Big helicopter - Little ship

Ship landing is some of the best flying you can do
Stephane Demers
July 18, 2007
By Stephane Demers
115-shipJust when I thought that learning to fly the Sea King was a workout, I flew out to my first ship. My first time landing on a deck would be to HMCS Iroquois, a destroyer, just off the Nova Scotia coast. Luckily for my nerves it was very calm but it was night. Although a newbie like myself normally makes his first deck landing in daytime, I had to work within a compressed schedule because three weeks later I was set to sail on HMCS Montreal as we deployed to Op Apollo. After two haul-down landings and one free deck landing I was declared operational. In reality of course, I now knew just enough to not be completely scared out of my wits when I did go to the ship but would require much more experience.

It’s amazing how little of the deck you can actually see as you try to wrestle 20,500 pounds of 40- year-old helicopter onto this small moving platform. The Montreal’s deck has the same layout of control measures as the Iroquois, but being a frigate it is noticeably smaller. Canada has not had an aircraft carrier since the early seventies and since then all of our naval air operations have been onboard destroyers and frigates. We have developed quite an expertise for operating helicopters off small decks, and special tools like our ‘bear trap’ and haul-down system.

The Canadian system uses a cable to guide the helicopter down into a trap that grabs a probe lowered on its underside. The winch cable attaches through the probe right at the centre of mass. The maximum tension to be used by the haul-down winch is calculated by the pilot but limited to 4,000 pounds. If we recover at 17,500 pounds we would request a maximum hover tension of 3,000 pounds, giving us tension equal to our gross weight. It’s a choreographed dance with two complex machines floating in full three-axis motion just feet apart. Control of the deck is overseen by the Landing Safety Officer (LSO) from a small compartment on the far right front of the deck.

The helicopter has a main probe and a tail probe on its underside controlled by the aircrew. The ‘bear trap’ on the ship is a large square trap that moves on a set of rails from the hangar to the flight deck, pulling the helicopter in or out by its main probe with the tail probe guiding it for lineup. We start the helicopter and engage our rotors as per a normal start. Once we are ready for takeoff the LSO will direct us to raise our tail probe out of the track, and open the bear trap to release our main probe. The helicopter is now free on deck and as soon as the deck is steady he calls “clear takeoff ” which we do as quickly as possible, pulling enough torque to meet any deck movement. With heavy deck movements torque can shoot right up to our maximum of 123%; on calmer seas the takeoff resembles a normal airfield departure. In our theatre of operation we routinely see torque settings of 97% to hover at our AUW with the ten knots of wind the ship’s speed gives us. After lift-off we settle ourselves into a high hover in front of the hangar, still 15 feet from the hangar face. We stay with the ship until the LSO calls all clear, making sure we are not dragging any cables and that all our panels are properly closed. Now we can move away, usually straight to the left side, and we raise our gear as we cross over the edge of the flight deck and depart into wind.

To recover and land on the ship, we first wait for the appropriate clearance to approach.We reach the ‘Delta hover astern’ flying along just to the left and rear of our flight deck. Once we receive clearance we line up with the marks on the deck that we call ‘bum lines’ because we line our bums up over them. These lines give us our fore and aft position. The hangar top and face have two vertical lines painted on them that give us our left and right lineup, one for each pilot. There are also three lighted and gyro-stabilized horizon bars on the hangar top, two for a horizon and one for pitch. We first move into a high hover to the right side of the flight deck and lower a cable called the ‘messenger’ to the deck. Our deck crew takes that cable and attaches it to the cable coming out of the bear trap. Once they are clear we call “hover tension” which tells the LSO to dial the winch to 1,500 pounds, providing just enough pull to centre the helicopter over the trap. We can also call for max tension to take us right up to our gross weight, making the helicopter much more stable.

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