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The Buck Stops Here!

A few years ago, I was flying on Hudson Bay with a load of biologists conducting a biodiversity survey of the plant life on the coast.


April 28, 2014
By Fred Jones

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A few years ago, I was flying on Hudson Bay with a load of biologists conducting a biodiversity survey of the plant life on the coast. On a predetermined series of plots, the biologists catalogued all of the plant life in a 10’x10’ grid. It took about 40 minutes, per grid.

It was a beautiful, hot summer day – CAVOK. It was one of those flying days when you ask yourself, “Do I actually get paid to do this?” Most of the work was five or six miles inland from the coast and we had completed six of the scheduled seven grids. The last one was on the coast – about two miles from a fuel cache, that I had planned to visit while the last grid was being completed. I would then pick up the biologists and head for home. It was a perfectly choreographed end to a perfect flying day. 

As I got closer to the coast, our blue skies started to turn grey and I could see that there was a big storm brewing over the Bay. Even though I had flown on the coast before, I can remember experiencing a little disbelief that the weather could be so aggressively pleasant five miles inland and so ominous on the coast. I alerted the biologists that we might have to cut the last grid short if the weather continued to deteriorate. I warned them that if they weren’t prepared for a hasty departure, we could be spending the night in the A-Star Hotel. They agreed to start the grid without delay, while I left for the fuel cache. I needed the fuel to get home in any case, so I dropped them off at the grid and quickly departed.

When I returned about 30 minutes later, the weather had deteriorated considerably. It was now obvious that the storm was headed our way; we were seeing the leading edge of the storm and it was quickly approaching. I tried to rush the biologists along, but they were reluctant to leave the last grid incomplete and it was clear to me that they didn’t completely appreciate the potential of the storm – and neither did I, as it turns out. When they had completed collecting their gear and loading up the helicopter, the winds off the Bay were still increasing. I must confess that I was focused on returning to the CAVOK conditions that I had left, ahead of the storm – just five or six miles inland.

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As we lifted off, the storm was coming ashore with a vengeance and the winds had increased to about 35 knots. The visibility was also quickly deteriorating in heavy rain and fog. We lifted off uneventfully, but once we were up in the air, I realized that the ceiling was only a couple of hundred feet, and the heavy rains were now interfering with my forward visibility – the water was beading-up on the windscreen of the A-Star.

To make matters worse, when I started to fly inland, I had 35 to 40 knot winds pushing me along under reduced visibility circumstances. While we were above the tree line, I still felt very uncomfortable “overdriving my headlights” so-to-speak. Even if I flew at 50 knots, my groundspeed was nearly 100. I flew a couple of wide 360s on the coast while I considered my options, alternating between 10 and 100 knots over the ground depending on whether I was facing inland or offshore. I could see the ground, but my forward visibility was significantly reduced. It was now painfully clear that I was going to need to land and wait this out.

Fortunately, there were many clear areas to land, and with the use of the storm window, and some limited forward visibility through the rain, I side-slipped my way to a landing on the coast. I tied the machine down in the pouring rain. We retrieved the Sat-Phone to call the base, and the five of us settled in to wait it out. As it turns out, we only waited a couple of hours, but until we were underway again, we were all wondering if there might be a “cozy night” in an A-Star on the coast in our future. As uncomfortable as that would have been, I was convinced that it was still better than what I had just experienced in the air.

I learned a few things on that day: If you see a problem brewing, make your views known in no uncertain terms. Sometimes subtlety is lost on a customer that either does not recognize the hazard or has become too focused on completing the job-at-hand. Also, you need to make your decision early, while you have some options – and stand-by it. And finally, as pilots, we really don’t get paid for the hours of flying that we do under ideal circumstances – we really do get paid when we are occasionally called upon to make difficult decisions.


Fred Jones is the president/CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada and a regular contributor to Helicopters magazine.


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