7 & 8 February 2012:
The anticipation of taking your first helicopter flight is thrilling and frightening at the same time. Taking off in the valleys of the Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal is an added thrill that makes it even more special than just a quick joyride. Doing it for work (when you’re not footing the bill) even better. Twenty minutes into the flight having to do an emergency landing on the side of a steep incline? Not so great.
Most of my time is spent office-bound in an edit suite behind two twenty inch monitors, and a forty inch 3D TV screen just for a good measure of eye-strain and neck ache. I’m a South African documentary film editor for a production company with bases in South Africa, London, and Washington. Not as glamorous as it sounds – unless they occasionally send you into the field, which is also not as glamorous and exciting as it may seem. Up before sunrise after going to bed in sometimes hazardous environments around midnight after slogging up and down mountainsides with camera gear. It takes its toll on both nerves and muscle but I believe even field producers/directors have to carry their weight. Crew is crew.
Film shoots are only really an adventure after the fact; over a cool beer or sitting in your air-conditioned office wishing you were back out in the wilds. Not that you don’t appreciate the sights and sounds (of hyena a few hundred metres away in the pitch black), but work is work; deadlines are deadlines even in the bush.
One morning our production manager stuck her head into my office and asked, “Stephen, we need you to direct the 3D aerial shoot for two days. You’ll be flying over the Drakensberg mountains, valleys, and rivers in the morning; then straight to Uhluhluwe (one of SA’s top game reserves) in the afternoon to capture herds of buffalo, rhino and generally beautiful African savanna on film; spending the night in Sodwana Bay on the east coast to get up at sunrise to film over the blue Indian Ocean and lake St. Lucia – one of the world’s great wetlands.” Pause. “Are you available?”
“I think I can squeeze that into my current workload.” What I really wanted to say was “F#$k yeah, can I leave now?”
By the time the Bell 407 had a gap in the thick clouds to descend to pick me up from the Cathedral Peak helipad, I was tired from impatiently pacing up and down the concrete for the past two hours.
I also tried not to take the delay and looming clouds as a bad omen. I tried.
The crew onboard was a bit frazzled and frustrated from spending the past few hours (after flying 300 kilometres from Johannesburg) sitting on top of a mountain waiting for the weather to clear to land. My experience is a cameraman with a camera feels useless if he’s not filming.
So, pilot, 3D camera operator, Gyro operator, and 3D assistant landed, refueled, and prepared for take off.
Now there are certain things that we learn in hindsight or after the fact. This was one instance that I was grateful for learning over dinner.
Being new to a helicopter, headsets and clearance protocol, I was so preoccupied with my new surroundings and buckling up that I missed some of the dialogue between the pilot and the pilot’s mental/verbal checklists. I missed the beeping noise that prompted the pilot to casually remark, “That’s strange. That’s never done that before. I must remember to get them to check that in the next service.”
I don’t think that the self-portrait photos I took with my iPhone would have had quite the same cheesy grin and childlike innocence painted all over them. But maybe that was a good thing so I could go about my job of directing. I like to think positive. Usually.
Sweeping down the rolling valleys and ravines only a few metres from the tips of trees and gigantic boulders was exhilarating until flying up them became a slight problem.
“We’re too heavy!” shouted the pilot over our headsets. I suddenly felt very self-conscious at that moment, considering I was the recent added weight. “And there’s not enough up-draught! We need to offload.”
“God, I hope that doesn’t mean chucking unnecessary weight,” I thought. In my mind the director/producer would be the first tossed.
But I thought it was all par for the course. No real reason to panic. Until we proceeded to land on the nearest piece of grass available. Not a nice flat and cozy spot on a mountaintop but a 30-degree incline of rapidly approaching hillside.
Still there didn’t seem too much reason for panic. It was efficiently executed and there was no terrified screaming coming over my headset.
Three of us bundled out of the helicopter beneath the thumping blades and waited for it to lift off to a safer spot to pick us up. This happened to be three attempts later and a hefty trek up the hillside. Even while we readied ourselves for the blast of wind from the helicopter trying to lift off from us, I didn’t put much significance to the ashen look on the faces of the two other crew members crouched in he thrashing grass next to me. They must be serious about there work and they’ve done this many times before. This was our 3D assistant’s second flight.
As the helicopter began lifting off the hillside we noticed that it was doing less ascending and more descending. And on an incline it meant those beating blades we coming closer to our heads. I didn’t hesitate to follow my colleagues in biting the grass, so to speak, as the blades sliced fairly close to us – without exaggerating.
I didn’t feel altogether consoled when the gyro operator remarked, “Holy shit, that’s never happened in all the years I’ve flown with our pilot never mind a helicopter.”
And yes, I would only feel safe again in a helicopter if I have the same pilot. Experience counts. And hindsight let the reality of it slowly dawn on me rather than shrieking in my ear.
The rest of the film shoot was a breeze.
When the pilot is ‘concerned’ about anything, that is your cue to panic.
When the pilot says we need to land ASAP, that is your cue to panic.
When the pilot says, “we’re going to fly low so keep an eye out for wires”, that is you cue to actually pay attention if you want to live.