There is an almost ubiquitous air of steely coolness coupled with a weird mix of awe and envy when you think about a pilot.
Dressed in full air force flight suit and engrossed in a task – however trivial it may actually be – while shod in full helmet with the mirrored visor down, they can appear disengaged from our reality and above it all. Of course, ideally, they are above the world when airborne, but the nature of society has them Maverick’d up on a pedestal – even if the helmet is replaced with Ray Ban Aviators – arguably more so in that case.
If you add to the image hints that they spend their working hours dodging bullets while hostile ground-forces try to chase them off the hot extraction of a special forces team, or injured infantryman or plucking injured civilians off of mountains, out of canyons or sunken yachts, these men can appear positively super human.
Imagine, then my shock, discomfort even, when over a drink and dinner this very same man wiped a tear and talked of getting all choked up. I’d just added my scrawl with a date alongside a few others’, to a bottle of wine which served to commemorate a technical cliff extraction from a mountain nearly 17 years prior – my extraction.
Shit never happens by degrees, it happens all at once
Marc Twight says: “Shit never happens by degrees, it happens all at once” and, generally, by the time these guys are in the hover above whichever extraction point it may be, conditions are rarely ideal – particularly for flying an oversized upside-down-fan.
You see, while they may defy gravity and operate under enormous pressure to save one or two lives while tasked with keeping upwards of 5 others, simultaneously, safe, they are, after all, human – yet the nature of their scope of work is such that they are involved for a very small – yet, decidedly vital – portion of the operation and, once the cargo is dropped off with the relevant emergency care, these guys twist the collective, pull it back, point the cyclic away and disappear.
Never to be seen again (one hopes).
Except that, that is the point.
There is a complete human disconnect in the scenario. Intrinsically the humanitarian in the crew have an attachment to the “patient”; arguably more real given the, often, complex and life-threatening nature of their rescue flight. After all, almost any risk can be justified in life, but when you blindly risk your’s and your crew’s lives it must, surely, irk not knowing more about the person and whether the risks were justified. Adding some form of connection, a reference point to how your lives intersected must be truly valuable – and yet there is rarely an opportunity to engage. Be that as simple as putting a face to a flight-log-number, or discussing the merits of imminent retirement.
This is not as easy as it might seem – because to the non-participator, when you see a hammer, all you can think of talking about are nails. It is so easy to fall into talking about the obvious – flying, helicopters…rescue – but that is so limited and soooo plain. It is far more challenging to be open, engaging and vulnerable to feelings outside of the ‘event’ – about life, yours and theirs. I can only (now) imagine how many countless nagging questions there must be about where their packages came from, or ended up.
Some of these photos were taken during the Mountain Club of South Africa’s bi-annual Search and Rescue meet held to collate and disseminate techniques and share knowledge amongst the regional branches – including the techniques and influence of a long and very important relationship with the South African Air force. I was there in a layman’s capacity as a technical rope rescuer and, as chance would have it, many of the people involved in my rescue 17 years ago were, also, present – including the Pilot in Command and his Flight Engineer on the day.
During a lull in training the day before the wine signing, The Major and I had the chance to briefly catch up and I opened the conversation with a “thank you” (typical, predictable and lacking insight) referring to both my rescue but, also, to the work he does. He replied: “…nee wat, it’s you guys who need to be applauded, all I do is fly the aircraft”.
Humility has a way of getting a point across.
When The Major and his crew plucked Woody and I off of Du Toit’s Peak in December ’00, it was anything but “just flying”. The sun had set, Rick had just jabbed a syringe full of Morphine into my thigh and there was not, really, much time. I’d lost a fair bit of blood, and, did I mention, it was getting dark? Add to that the wall overhung slightly meaning that the long-line had to be c 200m long to allow clearance for the rotor’s and still the suspended sandbag hung some 20m out from the wall. Woody, my accomplice to whom I was strapped, signaled his readiness and The Major nudged the nose of an 8 ton helicopter forward and backward in a gentle rocking motion, while in the hover, at dusk, gently enough to cause the sandbag to pendulum in just enough, at just the right height, at just the right horizontal position… so that Woody could catch it, clip us to the line and release us into the void.
That was not “just” flying. That was a lot more.
But, that is a limited conversation – in the same way as it is difficult for me to engage a poet on the intricacies of their poem, or to engage an E.R Doctor on their adrenalin-fueled month-end night, I realized that what I do on the sharp end of a rope and what he does in the right hand seat of a whirlybird are the same thing…just different. At some point one is able to look beyond the obvious in people – climbing rope-less up El Cap, risking their lives to save others’, dancing a hank of horse hair on a taught string – and wrap that skill (gift?) up, neatly, as merely a part of what makes you, you, or them, them. Feats are admirable, and deserve respect and praise, for sure – be that a perfect 10 in floor routine or teaching a class full of kids – but no matter, really, what these feats are, they almost become a part of being you – being a human. No explanations of “why” and the like, just mutual acceptance and intrinsic understanding that we do what we are predisposed to do regardlessless of wether it makes sense to others…or seems extra cool.
The real conversation ranged from the challenges of raising a family while being bounced from one godforsaken forward military base to another, or country for that matter. The career aspirations of his kids, the unwavering support of his wife, and their plans for retirement…and why I never went further than a short flip in the business seat of a Robbie 22
…and we talked about going climbing…
And I guess somewhere along the line, I realised that we are both in the same boat so to speak, and really do just suffer from the disease of being human. Beyond everything that we do which binds us, remember that there is – often – significantly more “normal” stuff which makes us part of greater society. There is a life and a person behind every persona, don’t be ignorant to it. Everybody has the capacity to touch lives in their own unique way, and having the rare opportunity to engage on this level showed me that pedestals and yardsticks get in the way of so much more of the good stuff. Admire the supreme skills in people, but be awed by who they are in spite of these talents!
Yours, or others’