One of the inevitabilities encountered in gaining rotary-wing aviation experience, when compared to indulgence in the relative orderliness of most fixed-wing flying, is the endless cavalcade of random safety challenges which are absolutely guaranteed to befall the virtuous pilot, however cautious and conservative that individual might aspire to be. Early recollections of Coast Guard operations, as prominent illustration in my own background, showcase this generalized axiom in pronounced detail.
Flying out of Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico, our coverage area was one of the largest in the world. It stretched north, from the southern Bahamas, all the way down to South America, encompassing very nearly the whole Caribbean, and its vast constellation of islands. Search and rescue, one of our assigned broad categories of duty, incorporated requiring the presence of our HH-3F Sikorsky Pelican helicopters anywhere and everywhere in that prodigious area, taking sometimes more than full advantage of the long range and endurance characteristics delivered by the heaviest and most capable S-61 ever produced. Many days during that assignment proved to be utterly unique, while human events, as variable as snowflakes and fingerprints, unfolded across the enormous portion of the globe, which comprised our area of responsibility.
One night we received notification from the San Juan Search/Rescue Coordination Center that a serious cardiac distress was in unhappy progress on a large cruise ship, at sea south of Peter Island, in the British Virgins, and that the patient was in critical need of fast medical evacuation. Feeling imminently qualified to deliver crucial humanitarian assistance, we launched into typical night conditions for what was expected to be an easy rendezvous with a pleasant, though moving, destination.
We were able to spot our opulently floating resort target from the comfort of our venerable H-3 while still many miles out, and were happy to record establishing good radio contact with the captain, as we planned to lower medically qualified flight crew, tasked with accomplishing stabilization and packaging of the patient for a stretcher hoist.
All was well as we made our first reconnaissance overflight of the brightly lighted luxury vessel, and we were immediately able to approve the covered swimming pool deck area amidships, which the captain was recommending as his preferred site for staging our hoist operation. We could see that many additional decks of elevated superstructure rose both forward and aft of the open pool area, and that large numbers of spectators had assembled along dozens of overlook balconies and railings. This, evidently, was to be a major onboard event of high interest to the general population of seagoing guests.
As we descended along a final approach course to the cleared pool deck, moving laterally at 10 knots along with the rest of the vessel, we were comfortable with the proximities of the fore and aft structures slightly left and right of our approach path, and were encouraged by the apparent good discipline of all personnel on site, especially the passengers. But just as we slowed the final few knots and arrested our descent in stabilizing a high hover, a salvo of what ended up being many hundreds of camera flashbulbs and strobes began to fire, culminating in an overwhelming crescendo of shockingly dazzling light. We might as well have had a flash bomb tossed through our windshields. We were able to abort our approach, cautiously and gently climbing away, and to eventually achieve a return to some semblance of night vision equilibrium at a safe altitude and distance from the ship.
To say that we never expected an attack by flashbulb to our hoist operations in such an otherwise idyllic setting would have to be classified as memorable understatement.
I’ve looked through every possible collection of reference materials, and I’m still not able to find specific warnings to helicopter crews about possible attack by flashbulb. We asked the captain to have his guests refrain from further flash photography that evening, and were then able to proceed with assisting our distress in normal fashion, but we certainly hadn’t seen that hazard coming, and were consequently able to make a fresh entry, describing a previously undiscovered danger, into rotary wing aviation’s master safety log.
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