Live From the Cockpit
We were 1500 feet off the ground when my dad asked me if I wanted to "take the controls." I nodded, grabbed the cyclic and proceeded to haul back and forth on it. As my stomach became lodged in my throat, my moment of immaturity ended and I seriously began to wonder what flying is all about.
So, I asked my so-called "captain", Bob Duff, pilot extraordinaire! He said that first, I needed to know the function of each instrument. "What's this button do?" had already helped me accomplish this feat, and probably the title of "Annoying". There are speed indicators, radar, altimeter (altitude), fuel gauges and other gidgets and gadgets. The coolest device is the Global Positioning System which is basically a line with a dot on it. The dot is the aircraft, a BO-105 helicopter in our case, and the line the course. You program in the coordinates of your destination and then follow the dot. Sounds simple doesn't it? Well, not exactly.
There's more to being a pilot than just following a dot on a line. You need to know what to do in an emergency, how to perform rescues, land, and take-off, or "sling goods."
To keep your skills at these things as keen as possible, you must train. "I train for about three hours each year in each type of helicopter. I also must do a Pilot Proficiency check ride for an hour," explained my dad. For one week every four years he also must do simulator training in Texas. This is where emergency procedures are practiced, like what to do if your engine quits. So obviously training is a very important part of my dad's job.
My father's training must have paid off because, so far, everything has gone smoothly, except maybe the ride. We've been vibrating and blowing around in the wind ever since we took off. Fortunately, I didn't eat before we came up here!
"Okay, keep your eyes peeled. Usually, you'll see some caribou running around down there," says my captain. Then, we see them. A little herd of eight or nine micro-caribou. My father starts to circle towards them, and I can picture us plummeting into the ground at any minute, as I involuntary check my seat belt. Then, suddenly, we're back at normal altitude, leaving the startled animals behind. Besides seeing caribou, we also peer out the left window at a passing thunderstorm. The rain looks like a huge wall descending from the sky, ready to crush anything in it's path.
A moment of awkward silence filled the cockpit. I break it by asking about any rescues made by my daring captain. "I was in Ecuador when I heard word that a small plane had slammed into a hill. I transported some military guys out to the crash site and lowered them to the wreckage using ropes. I later heard that the pilot had died on impact and the engineer had broken his back. Another time, I was flying out around the Northern Peninsula when I noticed a guy on the beach jumping and waving his arms. I landed and found out his friend had appendicitis, so I flew him to the nearest hospital."
The landing on the beach is one of the differences between helicopters and planes. A plane needs a runway while a helicopter can land almost anywhere. Helicopters are more versatile than planes. They can do offshore work, "sling goods", and perform search and rescues, while planes just transport people and goods. Helicopters can also be flown in poor weather conditions because they fly closer to the ground and more slowly than planes.
The weather is a very important element to a pilot. It can delay or prevent take-offs or landings, or cause trouble in the air. That is why there are weather reports updated each hour. These recordings are called Automatic Terminal Information Service or ATIS. The ATIS is listened to before landings and take-offs, or while flying.
Before landings or take-offs are possible, the control tower must be contacted. This is to ensure that you have clearance. It's also used to check the weather and traffic in the area. Prior to landing, you must radio in before you reach the location's zone. The control zone is the number of miles out before you must radio in. For example, St. John's control zone is seven miles.
The job of a pilot can take you all over the world. It involves many technical gadgets, like the G.P.S. The worst part of being a pilot is probably the loneliness of flying for hours at a time by yourself. And, trust me, those aircrafts do not have very good radio stations, unless you're an opera fan.