Almost Landed on A British Ship - A True Life Story

Hero Leader - A true life story

This a True Life Story which happened in the early nineties. That evening, sometime in the year 1990, was truely special. We were having a party on board our old steam ship. My ship was sailed out to Madras, now renamed as Chennai, which is the capital of the State of Tamil Nadu in India. The only purpose our ship was sent all the way to Chennai was to host a party for the crew of a visiting ship from the United Kingdom at Chennai for three days. The picture you see above actually tells this true life story. See the picture of ship and the helicopter hovering over its helicopter deck.

Those days we did not have any ship at Chennai as most ships were out sailing at sea. It was just a day's sailing and we were at Chennai harbour. On berthing, we got the orders to send a team of 30 of our men and Officers headed by Navigating Officer to be sent to the British ship for a party on their helicopter deck. And in lieu, we were hosting 30 British sailors onboard our ship's helicopter deck. There was hardly any time and we all got ready as soon as possible.

But at the last moment I was told to stay back. We were two helicopter pilots onboard. My senior was to go and attend the party on the British ship which I too wanted to visit. But that opportunity was somehow gone because the Captain decided that between the two of us, one must stay onboard to ensure that in case there is an emergency like a fire or flooding in the ship, there is someone who knows how to put the helicopter out of its hangar on the deck and fly it off.

Our Ship Saluted British Sailors Too

Only two out of 30 white men who came onboard our ship were Officers. But, as they all started coming in through the gangway, our gangway staff gracefully saluted each and every one of them because, the Gangway staff couldn't distinguish between sailor and officers who were all whites, all wearing black pants and white shirt with a name tally on it, but no rank displayed. For those who do not know what is a Gangway, I would like to explain that a Gangway is a piece of wooden plank with guard rails on both sides put from the Jetty to the Ship through which people can board the ship or disembark from the ship.

Big ships often have two Gangways, one on each end of the ship. In warships only one Gangway is put to keep a tag on who all went out and who all disembarked from the ship. A warship has to account for each and every man on the ship before and after sailing to ensure that no one ran away from the ship to the town and at sea no one fell overboard or went missing inside the ship by say falling into a water tank or fuel tank of the ship. Every time an Officer comes on board or disembarks the ship, the duty staff at the Gangway comprising the OOD or the Officer Of the Day and a sailor called as Quartermaster will salute the Officer.

A sailor is not saluted by the duty staff. Similarly every person coming onboard will salute before stepping onto the Gangway from the Ship and whilst climbing down from the Gangway to the Ship. Every lady, except small girls are saluted by the Gangway staff including the OOD as she enters or leaves the ship through the Gangway. The lady need not salute unless she happens to be a Naval Officer or Sailor. Whenever a Flag Officer or the Captain of a Ship comes on board or leaves the ship through the gangway, the Quartermaster will give him a side pipe in addition to the salute. These are the naval traditions and customs followed world over.

UnInvited To Party On Own Ship

I was neither nominated to go to the British ship, nor nominated to attend the party happening on our own hello deck where the British Sailors and Officers are attending. So, I was playing carom board all alone in the wardroom wearing Red Sea Rig. That is when I heard my name being announced in the Ship’s broadcast system speaker fitted all over the ship, asking me to appear on the hello deck where the party was going on, "Sub Lieutenant Mathews Helicopter deck, Captain".

I didn't know whether to be happy for being invited into the party going on in the helicopter deck or to be worried that the Captain has called for me for some other reason. Either way, I did not have much of a choice because it was the Captain calling me. I secured the carom board, cleaned my hands off the boric powder, combed my hair, used my deodorant lavishly to impress the British naval guys and walked with gait towards the helicopter deck.

As I reached the helicopter deck, I saw my ship’s Captain, in deep conversation with a British sailor or Officer. I stood there not knowing what to do. My Captain saw me standing there and called me over. He introduced me to the British Officer, a Lieutenant Commander, who happened to be a Pilot and the Flight Commander of Her Majesty’s ship. He told me that his Lynx helicopter was not serviceable and so can our Alloutte land on their deck the next day. I looked at my ship’s Captain not knowing what to say. My flight commander was gone to attend the party on the British ship. Without asking him how could I commit?

