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.
It was a beautiful Antarctic day with high, thin clouds, light winds and flat seas. There were big icebergs on the horizon, and with them, the Japanese whaling fleet. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to have the most intense flying experience of my life.
During those two days, I performed a total of nine flights in the 300C from our ship, the Steve Irwin. We were accompanied by the bulk of the Japanese whaling fleet, and at any given time, there would be five large ships and two small boats jockeying for position, while always within a few miles of each other. During missions like this, my head seems to be on a swivel. Since I have the best view of the engagement and have the ability to communicate with everyone involved, it can take all my focus just to keep up, and these two days were no exception. I had to keep track of the movements of all the vessels, confirm the position and status of the small boats, monitor all radio traffic, keep an eye on the weather and constantly update the bridge crew. Plus, I needed to make sure the aircraft was always in position to get all the aerial footage we needed to show the world what was happening down there.
Those two days were concluded with an event that I often describe as my best and worst moment as a helicopter pilot—the filming of the harpooning of a minke whale.
From a distance, we saw that the Yushin Maru #2, a harpoon vessel, was in pursuit of a pod of whales. Once we arrived on scene, I did everything to keep the aircraft in position, so that we could record the moment that the whaler fired the deadly harpoon. For 20 minutes, I flew the aircraft to the limit of my ability as the ship constantly swerved underneath and around us. Finally, the harpooner fired, and we were right behind him, looking over his left shoulder. That was the best moment, knowing that we had captured that historic footage. But what came next was the worst moment. For 25 minutes and 16 seconds, we hovered and recorded the slow death of that whale, which came only after being shot seven times in the head by a high-powered rifle.
It felt like watching a car crash for the same period of time. You want to look away, but you can’t. When I landed hours later, I was utterly spent. There are whole portions of that last day that are still a blur of emotion and adrenaline. Still, I’m proud to have been there.
Flying for SSCS has been the most rewarding professional and personal experience of my life. I have the best view of any office in the world. I fly in some of the most remote places on earth, and have seen things that few, if any, other pilots have seen. It has challenged me in ways I never thought possible, and I look forward to every flight as if it’s the first.
Chris Aultman is a dedicated environmental conservationist and commercial helicopter pilot from Long Beach, Calif. Prior to joining the Sea Shepherd team, Aultman served for six years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a helicopter-avionics technician. During this period, he spent 13 months at sea and became a veteran of the Gulf War. As part of Sea Shepherd, Aultman has completed six Antarctic campaigns and one Mediterranean campaign. He has flown a total of 450 hours, and conducted over 400 takeoffs and landings from Sea Shepherd vessels. The fourth season finale of Whale Wars will air on August 12, 2011, at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Visit www.seashepherd.org and www.animal.discovery.com/tv/whale-wars.