Monday, May 10, 2021

Birds of Paradise

I was relatively new to offshore flying when I picked up an assignment to spend the day supporting an oil company in a field of oil platforms off of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I landed on my first platform after a very long overwater flight, my passenger said that he would be only a few minutes so I decided to delay a needed refueling until I could take him to his next stop. If I took off to get fuel on another platform right then, I'd need to shut the helicopter down to refuel and wouldn't be able to return for a half hour or more. I didn't want to keep him waiting if it wasn't necessary.

It turned out that I waited on the deck at idle for about half an hour for him to return to the aircraft, so I was really needing fuel by the time he was back on board.

He boarded the aircraft and I dropped him off at the next stop, and then went looking for a refueling platform. With all of those gas and oil resources out there, you would think there'd be a lot of places to get fuel, but there weren't. Anyway, I found a fuel platform on my map and noted its number from the map as I looked for a platform with that number painted on it. The platform number was normally painted on the deck of the platform, but most of the time, the number was also painted on a sign attached to the platform at sea level.

I found what I thought was the platform that I was looking for, but I couldn't see the number because the platform deck was all white with no number in sight. On closer inspection, mostly because of the number of sea birds that I scared off when I flew over the deck, I figured out that the deck was white because it and the platform number were COVERED like a sheet in bird droppings.


So, since I couldn't see the number on the platform deck I dropped down to the ocean's surface to see if I could see a sign down there. I found the sign and flew back up to the top. It was the platform I was looking for.

Let me pause here to say that I was flying for a well-respected company that had high expectations for its pilots. Once we were hired and trained for work around the oil fields, the company designated us as "captains." We had uniforms. My khaki-colored shirt had embroidered wings with my name "Captain Doss" sewn above the left breast pocket. I had shoulder boards with the four gold stripes of a commercial airline captain. My trousers and shoes were brown. My uniform was clean and my shoes were shined. Of course, I also wore a ball cap and sunglasses. I say all of that to make the point that this was one of those jobs with an image attached to it where people assumed that you'd start and finish the day in a clean uniform, and that it wasn't really what some would call a "dirty job." And it wasn't a dirty job...most of the time.

Back to the story.

So, I landed my helicopter on this fuel platform and shut it down. Since there was no one on the platform to fuel aircraft, pilots pumped their own fuel. I opened the helicopter door and put one foot on the deck to test the surface. As I suspected, that bird excrement was wet and every bit of an eighth-of-an-inch deep. It oozed up along the edges of my shoe. I knew that this wasn't going to be good. The platform was going to be very very slick to walk on so as I set my other foot on the deck I was very deliberate in doing so. I walked in short patient strides as if I was on a sheet of ice because I didn't need to slip on the surface and end up wearing a coat of bird feces. I still had a long day ahead of me.

The fuel nozzle was stowed in a basket at the very edge of the platform and below the deck level so I was going to need to kneel down to get it. First, however, I needed to take a fuel sample to make sure the fuel wasn't contaminated since I was the first pilot on the platform that day. Since the fuel valve was below the deck edge too, taking a fuel sample meant that I needed to kneel on the deck to do it. Fortunately, I had gloves that I wore for refueling so I wouldn't have the smell of jet fuel on my hands while I was carrying customers. But considering my options, I decided to put my gloves down on the deck so I could kneel on them without getting white patches of bird dung on my knees. It was clearly not one of the more glamorous moments on this job.

So, I knelt on my gloves and leaned over the fuel pump basket to get the sample jar. I was careful to hold the jar under the spout so I wouldn't splash fuel on my hands, but it turned out that I was holding the jar under the wrong spout. I discovered that right away when I opened the valve and the fuel came out of another spout, pouring jet fuel all over my hands. After I got my act together, I finally got the fuel sample and checked it. The fuel was good, thankfully.

I took the hose and nozzle from the deck edge basket and dragged them over to my helicopter. Actually, you don't drag those hoses; you pick them up and carry them section by section from one area of the platform to the next because the deck has an abrasive surface that can tear up the hoses when you drag them across it (unless there's bird feculence all over it!).

So, I refueled the helicopter then hauled the hose and nozzle back over to the storage area. I knelt down again to stow everything. As I got back into the helicopter, I found that despite my best efforts to prevent it, I not only had jet fuel all over my hands, I had white birdplop on my knees, hands, and on the toes, sides, and bottoms of my shoes. Again, not an overly glamorous moment.

I started the aircraft back up, picked up my passenger, and finished the day's work out there without saying a word about how I had spent the previous 45 minutes. Living it once was enough for that day, especially since some of my misery was of my own creation.

Being a commercial helicopter pilot working for oil companies sounds like a cool job, and it is. It's dangerous work, but it's good work. My friends always thought it was an exotic job where everything was perfect, and I didn't tell them differently. I have to say though that after my trip to that poop-blanketed platform, I had to smile when they mentioned my cool and exotic job. There was no point in ruining the illusion with the other side of the story. These days, though, I tell people that it was a great job, but I admit that there was this one day...

Some people go to work every day and expect to "step in it" a little bit; sometimes they expect to step in it a lot because there's a lot of it to step in. Some of us don't expect to step in it at all, but find a way to do it anyway.

It's funny how some of the least enjoyable parts of our lives and our work can become fond memories if we let them. If all we do is complain, though, that negativity tends to stick to us (like bird poop) and it's hard to find happiness and satisfaction in them. I have never worn rose-colored glasses, but I've still generally tried to see those experiences through a lens that would enable me to make a positive, useful, or funny story of them some day. I suppose that would help explain why I have many more pleasant memories than unpleasant ones.