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Torgoen Adventurers: Chris Lea

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Chris approached us through our open call for Torgoen adventurers feature. Knowing we have so many amazing customers with fascinating stories and love for aviation is not something we take for granted and are happy to share these stories with our audience. 

 

How did you get into aviation?

That all started when I was about 5 or 6 years old and my Dad won some flying lessons in a competition. He took me to the airfield on the day of his Private Pilot Licence test, showed me the cockpit of the Cessna he was going flying in and I was hooked. My strongest memory of that day is of the smell of the cockpit. The leather seats, the fuels and oils and probably the ingrained sweat of all the students that had grappled with learning to fly in that machine. Whatever it was, it was unique to that environment. The cockpit instruments were also of great interest to the 5 or 6 year old me. I remember asking a lot of questions. 

That spark of interest never went away and as a teenager I researched how I might get into flying and the military seemed to be the answer. At first, I was drawn to flying fixed wing in the Air Force, but the idea of flying helicopters was sewn by a recruiter and Army Aviation became the focus of my flying goals. I joined, trained initially as ground crew and transitioned to an aircrewman role as soon as I could complete aircrew selection. Pilot training followed in 1987 and I have enjoyed a varied flying career since then, completing about 7000 hours so far. 

 

 

Tell us about your most memorable flight.

There are quite a few memorable ones. The story I most enjoy telling involves a night rescue in the Irish Sea. I had just returned back to base in Northern Ireland from a flying duty that had consumed all of my allocated flying hours from an on duty perspective. A colleague called Phil was preparing for a night search sortie and his pilot had failed to report for duty. He’d had a call that three fishermen had been reported missing after their boat had washed up in pieces on the mainland. They’d been away at sea over 24 hours. I called our boss and sought a flying hours extension so I could crew for Phil and it was granted. We took off into worsening weather and coasted out over the sea toward the last known area the fishermen had been reported working in. We had Night Vision Goggles on our helmets and a Thermal Imaging camera system mounted on the boom of the helicopter. Once established in the area, we searched for about 30 minutes with me looking carefully at the black and white screen for thermal hotspots while my colleague fought the strengthening wind and rain to hold us in a search pattern. I took a break from the screen and lowered my night vision goggles to look around and adjust my eyes to the environment. Looking to my left, I saw a dim flashing light in the distance. I flipped up the goggles and couldn’t see it, so that meant it was either far away or very dim. We quickly discussed the discovery and headed in that direction to check it out. A few minutes later we were hovering over a small rocky outcrop around 25-30 metres in diameter that was just sticking out of the sea. Not big enough to call it an island, but there on the thermal imaging screen were the three hotspots in human form that were the fishermen we were looking for huddled together amongst the rocks. We called in our discovery to the Coastguard on the marine frequency and a lifeboat was diverted from its course into the area toward our location. We needed to establish the medical condition of the fishermen and determined that we could only do that by attempting to land on the rocks and make contact. With immense skill, Phil took us down and made the approach over the waves to the lee side of the rocky pile. It was only possible to position one skid of the helicopter on the rocks, so he held it there, essentially hovering, while I climbed out and clambered carefully over the rocks. Through my NVG I could see a fisherman crawling on all fours over the wet rocks towards me. It was a short distance and we met not far outside the spinning rotor disc. I must have looked quite alien to him with the green backlight from my goggle tubes lighting up my face in the helmet. I pulled the side of my helmet away so I could hear him speak over the noise of the helicopter and his first words were, “Are you looking for us?”  Not quite believing what I had heard I just nodded and asked if any of his crew were injured. They were all wet, cold and very hungry, but were otherwise okay. After explaining that we couldn’t lift them off the rocks and that a boat was coming to get them, I told him we would be lighting up the area with our Nitesun lamp until they had been safely rescued. We took off and established a high hover with the 5 million candlepower light showing the lifeboat where to go. After some difficult work with a tender in rough seas, the three were transferred to the lifeboat and returned to their families while we got home on minimum fuel with a story to tell. 

 

The most important thing to remember when operating an aircraft?

When things go wrong, as they can from time to time, fly the aircraft first and keep flying it. Try and restore normality before diagnosis and then complete all of the immediate checklist items for the emergency you’re faced with. Communicate with your crew throughout and with ATC or your flight following agency and passengers when you can, but keep flying the aircraft. 

Any tips for starting aviation enthusiasts?

I don’t think anyone pursues a career in aviation with the aim of getting rich. We get into it because we’re drawn to it and that’s often regardless of the high cost involved. If your interest is money, then get into something that makes you plenty of money that you can spend having fun by flying. Saying that, I chose flying over potential riches and found the best and the cheapest way for me to achieve that was to go through the military. While competition for entry is strong and places are few, it’s certainly worth the experience to be paid quite well while you train, be trained by some of the best instructors in the world and to fly some of the most advanced and well equipped machines in the most demanding environments. Experience you cannot buy. I’ve travelled widely, flown in arctic, jungle, desert, high mountains and over the sea and that prepared me well for transition to civil flying and the experiences I’ve had since leaving the military. In summary, do your research, get to know what you want and match those expectations with what you can afford. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself with unrealistic goals. Have patience and study hard. You never stop learning in aviation. When you do start flying, treat your machine with respect and have mechanical sympathy with all its moving parts. By looking after it, it should look after you. 

  

Any exciting aviation related projects coming up you'd like to tell us about?

The large company I currently work for is at the cutting edge of innovation in aerospace, aircraft and helicopter manufacture and all of the associated industries. Personally, I’m involved in delivering aviation safety to our Asia Pacific region customers by managing and supporting my colleagues in the customer centres in each of the countries we look after. I get to directly impact the safety culture of operators through our safety roadshow program and through the delivery of helicopter type training to customers purchasing new aircraft. I’m part of a great team that I enjoy working with every day. If you fly one of our products, your safety is our mission.

 

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