the check list, the first thing we did is what's called a "High Performance Takeoff." To to this, the pilot pulls the pitch lever and the aircraft goes straight up. It's not an acrobatic maneuver, but you're nervous about flying, it might take you aback. After we gained some altitude, we did some tail spins. Again, this isn't much of an acrobatic (or aerobatic) thing, but you're not used to it, the maneuver can be a little nerve wracking. After the tail spins, we did flying around, turning here and there and going up and down. I could hear Slim moan every once in a while and ask over the intercom, "Are we done yet?"

I could tell this wasn't going well. At best Slim was getting so scared he'd never want to fly again. At worst, I figured he might hurl, which would cause others to do likewise and make a huge mess. Neither scenario was good.

After a few more minutes of scaring Slim to death, The Scrounger came over the intercom. He said something like, "I know you're nervous about flying, but you really shouldn't be. All of the maneuvers we've done so far have been strictly by the book. Now, I want you to unbuckle your harness and come up here to the front and let us walk you though some of the controls and shown you what we're doing."

"Ah, good," I thought, "The Scrounger is showing he has a heart and is going to help calm Slim down."

But, I was wrong.

No sooner than Slim had unbuckled and crawled up to the cockpit, he started screaming so loud I could hear him over the engine noise, "They're not holding on to the controls! They're not holding on to the controls" He scrambled back to his seat and frantically tried to rebuckle his harness.

Now, the pilots weren't doing anything terribly dangerous. The aircraft we were in had a computer-assisted attitude control. This wasn't an autopilot, but rather an aid to help keep the aircraft straight and level. If no one was holding the controls, the computer would keep the helicopter in level flight going in whatever direction it happened to be pointed.

At this point, Scrounger finally picked up that Slim was really quite terrified. When Slim calmed down a little, Scrounger came back over the intercom and explained what was going on. He explained that he was trying to show Slim that the aircraft was built to be very safe. He explained the computer control assist and how it worked. He then explained that all the maneuvers done during the flight were all easy "peacetime" ones. He explained the limits to turns, climbing and diving. He then went and called out the maneuvers before he did them so Slim could see there was nothing to be afraid of. "Here's X degrees to the left. Now were going X degrees to the right. Now were going up X degrees. Now we're going down X degrees.

The interesting thing when you're looking out the window and the aircraft does a turn at, it does sometimes appear that you're looking straight down. Next time you're taking a plane ride somewhere, look out the window as the plane banks during takeoff or approach and you'll see what I mean.

Slim finally calmed down after a short time of calling out maneuvers. As the flight wrapped up, we headed over to the hot refuel point. A hot refuel is when the aircraft is fueled while running. Part of the crew responsibility is to stand outside near where the fuel hose is with a fire extinguisher. Slim and I manned the extinguisher while the fueler topped off the bird.

When the fueling was finished, Slim wanted to walk back to the camp. He didn't realize we were over a mile away. When I told him he didn't seem to care, either. I equated this situation with the old saying which tells us if you fall off the horse, you need to get right back on so you don't lose your nerve. It turned out to be a great idea to make Slim get back in the bird and fly back to the camp.

The happy ending to this story was that he got over his fear of flying at least enough that he was able to do missions while he was assigned to our unit.

This is part 10 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

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