Planning

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. This matters when it involves unexploded ordinance.

Some things can be done by the seat of your pants. I actually enjoy running some things that way. However, I usually plan meticulously in advance to be able to succeed in an ad hoc situation.

One of my favorite US Geological Survey field excursions was the repair of multiple GPS stations in the live fire range of 29 Palms Marine Base. The sites had been installed several years earlier and needed at least a battery replacements. Some were completely offline and we had no idea what we would find. The planning was intense. The sites were located on Observation Points around the live fire exercise range. Driving from one to the other involved unexploded ordinance training and inherent risk. We decided to a helicopter was in order. Unfortunately, the military pilots couldn’t support this trip and we had to find a local operator to do the flying.

Information gathering began. Which sites had to be visited? Distance between sites? Fuel burn on the helicopter? Weight limits on the helicopter? Who was going? What is the list of known problems? Do we have a list of unknown problems? Equipment? Tools? Personnel skills? Time frame? FAA pilot rules for flying time?

Then we start spitballing solutions. We’ll send Keith to OP1 and Aris to OP2. The helipcopter will come back and pick up John to go to OP3. Wait, how much does Keith weigh? How much does a battery weigh? Scratch that one. Ok. Keith and 4 batteries to OP2, drop batteries, drop Keith and 2 batteries at OP2. Come back to get Aris and 4 batteries, drop 2 at OP3 and Aris and 2 batteries at OP2. Go back and get John. Still have OP4, OP5 and OP6 to go. Need to have Dain at OP4 by 11AM if we have any hope of making it by end of day. OP4 is completely down, have to assume everything needs to be replaced. Too much weight. Not enough fuel for that route. Can’t fly from here to there since they are bombing the area.

We keep planning. We spent about 50 hours planning out a 12 hour day and once we got there, we couldn’t really say what we would find at each site. We just had to be prepared for anything. Call the base a couple of days before the trip to confirm access. They’ve changed the live fire range to the south. Start replanning our routes. Move fuel truck to a separate location for shorter flight.

It was a glorious day. Every site was online by the end of the day. The final two locations called for me to be hot dropped on an outcropping not to far from one of the sites. We had no idea what was wrong with this one. I may have to rebuild the power system, replace the receiver change antenna. I had no idea. The helicopter flared to the ground in the increasing wind and the pilot did not want to shut down the rotors. I grabbed the couple of bags that would allow me to fix whatever I found at the site. I had 90 to do everything.

Luck was mostly on my side. It was a simple case of dead batteries and everything else looked good. However, the batter bolt had rusted to a point that it wouldn’t come off and I couldn’t cut the battery since it was a 3/4 inch braided cable. I had the correct socket and an 8 inch socket wrench, but I couldn’t get enough leverage. I decided to bypass the batteries to test the site. Everything came up great and we were able to confirm telemetry.

I had 15 minutes to find a fix for the battery cable. I started scrounging. I found a few pieces of metal lying around and started zip tying them to my wrench to give myself some added leverage. Between the zip ties and the duct tape, i was able to get leverage to about 20 inches. I pulled with all I had and the bolt shattered. Of course, I didn’t have a backup battery bolt with me. I got all of the equipment in place and tied down. I radioed the helicopter and let them know I would need the spare battery bolts and at least 5 minutes to get the bolts, run back to the site, bolt the cable on, test and run back.

All of my bags were packed and at the extraction point with the exception of the 10mm socket and the wrench I had left at the site. As the helicopter approached, I threw dirt into the air to let the pilot know the wind direction. He turned into the wind and landed. I ran over and stored my gear. I grabbed the bolt, ran back to the site, bolted everything together, tested and ran back (with my tool) to the helicopter. We were still ahead of schedule.

The pilot dropped me back at our makeshift headquarters near a helipad south of the base. He then took off to go pick up Aris. We ended up needing 30 minutes less than our initial estimate, but the pilot said he had overextended his fuel and needed to fly over the hills now or they would have to send out a fuel truck.

We had promised Russel a flight in the helicopter if at all possible and the pilot agreed to take him back over the hill for the ride home. We had to drive that direction so we were able to pick him up. A few hours later we arrived back in Pasadena. Hours of planning and preparation and we still had to fly by the seat of our pants a few times. However, the planning allowed us to succeed because we had identified the worst case scenario and planned accordingly.

To quote Edna Mode: “Luck favors the prepared”