That time the fuel light came on

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 Permalink

Late last week some lucky Aussie bloggers travelled to a gorgeous island in the north of my State and when they shared pics of their helicopter rides I was immediately jolted back to over a decade ago when I last rode in one.

I was a diplomat living in East Timor at the time – which may surprise many cos I feel like I am a surly antisocial bitch more often than not nowadays. But, it meant I was compelled to travel about the countryside to monitor stuff the Australian Government was funding (directly or indirectly – through UN agencies, non-government organisations, contractors and the like)*.

I have to admit – unlike some of my colleagues, I hated the travel. Many of the mountainous roads were quite treacherous; military planes less-than-comfortable and helicopters of dodgy Eastern European origin.

Anyhoo, the Whitsunday travails of my fellow (though vastly more famous and widely-read) bloggers reminded me of one of my most harrowing helicopter trips while in East Timor – which fortunately was also my last.

The occasion in question involved a group of us travelling across the country to attend the launch of… something (I cannot recall the detail now). In addition to the head UN honcho (aka, Special Representative of the Secretary General / SRSG) and his bodyguards the party included a couple of reps from the major donors – Australia and the US in this instance.

Me in the black looking sweaty and bedraggled.

In honour of the important travellers, two very-spiffy helicopters were waiting for us when we arrived to set off on the journey; and we divided ourselves accordingly (naturally I went with the party of underlings allowing the senior US and Australian Foreign Affairs reps to go with the SRSG).

I happily took my seat in the front of the small chopper and was immediately delighted at the glass/perspex front which allowed me to see trees and stuff under my feet as we zipped about. I was less-enthusiastic when the Portuguese pilot veered very quickly to avoid a sudden rise and nearly hit a tree… but, as it happens, that’s not the point of this torrid tale.

We arrived (wherever it was we went) and participated in the opening of the centre we were funding (I remember that much!). The v.charismatic SRSG gave his speeches along with the equally charismatic East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao. We were welcomed warmly, met stacks of lovely East Timorese people and had a fabulous feast before it was time to leave. As the party had – at one point – split up, we had quite a wait for the recalcitrants to return to the waiting choppers and impatient pilots.

The problem you see, was that East Timor is very mountainous and visibility decreases from mid afternoon as the fog rises over the mountains. Any air travel needed to be meticulously planned to avoid later flights.

Once we eventually set off we were forced to fly low and follow gullies and flatter bits. Instead of flying straight across the country, the two choppers had to fly in a very indirect route.

I was in the back this time, but stuck in the middle so I could see everything the pilot was doing. Through my headphones, my poor Portuguese meant that I could make out SOME of the conversation between the pilots of the two choppers.

Suddenly a red light started to flicker on the dashboard (which incidentally may, or may not be called a dashboard on a helicopter!). On and off. With annoying regularity. My basic Portuguese allowed me to understand that this was – unfortunately – the fuel light.

I had a flashback to cheesy movies where the guy purposely runs out of fuel on a deserted road to make out with the unsuspecting girl in the passenger seat. That scenario (though a bit lecherous) is kinda cute. It occurred to me that running out of fuel while flying (IN THE AIR) in a helicopter was – in fact – far LESS cute.

Worse was yet to come, as eventually the fuel light stopped flashing and stayed on. I was promising deities (in which I possibly didn’t hold much credence) all sorts of weird and wonderful things (there is a reason I’m childless – remember Rumpelstiltskin?!). Because I’m a consummate professional however, I was tres calm on the outside. Plus as we had headphones on I couldn’t talk to the other three passengers.

And suddenly, as I was picturing my funeral (and thinking that being cryogenically frozen wasn’t going to be possible if my body was not intact!) an airfield came into view.

Thank. Fuck.

We arrived at a place called Baucau. We weren’t expected – obviously. I recall it being a problem because it was getting dark and there were no lights for flying at night… but… we huddled on the tarmac sharing tales of our near-miss while the pilots and other military types based at the UN airfield refuelled.

