The day to day routine of a helicopter pilot flying in the Gulf of Mexico does not suffer from having “too much” variety in it. Once you’re assigned to a job, and have flown that contract for awhile, you’ll essentially figure out the routine and settle into a nice pattern. The only time that really gets broken up is when a pilot elects to “work over” and make some overtime pay. It is when this happens that we find our variety. Today was one of those days for me, as I’m working over for two days. I was tasked with flying my first ever turtle watch flight – yes, we’re watching turtles from a helicopter and the reason why might surprise you! I totally wasn’t expecting #3….oh wait that’s a clickbait tagline. Well the reason might actually surprise you too, but never mind the clickbaity-ness of that sentence and click to read more! Damn…there I go again…
In order to NOT be a clickbait blog post I’m just going to get to the shocking reveal right now instead of having you click through 75 slides in a predictable slideshow – the reason we watch turtles, or more aptly expressed – “watch FOR turtles”, is because the construction crew is in the process of taking an old platform or structure out of the water USING EXPLOSIVES!
The thing about explosives used underwater is that they generate a concussive shockwave that can, and does, kill anything within a certain radius. One of the NOAA marine biologists I was flying today told me that each dead turtle, being a protected species, would cost the company that owns the platform $500,000. Understandably they aren’t eager to blow a bunch of turtles onto the half shell.
My actual assignment this morning was “spare pilot” and I was assigned to the spare 407 we have at our base. There are days when the spare pilot has nothing to do but go stir crazy on the beach, and the rest of the time you’re flying as much or more than you would normally on your assigned contract. Spare pilots are regularly used as “recovery” pilots for helicopters that are broke down off-shore, flying mechanics and parts out so that they can get it fixed and back in the air. Occasionally our company fuel system engineers hop into the spare helicopter with the spare pilot and fly off-shore to service, repair, or inspect fuel stations. The rest of the jobs we get as spare pilots are known as “specials”, as in they are special and not usual – calling them “unusual’s” is a bit of a mouth full so we call them specials. These jobs can range from flying big-whig white collar types from New Orleans International out to inspect their brand new ship, or in this case – fly NOAA inspectors around a mostly demolished carcass of a platform looking for turtles.
When I went to pick up the logbook for the spare aircraft this morning I noticed somebody had inserted a printed out piece of paper into the front sleeve. Pulling it out I instantly recognized it as a “special flight request” form, because that’s what it says across the top of the form. The job itself was fairly simple, fly out to the construction barge, pick up the NOAA observers, fly 30 minutes of concentric ovals at precisely 60 knots and 500 feet. If, after 30 minutes of left turns (NASCAR) the observers haven’t spotted any protected biologics, such as turtles or dolphins, then the green light is given and the demolition crew blow up their charge. After which we fly an additional 30 minutes of concentric ovals while the observers count dead fish, and make sure that no turtles or marine mammals were killed.
Todays turtle watch went fairly smoothly. It took us 3 tries to get a clear perimeter for the blast, the first was interrupted by dolphins, the second flight yielded no less than one loggerhead turtle, and on the third flight we were in the clear. The explosion was more than a little anticlimactic though, I was hoping for a shockwave and a fountain of water like a depth charge had just gone off; what I got was a single streamer of water that looked like it was part of the fountain display at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The area was so clear for the blast that they only counted 7 or so dead fish afterward.
All in a days work for a Gulf of Mexico Oil and Gas helicopter pilot.