The early 1970s saw the great expansion of drilling new wells in the North Sea and for the exploration of new areas as far North as the Hebrides. As the number of oil rigs increased so did the demand for helicopters to service them.
The purchase of new helicopters to meet this demand was relatively straightforward. The problem facing companies was the acquisition of pilots. This proved to be a huge problem and the Civil Aviation Authority met the challenge by granting temporary licences to pilots holding foreign licences until such times that the pressure eased. At the time I was sent North by the company a number of American ex-Vietnam experienced helicopter pilots had been recruited.
Seeing through the clouds
In spite of the pilot shortage, my company hesitated to transfer me since elements within the company had the opinion that ex-army helicopter pilots would not be able to qualify to fly in cloud relying solely on the helicopter’s instruments to control the flight. Only ex-Royal Air Force and Royal Navy trained pilots were trained to fly under such conditions.
In order to do so, pilots must pass an instrument rating. It is probably the most demanding of all the tests a commercial pilot has to face. It consists of a flight of about ninety minutes with an examiner from the UK Civil Aviation Authority. Throughout the test the helicopter must be flown extremely accurately regardless of turbulence, strong and changeable winds interspersed with simulated emergency situations. The pilot under test has shades in front of the windscreens so that it is not possible to see out of the helicopter. Everything centres around the helicopter’s instruments.
I managed to persuade the company management that I would be able to make the transition and drove to Aberdeen at the end of June. As I entered the city it was snowing – what a welcome!
Having completed my conversion onto the Sikorsky 61N (an approximately thirty-passenger helicopter) the only hurdle left was the instrument rating check flight.
The day dawned as a beautiful autumn morning with clear skies and superb visibility. The government examiner briefed me and, having boarded the cockpit, he leant over and placed the shades across the windscreen in front of me. I noticed that he had not fixed them correctly and I could still see out of the bottom gap that had been left.
All went well I thought and the finale was an approach onto the main runway at Aberdeen Dyce airport. The vital instrument on which I had to rely had two bars. One showed whether you were left or right of the runway and the other indicated whether the helicopter was below or above the required glide path. The object was to keep both bars central. I could see the threshold of the runway through the gap that the Examiner had left and was able to fly a safe approach. Both needles on the instrument remained firmly central as was required.
I felt elated and as I left the cockpit I turned to the examiner expecting his congratulations. He paused, put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a pen and wrote on his millboard. He tore out a sheet of paper and passed it to me. I read the letters ‘YFNKM.’ I asked him for an explanation and he said ‘You f……… nearly killed me!’ In those days, should the instrument fail be activated, both bars showed central. I had forgotten to switch it on.
Welcome to the danger zone
The weather over the North Sea can be horrendous, especially during winter but worst of all it can change at the drop of a hat. At the beginning of a flight the wind can be light and then suddenly you can find that you are facing an eighty-knot headwind. Not only were we serving oil rigs but also the associated support ships.
Landings onto these were particularly frightening since the helicopter landing pads were always on the extreme stern or bow of the ships. Consequently in heavy seas the landing areas could be pitching up to thirty-five feet or so. At the same time there was the roll to deal with. Landings at night under these conditions were particularly terrifying.
Of all our tasks, the top priority was the saving of human life and attending to the breakdown of an oil rig. Both had the same priority. Whatever the weather – we went. I still have nightmares of landing on one of the small supply boats to pick up a seriously injured mariner in a snowstorm at night. It is one of the few times in my life that I prayed.
The Americans who were given temporary UK licences were all, without exception, amazing pilots. In those early days on the North Sea rules and regulations were few and these pilots took full advantage of the fact. We had no weather radar on the helicopter and I shall never forget flying out to a rig near the Shetland Islands with an American pilot. Twenty minutes out we hit thick fog. He descended to about thirty feet over the waves, slowed the helicopter to a near hover and climbed up the side of the rig to land safely on the helipad.
A number of the American pilots lived in flats in the centre of the city and, opening the door to visit, was my first experience of the effects of the pervading cannabis. They were a real tonic and were all to a man optimistic, positive and a wonderful counterpart to the Granite City and its greyness. We British pilots – after getting over our initial horror at their innovation and creativeness – learnt much from them.
Burning the candle
My bank balance during my stay in Aberdeen was even in a worse state than usual and I was faced with the inevitable: I had to find a second job. Fortunately I had teamed up with a friend in Germany who had worked as a croupier in a casino in Germany. He had showed me how to gather and count chips quickly and accurately.
I was given an interview by the owner of a small casino tucked away in the docklands of Aberdeen. His only interests were whether I was mathematically agile and whether I could manipulate chips. So I found myself working at the tables and also having to commit to the flying roster.
It was a very depressing time. I found it demoralising to watch players lose and lose again but buoyed temporarily by an occasional win that spurred them to continue. I remember one lady in particular. Clearly not well off she arrived every evening as the doors opened. Within an hour she had lost all her chips but back she would come the next night and the next and the next. When it became clear that I was jeopardising flight safety by trying to burn the candle at both ends and resigned, she was there on my last night at the tables. Nearly four months later I saw her sitting at the corner of a street outside a supermarket with her retriever and begging bowl.
However there were moments which were pleasurable. Seeing the Northern Lights on the way to the most Northern oil rigs, and the delicious hampers given to us by the rig crews when we flew on Christmas day, completing a difficult landing in very bad weather and, above all, the wonderful camaraderie.
On return from a particularly long flight in miserable winter weather I opened a letter offering me employment in a new organisation flying for the Sultan of Oman and his family.
I almost ran to the post office with my letter of acceptance.