I still recall EVENTUALLY getting back to Dili (the country’s capital and my home for two years). It was late, but I was relieved to set foot on solid ground. Is it any wonder I now dislike travel?!

that time the helicopter ran out of fuel

Sadly and only a bit related, the very charismatic SRSG from East Timor – Sergio Vieira de Mello, touted for big things in the UN family, was appointed to a similar position in Iraq in 2003. He and 21 others were killed not long after his arrival, when a suicide bomber drove a truck into the UN compound. I have no idea what his colleagues were like, but in the case of the man we nicknamed, The Serge… what a waste of an amazing talent.

*Plus my life involved endless meetings. Meeting after meeting after meeting.

Have you had any near misses in planes, trains or automobiles?
Am I alone in imagining the telemovie thing?

** Poor quality images as I used to send disks or emails of photographs home and my parents printed them. I’m sure I must have the original (disks) somewhere. **

10 Comments
  • Nikki @ Styling You
    May 1, 2013

    eek Deb, that reads something like out of a Hollywood movie script!

    • Debbish
      May 2, 2013

      Yes… fortunately it all ended well!!

  • @Kanga_Rue
    May 1, 2013

    That sounds absolutely terrifying.

    You are neither surly nor a bitch. As for antisocial, you are simply selective.

  • KCLAnderson (Karen)
    May 2, 2013

    LOVE the way you tell a story!

    Yes, I had what felt like near miss on a commercial flight from Detroit, MI, to New York City’s LaGuardia airport. About half way we ran into a wicked line of thunderstorms. The plane bounced all around violently and then pitched forward in what felt like a nosedive! A flight attendant was thrown and broke her arm. People were screaming. I was gripping the armrests so hard that I ended up with bruises on my hands. It probably didn’t last as long as it felt, but it was the worst flying experience I ever had…as we leveled off and things calmed down, the pilot came on and in that unflappable pilot voice he said, “You may have noticed some bumpiness…I had to take some evasive action to get us out of the storm.” And then, upon landing, his attitude was a bit different…he apologized and said that he had wanted to turn around but had been given clearance to proceed and didn’t heed his own instinct…

    But all’s well that ends well…that was ~25 years ago!

    • Debbish
      May 2, 2013

      Wow! I remember you writing about your hatred of flying (being sick or others being sick). Wonder if that’s what started it?

  • Kristin
    May 3, 2013

    Wow Deb, what a story! That must have been terrifying –I think I would have been planning my funeral too. And you’re definitely not alone in imagining telemovies when things get a bit hairy during travel — I tend to do the exact same thing, imagining all sorts of bizarre scenarios that never actually happen (thankfully)! I guess if it helps keep you less stressed in the moment, it can’t be too bad…

    Anyway, I don’t think I’ll see the fuel light coming on (even when miles away from a petrol station) as being quite such a stressful situation after reading your story!

    • Debbish
      May 3, 2013

      Oh Kristin, glad the telemovie thing isn’t just me. I used to do it quite often – particularly in less-developed countries in dodgy transport. I’d look about to see which ‘characters’ would be the lead characters in a TV movie and wonder if I’d ‘rate’.

      I don’t necessarily like seeing pilots do their thing. I used to travel on small flights on some Pacific Island countries and it freaked me out if their hand movements suddenly seemed fast / panicked. I’m not that phobic but guess I’m a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person!

  • Helene
    May 5, 2013

    That would be incredibly scary. As Kristin says, seeing the fuel light coming on in the car even when miles away from a petrol station, doesn’t seem such a worry now! Thanks for sharing your experience.

    The nearest I have ever come has been when I was in Pakistan about to make a right hand turn when an enormous lorry came thundering out of nowhere and passed me on the right hand side!

    • Debbish
      May 6, 2013

      Hi Helene and thanks for commenting. I suspect the pilots would have just landed us in the middle of nowhere had the chopper started coughing and spluttering (I assume). At least we had the BIG BOSS with us so UN troops would have been on their way to find us in no time at all!

      Your Pakistan experience also sounds scary – I can imagine the lorry wasn’t going slowly either!

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