Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Battle Over Frigid Seas

In the Sea Shepherd’s mission to find and stop whaling ships, the helicopter is key

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Aviation has always been a part of my life, but only recently has it become my profession. I come from a family of pilots, and I remember reading stories as a boy about helicopters doing difficult things in amazing faraway places, and I always imagined I could be involved. As helicopter pilot for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), I now do the kind of flying that I always dreamed of.

I love a challenge, and so far, I've found no challenge quite like flying a helicopter—especially a helicopter that's based on a ship that travels the world in defense of its oceans. Making an approach to a moving ship in the middle of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, with seven-foot swells and powerful winds and landing dead center on a pad, is my kind of aviation challenge.

I started flying for Sea Shepherd in 2005, when I helped them purchase their first helicopter, a Hughes 300C with fixed-utility floats. I was later made Aviation Director for Sea Shepherd, and my sole focus has been to constantly improve and grow helicopter operations to meet the ever-changing global need for ocean conservation while always putting safety first. In 2010, we replaced the 300C with an MD Helicopters MD500E, and set sail again for the Southern Ocean.

My work with Sea Shepherd has taken me all over the world, including Libya, Malta, Australia, France, New Zealand and Spain, but nowhere has my experience been more demanding than Antarctica. I've flown in Antarctica for the past six years with weather and seas that can change by the hour, temperatures of -40 F and no forced landing spots—it's the most inhospitable and volatile place that I've ever flown in.

While flying for Sea Shepherd on campaign, I have three primary roles. First and foremost is to maintain search-and-rescue operations, should a crewmember or vessel become lost at sea. Unfortunately, I performed my first SAR operation in February of this year, while searching for a missing Norwegian vessel, which is documented in the current season of Animal Planet's Whale Wars.

Second is aerial reconnaissance, which involves constant coordination with the captain and bridge crew to search for ships that might be conducting illegal activities. The helicopter is equipped with three independent systems for communicating with the ship during a long flight. A regular air-band UHF radio is used first, and then as the flight progresses, I switch to a dual-band VHF radio that works out to about 45 nm. Once I'm out of range (which is often on these flights), I then rely on an Iridium Satellite phone. I call the ship every 10 minutes, and give it my current position, course and speed.

The final and most influential role for the helicopter is aerial filming. I've always flown both video and still photography while at sea, but since the creation of Whale Wars, this role has changed dramatically. As a character on the show, I'm shown as a Sea Shepherd pilot flying for the campaign, while at the same time, I'm also working behind the camera to get all the aerial footage necessary to make the series. As such, I'm in the unique position of having my profession actually be part of the show and also necessary to make it. Whale Wars is now in its fourth season, and it has been an honor to fly with the many camera operators who I now call friends. Together, we've seen some of the most wondrous and horrible things imaginable, while at the same time changing the world we live in.

I can think of no better story to describe how intense flying for Sea Shepherd can be than the events that took place on February 5th and 6th, 2009. That morning, when I went to the bridge, our position was 75°.57 S 164°.53 W, deep inside the Ross Sea.


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