Cleared To Lift: An Insight Into the Role of a Chinook Crewman

Written and photographed by Tom Mercer | January 2nd 2016

The UK Chinook Force has been involved in every major engagement since the Falklands and there is no shortage of tales to be told from the voices inside the cockpit. Pilots have been featured in many novels and articles, but what about the rest of the crew? At times a Chinook’s crew can consist of a maximum of five people but only two of those sit up front; what’s it like to be one of the remaining three? What exactly does a Chinook Crewman do? I sat down with Sergeant Ben Matterface from 27 Squadron, to discuss the role in detail.

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“The primary role is saying what you see; turning what we can see into valuable information for the pilots and to give them situational awareness with the aircraft. Imagine you have an aircraft and you put that aircraft in a protective bubble; it’s our responsibility to make sure that nothing risks breaking that bubble wherever we’re flying, whether it’s with Under Slung Load, at altitude or in confined areas. People approaching the aircraft on the ground is something we have to be very aware of, as is low level flying and night flying. It’s down to us to make sure that the aircraft is safe in all aspects of flying. This part of the job is called Voice Marshalling. We are that third voice in the cockpit; the additional voice of reason.”

The different areas of Voice Marshalling have specific sets of terminology that must be used in order to correctly convey the situation.

“We have to be very exact in what we say. There is a very specific way that we have to say things and it must be word-perfect and said with the right tonality. We start to build a picture for the pilots and with experience, the picture gets more and more detailed; the pilot can only see to the front and has a restricted view to the side.”

It not just about learning the correct terminology though, the Crewman is responsible for much more than that.

“We’re responsible for calculating everything to do with the aircraft: what we can carry, how we can carry it and how much fuel we can have, plus our cargo arrangements. Quite often we’ll plan the route and navigate ourselves. There are times when we may get called off mid-tasking and reassigned; as a result we have to plan a completely new route on the move. We have digital moving maps with the Mk4 which is much easier than using physical maps like in the Mk3 and used to have in the Mk2. We’re gradually all converting to the Mk4 and Mk6 so navigation is becoming much easier. Trying to plan a route on a map, with a pen, while in flight in a Mk2 was a nightmare, they don’t call it the shaking office for no reason!”

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The weight of the aircraft is an ever changing entity when in flight, especially if caught in strong winds, so this all has to be factored into the equation.

“We’re constantly calculating the weight of the aircraft when we’re on the move and we have to be aware of how the centre of gravity will shift; it’s like taking a maths exam that’s continually evolving. If we need to get from point A to point B via point C, how much fuel will we need? Fuel is weight, so how much capacity does that leave us to carry as cargo? If we’re not picking stuff up until an hour into the flight, how much fuel will we have burnt and how much additional weight can we take on and lift? When are we going to run out of fuel in Tank 1 and switch to Tank 2? There are so many different factors that have to be taken into consideration.”

It’s a complex enough conundrum during daylight hours so how does that all change when flying at night?

“The actual sortie itself is very similar but we will have done a little more in-depth route study, especially if we’re going to be at low-level, to make sure that we’re aware of any obstructions. Situational awareness can be extremely impaired when using Night Vision Goggles  – you have to be much more aware of your surroundings. Taking the time and consideration to properly asses things is absolutely crucial. Making sure that the aircraft is in the right state in the dark is also trickier so its paramount that we’re focused on the job at hand. We have to make sure that the aircraft is extra tidy and that we’re not going to trip over something in the dark; crew resource management is key at night. It’s an experience based skill I guess, you can’t really be taught CRM but you learn continually with each hour that you fly. Sometimes it can be as simple as getting everyone together before going out to the aircraft and saying “Let’s think about this lads, what’s the best way we can go and pick this up?”. Noticing whether a pilot is a little tired, knowing whether your crew is getting on, noticing something out of the ordinary on board – it all comes with experience.”

As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Chinook can be flown by a crew of three, four or five pilots. How does the crew dynamic shift with more team members on board?

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“Well, we work the helicopter with the aim of completing a specific task. We use it to achieve an endgame and we all work together to get that done whether there’s three of us or five of us. You may have several aims in a sortie so the key is making sure that we’re all thinking ahead of the aircraft to make sure that everything is ready to go when required. We need to be as swift and smooth as possible; dropping the load, dropping troops – it’s irrelevant what the task is, timing is everything. We’re actually quite used to having a fifth person on board because one is normally there all the way through training, albeit from an instructor’s point of view. We’re very used to having that fifth person on board. We never stop learning; whoever says they know it all is quite frankly lying!”

During my time at RAF Odiham, I was fortunate enough to get kitted up and spend some time out on the airfield where several crews were practicing with Under-Slung Load. I was keen to see the versatility of the Crewman for myself.

“We tend to get very involved when it comes to Under-Slung Load, it’s our bread and butter. When we go across to JHSS, we have professional hookers that do a DLPC (Defence Landing Point Course) where they learn everything they need to know about hooking; I did it a couple of years ago while I was holding in line to be a Crewman. We can hook up a lot of loads to the helicopter without any hookers being involved when required though and that’s when Voice Marshalling becomes crucial. The Crewman will come up with the idea of how to load-up in most instances and the hookers may not be required – this is especially true when in the field on operation. It’s a very fragile set of events. A voice package exists specifically for Under-Slung Load to make sure that we’re accurate and entirely happy with our positioning. It’s usually at that time that we call the hookers in. They’ll hook it up and then the Pilot will lift once everyone is clear; with everything swinging around, the underside of the Chinook can be a very dangerous place to be.”

I’ve often wondered how a crew works out how they’re going to lift something but detailed lift instructions actually exist for most things.

“There are a lot of instructions on how to lift a certain type of land rover, ISO container etc. Sometimes there’s not a way of telling what’s inside a container or how the weight is distributed. If a pilot were to pull power on something that was too heavy, we’d obviously have to leave it in place and a rethink would be required. Lots of things can be put into nets to make it an easier piece of cargo to lift; its down to the crewman on how these things are lifted but we sometimes get information from our teams on the ground. Sometimes we’ll land-on if there’s time and have a proper briefing with the hookers on the ground; diagrams are best for circumstances like that and can really aid in efficiency.”

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Sergeant Matterface is still very much in the infancy of his career but he was keen to share his own experiences from working in the field.

“I’ve been in the training system for eight years now. I started on the Nimrods before getting reassigned to helicopters, which was always my endgame. I haven’t been to Herrick, I missed the last operation by about a week so I haven’t had any major overseas challenges…yet. Exercise Joint Warrior (2015) proved interesting though, lifting some exceptionally heavy loads from one airfield to another where the aircraft was physically bending like a banana – I couldn’t close one of the doors because it no longer fitted! It was all within the aircraft’s capabilities but was certainly pushing the limits. Flying day into night can be tough, especially if it’s dusk to night and you haven’t had much of a break. 18 Squadron were on HMS Ocean and we were based up at RAF St Athan for an operation at Keevil airfield up on the Plain. It was more a planning exercise for HQ and for us it was a question of waiting to move, formulating a plan on how we were going to carry out our tasking and get the job done. It was like a massive puzzle. We got certain information filtered down to us, as and when required. From a Commander’s perspective, he/she would have had a lot of information and they had to decide who needs to know what and when. The flow of information was forever changing so we always had to be ready for everything to change at the last minute. Operationally speaking, the Chinook is an obvious and big target so had to make sure that we were ready for anything!”

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Many thanks to the personnel of RAF Odiham and JHSS for making this article possible.