Jul 10

Go north, my son

Tag: Abu Dhabi DC 2012Kal @ 3:32 pm

We’ve been out all day, the sun starting to dip from overhead-and-hotter-than-hell and down towards in-your-eyes-and-only-marginally-fucking-cooler.

“You got the bearing for home?” comes the pilot in my cans.

I slide the GPS from my breast pocket, its lanyard looped around the end of the zip.

Have I mentioned before that the zips on our flight suits are made ‘backwards’? That is, unzipping them requires you to pull them upwards, rather than down. The thinking being that if you get caught in the downwash of the rotors and something attached to your zip gets pulled along in the breeze it’ll *close* your pockets, rather than opening it further and risking more FOD flying up into the blades.

Well, I have now.

Home is punched into my list of “useful places to navigate to in a hurry”, which mainly includes refuel points, trauma centres, check points and the hotel that will serve us cold beer at the end of the event.

Not there yet, though, another few days to run at least.

Selecting home on the bookmarks takes me to a compass circle screen on the GPS, with home appearing at one point on the circle and a long arrow showing our heading.

“Bearing one-niner-zee-roh, please.”

And again feel a litte tickle of excitement as my remote-controlled-real-life toy swings in the air until heading and bearing fall into sync, flying south and just a little west from our location.

“Any requests for speed and height?”

“No, sir.”

“Any need to go directly home? I mean, can I deviate from course?”

Our role at this juncture is to support the racers on the final leg of today’s race. We’ll be faster to activate if we’re airborne in the general area and it’s not worth saving fuel by hammering home and sitting on the HLS.

“As long as we’re heading roughly home, no problem.”

“Mind if I show your guests a little flying?”

“By all means.”

“Strap in.”

I point to the seatbelts of the two medics and one scientist sat on the bench opposite me, mime pulling it tight and give them a thumbs up with quizzical look.

They all pull their belts around their hips and give me a thumbs up back.

I grin.

The pilot flies.

Up and down over dunes, climbing and diving, swooping and soaring, flying the aircraft like a man who normally operates under the critical eye of air traffic control and flies from point a to b and back again. Out here he gets to practice, to play, to fly the helo in the manner he likes to remember he can.

The team are beaming, the occasional “holy shiiiiit!” audible even with my headset on and the blades overhead. We zoom along rally route, moto racers pumping their fists as we pass overhead, co-drivers leaning out of their windows to wave and thumbs-up when we fly alongside them, barely feet above their vehicles’ roofs. At one point we gain height to leap-frog over a set of cables and pylons, reminding me of Eddie Izzard flying on an internal Irish flight on a ten seater plane – “We’ll be flying at a height of twelve and a half feet, going up to fifteen…if we see anything big.”

I pull myself back to the task in hand. This is lots of fun and all, but my job is to maintain comms with control, so it’s time for a quick SMS home.

But when I unlock my UAE phone, I’m surprised to find its screen blank, showing me just the battery read-out. The little antennae infographic on the left has precisely no bars.

Never mind. This happens sometimes, on account of how I’ve spent more on lunches than I shelled out for my UAE phone. Conveniently I also have my UK iPhone with me. Granted, the message will route via GB, but it’ll be nearly as fast as sending messages in country.

My iPhone has the same problem. No network, no signal, no nothing. If I like, I can play Angry Birds, but other than that there’s not much more to offer.


It’s then that my GPS beeps and buzzes in my pocket and I study its screen intently. No GPS link, no speed, no ETA, no location data. All it can tell me is via its digital compass, which shows us as heading largely due south.

I kinda wish I’d paid more attention to Carruthers the other day when I sat in the Control Room while we refuelled. He’d mentioned heightened levels of solar radiation fucking up the comms, the SMS, the Iridium satellite hook ups, they all started to melt in the late afternoon.



“I have no comms and no GPS.”

I’m confident he’ll have a clever helicopter solution.

“Yeah…me neither.”

Well, shit.


“Suggest we gain height, slow down and try to get a satellite fix?”



And here’s the rub. Our hot-dogging will have taken us some way off our original plotted course.

“I think we continue on one-niner-zee-roh until such time as things change? Your thoughts?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Lisa told me afterwards that it was very obvious that things had gone wrong when the aircraft gained height rapidly and started flying in a more pedestrian manner. She described me “Staring at those three screens like your life depended on it”.

I was focussed on the kit, for sure, as apparently I missed all three pax looking at each other, pointing at me and shrugging.

Lesson 42. Keep your passengers informed.
Lesson 43. Focus on the task in hand.
Lesson 44. Understand that 42 and 43 must be accomplished in tandem and not to the detriment of each other.

Up at a thousand feet and slowly thugging along, I imagine that my GPS will be the first to drop into play, but it’s jerkily refreshing its screen as individual satellites float around the perimeter when my UAE phone receives a text message.

From an unknown number.

I unlock the screen, navigate to messages and open a message that reads “Welcome to Saudi Telecom.”

Oh holy actual shit.

Now, reasonably, it might be concluded that we’re picking up a mast in Saudi, we operate close enough to the border that we’ve probably got line-of-sight on at least one and we’ve just snagged an errant signal from them.

But there’s always the chance that our happy holiday flight home has in fact meandered us a little too far south. Far enough south to cross the border. Far enough south to have entered another country’s airspace, without permission and without doing things like, you know, passport and air traffic control.

It’s a tiny risk, I grant you, but with no accurate location data, it’s not one I’m prepared to ride out.



“Can we change heading, please?”

“Sure, you got a fix?”

“Nope. Change heading to zero degrees please.”

That’s north, for those of you playing along at home.



“Back the way we came?”


“You’re the boss.”

Because the way I see it, with no location data? The best thing I can do is gross navigation. And all I’m aiming to do is be Not-In-Saudi, which is south of the UAE.

We swing northwards and it’s only a few minutes before everything picks up again, the GPS lets me know that all is good, we’re still a fair distance away from an international incident and my continued presence on the team and we’re a gentle flight home for tea and medals.

Lesson 45. Know your location.
Lesson 46. See 45.

8 Responses to “Go north, my son”

  1. Win-Stone says:

    Lesson 47: Electronic are all very well but an old-fashioned, honest to goodness, mils military compass will never, repeat NEVER, let you down! :-)


  2. The Jannie says:

    If you aren’t packing something on the lines of an F16, Thou shalt not overfly thy neighbour’s sand.


  3. Masher says:

    You’re living your very own Boys Own adventure, aren’t you, you lucky git!


  4. Dafydd says:

    Yo – ever so sorry and all – but that was just a teensy bit irresponsible – at least !


  5. modog says:

    Watched a Korean film a wee while ago about a few soldiers from opposite sides of the DMZ who manage to make contact and become friends. One of the formative moments is when a SK patrol strays into NK territory simply because they got their navigation a little fecked up. Their faces showed a similar “oh fucking holy shitcakes what have we done?!” kind of reaction.

    Your story made me think of that, but with mercifully fewer guns.


  6. Pam says:

    Sounds like a great way to get a SAM up your tailpipe.


  7. Karen says:

    Hilarious! You nearly caused an internationl incident! lmao


  8. Cannonball Jones says:

    Dunno why but when the title of this post popped up in Google Reader, “Wayward Son” by Kansas instantly lodged itself in my brain. Thanks for that.


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