I was only qualified to land on a ship’s deck as a Co-Pilot. Although it was the British ship pilot asking me the question, it was my captain who was waiting for the answer eagerly. I looked at my Captain who probably read my mind and said, “Don’t worry. My helicopter will take off after we sail out tomorrow and will be landing on your ship by about 10:00 am. My Pilots are too good. They can land this small helicopter anywhere on land or at sea. They are well trained and highly experienced.” He said all this in one breath looking at me.

I Said Yes to Land on British Ship Instead of No

I did not want to let my Captain down so, confidently looking at the British pilot I said, "Yes Sir, we will be seeing each other tomorrow morning 10:00 am." My Captain dismissed me from the party without even offering me a soft drink, as unceremoniously as he had called me there. He was high on spirit. After all most people there were drunk. So what difference does it make? No one will remember anything happening, as they were all completely drunk and won’t remember anything when they wake up tomorrow morning. I walked off into the night back to my game of Carom board all alone changing seats for each shot.

I continued playing the Carom board after my dinner well into the night till my Flight Commander returned. I went and told him, "Sir, during the party I was called to take my views if we can land our helicopter on the British ship’s helicopter deck". He replied, "So what did you tell them?" I said, "Sir, I told them we will". He looked at me for some time and then asked, "When are we supposed to landing on the British ship?" I replied looking at my wrist watch, which was showing time an hour past midnight, "Sir, today at 10:00 am is take off when the British ship will be 18 nautical miles on a track diverging at 45 degrees clockwise from ours". He said, "OK, let us sleep".

I woke up early morning, had a quick routine, followed by breakfast and then went to the Bridge for the flight briefing. The Captain was fully charged up and asked my Flight Commander, “Pilot, I hope you can hack it. Just touch your wheels on the British ship’s deck stay for a minute or two and then return back, OK”. “Yes Sir”, we replied. The two of us walked silently toward the helicopter deck. We had never seen or even heard about this ship or its helicopter deck and had no idea about it.

Unqualified to Land But Decided to Land on British Ship

A pilot gets his deck landing qualification or landing a helicopter on the small deck of a small ship, only after flying from that ship’s deck for over six months continuously with another pilot who has decades of experience flying from small ship’s decks at sea, so that this young pilot is exposed to all types of sea states both rough and smooth seas where the ship may roll pitch and heave at different amplitudes and with different winds blowing from different directions of the ship.

Once he gets his deck landing qualifications, he is supposed to fly a minimum of fifty hours or more as first pilot with an experienced co-pilot sitting with him in the cockpit of the helicopter, before he is allowed to go on his own with a helicopter to do his first independent landing. And here was a situation where the two of us had never seen a British ship, nor even heard about such a ship.

We did not know what the ship was looking like, what all obstructions will be there on its helicopter deck, and weather our helicopter can fit into that deck for us to make a safe landing on the deck. We were going to land on an unknown ship. We had to keep the word our Captain gave to the British pilot after a few drinks. Fortunately, in the morning he remembered it and told us to go and do the mission.

As per plan we took off at 10:00 am and somehow managed to reach the British ship. The ship was a good 45 miles away from us heading in a different direction. We had no navigation aid of any sort on our small rudimentary helicopter called Alloutte Mk III. We navigate using our own two eyes which was a great recipe for getting lost at sea forever. We kept calling the British ship which never came on radio for about 15 minutes after our take off, during which we kept yelling with the “Press To Transmit” kept pressed with the two of us alternating every three minutes because, we didn't know whether they can understand our English language being spoken with Indian accent.

But we kept trying our luck. Finally, we saw the British ship far away on the horizon where the sky meets the sea like a small dot. We flew towards it hoping that we are heading for the correct ship. We came to a hover next to the British ship. That is when we realized that the British pilot had completely forgotten about the talk he had with our ship’s Captain. We saw that the ship was not ready to let us land on her deck in any way. The guard rails around the helicopter deck were still up. The ship was not heading into the wind.

