Back to Dits


' The Commandant General´s Lobster '
By Steve Bidmead

In June 1974, I was a very baby pilot, just 6 months out of Wallop. I was one of four pilots in Salerno Flight equipped with 3 Sioux, and along with the rest of 41 Cdo Gp, we were deployed on exercise in the Canadian forest at Gagetown, New Brunswick. On the 9th June the Commandant General visited the Unit, and the following night there was to be a dinner in his honour in the Officer´s Mess. I was tasked to fly a low level Navex to the coast and collect 40 fresh lobsters for the dinner.

I was chuffed to Bollocks! The Navy pilots in the Wessex squadron were not allowed to go solo cross country until they had 1000 hours, and that was in a twin turbine helicopter. Yet here was me, in a little single piston engined Sioux, with less than 500 hours, being sent off over more than 100 miles of forest. The locals told us the best harbour to buy lobster direct from the boats, and there was a small airfield nearby, where I could refuel. On the way there I started off enjoying myself, skimming just above the tree tops. But after a couple of scares with "deadheads", and an increasing feeling of loneliness over that vast expanse of forest, I found myself climbing a couple of hundred feet. But even from that height there was nothing to see but trees, and I realised how much I needed to concentrate on that little E2B compass. I was confident that by aiming off a bit, I would know which way to turn when I reached the coast. What did not inspire confidence, however, was that the 2 roads and one railway which I crossed pretty much on schedule, were indeed the only man-made features I saw in over an hour´s flying.

However, all went well, and as I saw the coastline ahead, more signs of civilisation appeared. I climbed and turned and could soon see the small town with harbour and airstrip nearby. My radio calls were not answered, as briefed, so I joined the circuit visually and proudly landed. Before the blades had stopped, a fuel truck appeared beside me. The driver turned out to be the airfield manager and ATC and fire crew all in one! As we were fuelling, I explained why I was there, and asked how I could best get to the harbour to buy some lobster. He looked askance, and somewhat sarcastically asked if this really was a helicopter I was flying. This was my introduction to the no bullshit, no-regulation can-do attitude to general aviation in North America. I was advised that the harbour wall was where the boats would be selling from, and it was plenty big enough to land on. I displayed more naivety by asking if I needed permission, which apparently I did not! So I paid my bill, wound up the Sioux and headed for the harbour. Sure enough there were several boats tied to the wall with a handful of people beside them. But a hundred yards of wall were unencubered, so I approached to that and landed without incident. When I walked to the boats and spoke to the crewmen, the only surprise expressed was that I was English. Within half an hour, negotiations had been concluded, and 2 big cardboard boxes, each with 20 lobsters inside had been secured on the bench seat of the sioux. To save the big lobters from damaging themselves, their huge claws had had been taped shut.

Thinking this successful mission was probably the high point of my flying career to date, I tried to make my start and takeoff as slick as I could. All I achieved was to cover the bubble in salt spray which dried to leave an opaque smear across the bubble. But I could still see, so settled down to concentrate on that little compass, with occasional proud glances across at my precious cargo. During one such glance, I noticed movement, which caused a comical doubletake. One of the lids was being pushed open! As my vision oscillated between horizon and box, a gigantic claw, with a ragged broken bit of tape hanging pathetically from it, emerged from beneath the lid, closely followed by a second, slightly less big one! And then a pair of beady black eyes. Very angry beady black eyes!

Within a few seconds, the whole beast had struggled over the lip of the box. It sat on top of the second box, staring at me with those angry eyes, which were pretty well on a level with my own terrified ones, and only a couple of feet away! Remember that the sioux was flown from the left seat, so the only hand I could have used to reach the beast was my cyclic stick hand. With threatening menace, the beast flexed open that huge claw, and then snapped it shut. I clearly heard the click over the engine noise! I tried tightening the collective friction, and flying the cyclic with my left hand. Then I twisted my right hand up towards the beast, which caused it to snap its claw repeatedly. Even with flying gloves, there was no way I could let that thing get hold of my hand! But the left handed flying was pretty wobbly, and suddenly the beast was sliding towards me, with hairy legs scrabbling furiously to try and get a grip on the smooth cardboard. My right hand instantly regained the cyclic and a flick to the right send the lobster sliding back the other way.

I desperately wanted to land, but where? All I could see outside was unbroken forest. I started visualising headlines. "Mystery crash in forest", " Chopper lost in forest", "Lobster brings down Marine!" I looked back to the beast but it wasn´t there. Where it was, I did not know, but it was certainly still with me, and angry! I guessed it had slid down the far side of the box, but I really needed to land and secure it. I checked the map and the clock, and decided the railway line was due in a few minutes. When I checked the compass, I was only SIXTY degrees off course!

The angry and violent bank which I applied to correct the heading was not a clever move, because it threw the scrabblig lobster back into view! This time he was on the steeply tilted floor hanging on for dear life and looking very pissed off! As we levelled out, the scrabbling stopped and the claw started clicking again! I started worrying what could happen if it got in amongst the dual control pedals; - it could easily restrict them, or even jam them completely. But it did not move forwards towards the pedals, it came sideways towards me! As its claw clacked ominously, I wanted to stamp on it, but taking one´s right foot off the pedal in the sioux was not a good idea. Then I saw the railway line, and started downwards, fast, like autorotating! More headlines flashed through the brain. "Helicopter wreck found on railway", "Train crashes into chopper."

As the beast clacked its way beneath my legs, I worried again about it getting amongst my pedals, or even taking a chunk out of my leg, just as I was trying to come to the hover. To say that I was getting tense on the controls would have been a severe understatement, and the landing was not pretty! Having landed, I needed to put friction on the controls, which meant putting my hand down to the base of the cyclic where IT had been. Then, gratefully, I saw IT down by my feet, and quickly wound on friction, which I just finished as IT moved inquisitively towards my hand. Then I threw open the door and jumped out, anxiously looking along the track for any sign of a train. Seeing none I went back to the lobster, which got exceedingly angry when I picked it up. I felt like stamping it to death, but thought better of it.

The first aid kit yielded some adhesive bandage, which I used to re-do its claws, and the rest of the bandage I used to seal the boxes. Then, with more anxious glances along the line, I scrambled in and wound up the revs. The rest of the flight back was uneventful, although my attention to the box seals was greater than that to the compass, so my track was not very straight!

Over dinner, I was casually asked if I had encountered any problems collecting the delicious lobsters? "No, No," I replied, "it was a great flight"- and immediately choked on a chunk of lobster!