British Ship Not Ready for Our Landing

The Hanger door was shut and not a single soul on helicopter deck. They probably never imagined that the Indian ship would send their helicopter to land on their ship. As we started overflying the British ship, we saw some people wearing just a Bermuda and lying on top of the helicopter hanger, probably sunbathing. That is when they saw us and all of them started jumping into action. I saw the same Pilot who came for party on our ship wave at us indicating 'Go Away', as he ran down the hangar top, clad in Bermuda. The hello deck was prepared for landing our helicopter in about 5 minutes as we kept hovering on the ship's starboard side watching the fun.

The British Pilot and his copilot were on the hello deck now, wearing flying overalls and helping their men in lowering the guard rails around the helicopter deck. But there was still no radio contact with the British ship. Probably they were not manning the radio frequency which we were on. So we had no choice but to communicate with the people on deck with visual signs. The British pilot indicated to us that his ship is ready for us to land on deck and that he wants to come on board our Alloutte Mk III helicopter to meet our Ship’s Captain.

He showed a big package which he said he wants to give to our Captain. Now this was something which we were not prepared. And we were not briefed to do it. Being at 45 nautical miles away from our ship and in hover, we could not communicate to our ship’s Captain. As we moved back on top of the helicopter deck to land as planned and briefed by Captain himself before we took off from our ship, we heard the feeble voice of our Captain on the radio shouting, "Don't land. Return back immediately!" For a few seconds we kept hovering on deck, not knowing what to do.

British Helicopter Pilots Were Passengers On Our Helicopter

Then we communicated to our Captain that the British ship wants to board our helicopter and come all the way to hand over a gift. It was our Captain’s turn to go blank now. After about a minute or so, the Captain said, "OK, in that case you winch him up and bring them along. But do not land on the British ship". Now how do you tell this to the British Pilot? So we told the pilot that we are lowering our rescue hoist. It was so embarrassing to tell even in sign language, that we can't land on your ship, please come onboard by rescue hoist.

Both British pilots being helicopter pilots, probably understood our dilemma and showed thumbs up. We winched up both the pilots along with their large packet one by one whilst hovering over their ship’s deck and strapped up both of them on the seat. Then we set course towards our ship. As we approach our ship and gave final landing call on the radio, it was our Captain who replied, "Don't land. Just show the two pilots our ship by going around the ship in low hover. Then go and drop them back on their own ship using the winch. Remember NO Landing please".

Gift Presentation and Speech by British Pilot in Helicopter

We were already embarrassed by not landing on the British ship and now we were completely without words to tell the two British pilots that our Captain is not letting us land on our own ship with them onboard. Somehow we communicated our helplessness to the pilots, who fortunately were very understanding and mature enough. As we flew back towards the British ship after showing the two pilots our ship in low hover, the British Flight Commander sitting behind us, presented a Tie Clip and a cuff link each, to the two of us. Then he also presented the big packet which he had brought with him and said that it is a gift from his ship’s Captain to our Ship’s Captain.

He also gave a short shouting speech which we hardly could make out because of the deafening sound of the helicopter rotors. We reached the British ship, hovered over its helicopter deck and winched down both pilots on to their ship, waved at them in a high speed low pass and headed back to our ship. Our Ship’s Captain was waiting on the helicopter deck, to receive us. As landed on our ship and shutdown the helicopter rotors and engine, our Captain came towards us and apologized for not letting us land on the British ship to pick up the two British pilots as promised the night before during the party and also for not letting us land on our own ship with the two British pilots on board.

Our Ship Captain A Vice Man

Our Ship's Captain was a Very Vice Man. The Captains worry, as he explained to us was that, "If either a photo of our helicopter sitting on the British ship’s deck or the news of these two British Officers visiting our ship at sea without the Fleet Commander’s permission were to get published the next month in some British newspaper or magazine, it would be beyond the Captain's abilities to explain to the Fleet Commander as to why it happened. We handed over the big packet which the British pilots had presented to us in the helicopter in flight, to the Captain.

The Captain opened it right there on the helicopter deck. It was a beautiful golden framed photo of that British ship. "Put it up in the Officer’s Wardroom", said the Captain, as he walked away happily smiling and relieved of everything. I hope you liked this True Life Story. Please share my true life story with everyone.

A True Life Story


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