Going Fishing: A year in the life of a tuna boat helicopter pilot

So, there I was, first trip out, flying at 1,000 feet (300 meters) in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 800 nautical miles (1,480 kilometers) from land in any direction. There was a decent breeze, a good swell and even from 10 nm miles (18 km) away I could see our boat punching into it, sending white water spraying off the bow. I had 25 minutes of fuel on board and no place to land except our boat or the sea. As I got closer, I could clearly see the boat heaving in the swell. My eyes were wide as I flew the approach and, with concentration levels dialled up, I stuck it to the pad as trained. My mechanic ran out to strap the machine down. He got the first one on and I rolled the throttle back to ground idle. I could taste the sea spray off the bow.  I was flying off tuna boats and loving it!

A tuna boat during the early stages of a "set" to catch some tuna. Here, it has put the net out, but not yet closed it. Not every set guarantees a catch. Matthew Hayes Photo
A tuna boat during the early stages of a “set” to catch some tuna. Here, it has put the net out, but not yet closed it. Not every set guarantees a catch. Matthew Hayes Photo
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I had always been interested in aviation and gained my fixed-wing private pilot’s license (PPL) at 21 years old. I then spent 13 years as a skydiver, working as a tandem master, instructor and cameraman around the world, before working offshore in the oil-and-gas industry while I gained my commercial pilot’s license.

As a tuna boat helicopter pilot, there is plenty of time to sit back and relax. Here, the author rests under his MD 500 while reading a book. Matthew Hayes Photo
As a tuna boat helicopter pilot, there is plenty of time to sit back and relax. Here, the author rests under his MD 500 while reading a book. Matthew Hayes Photo

Getting that first piloting job was hard. I made a few laps of New Zealand and on the east coast of Australia, knocking on doors and visiting anyone with a Robinson R44 who might hire a new commercial pilot. I was fortunate to pick up some casual seasonal work flying frost protection on vineyards, as well as flying with some private R44 owners, to help build my hours.

I was sitting on an oil rig in East Timor scrolling through job ads online, which all seemed out of my reach, when I saw an ad for a tuna pilot with Tropic Helicopters. They required a minimum of 1,000 hours, which I was well below, but I thought I’d make contact as I’d heard of guys getting out there with less.

Matthew Hayes (right) developed a great working relationship with the MD 500's mechanic, Bob (left), who happily shared his extensive knowledge of the type. Matthew Hayes Photo
Matthew Hayes (right) developed a great working relationship with the MD 500’s mechanic, Bob (left), who happily shared his extensive knowledge of the type. Matthew Hayes Photo

It turned out the 8,000 skydives on my resume caught the attention of Tony Artiga, the company’s chief pilot. Three weeks later, I was at their base in the Solomon Islands getting put through my paces in an MD 500C. I had a few hours in a 500, but still found it to be a bit of a handful. Artiga, a very calm and patient instructor with significant military flying experience, quickly brought me up to speed (he is also very knowledgeable about maintenance, and during my contract, we always got the support we needed from him). After a week, I was sent out on my first boat for offshore training.

We set sail out of Tarawa in the Marshall Islands, and I spent the next three weeks getting shown the basics of how to operate a helicopter off a tuna boat. My instructors, JB and Ryan, were both ex-Philippine air force — JB as a pilot and Ryan as a mechanic. They both had thousands of hours’ experience on Bell Hueys and 500s, plus years of experience on tuna boats.

By the end of his time on the boat, Hayes was flying up to 90 hours a month. Matthew Hayes Photo
By the end of his time on the boat, Hayes was flying up to 90 hours a month. Matthew Hayes Photo

Prior to this training, I was anxious about two things: How do I find the boat and how do I land on it?

JB didn’t see much point in training me in calm wind conditions, so would usually wait for the wind to kick up a bit. We started off with a stationary boat, then moved towards the boat at half speed, then to a cruising speed of 16 knots. First, we trained with the wind on the nose, then tried the various out-of-wind approaches and techniques for landing on a pitching, rolling and heaving deck. You can effectively control the relative wind by turning and slowing the boat if needed, which I ended up doing a couple of times over my contract.

Learning to find fish

I had been told that the position was a remote-area operation and was not suitable for people who need to be spoon-fed. The chief pilot would put the less experienced guys on the Korean boats for their larger decks and D models with a C20B for the extra power. I ended up working on two boats during my contract, and both of them were Korean. From what I’d heard and seen, the food and accommodation were better, but you typically didn’t fly as much as the guys on the Taiwanese boats.

The crew on both boats were great guys who worked hard, and my own hours increased along with my experience. I went from flying 20 hours a month at the start, to up to 90 hours some months towards the end of my contract.

Bob repairs a cracked chin bubble on the MD 500 at the end of a long day's work. Matthew Hayes Photo
Bob repairs a cracked chin bubble on the MD 500 at the end of a long day’s work. Matthew Hayes Photo

The helicopter is typically used to look for fish, although sometimes it’s used to transfer parts between boats, as a medevac, or even just dropping the captain to a friend’s boat for refreshments.

Typically, I’d fly two to three times a day with a spotter, who was normally the second or third officer. We’d fly an upside-down triangle search pattern from the boat, looking for fish up to 35 nm (65 km) away from the boat. That’s at least two hours away from the boat if you have to ditch. The boats have very good radar systems that could pick up flocks of birds from miles away, so we’d be sent out to see what the birds were up to. Were they following fish? If that was the case, it would save the boat a lot of time.

Yellowfin tuna steaks are ready to be made into sashimi. Matthew Hayes Photo
Yellowfin tuna steaks are ready to be made into sashimi. Matthew Hayes Photo

We were often searching for fish-attracting devices (FADs), usually manmade rafts with several meters of netting underneath. These would serve as a safe haven for small fish, which would attract bigger fish, which in turn would attract tuna.

FADs can have hundreds of tonnes of tuna with them, so are of high value to the boat. But they are also typically small and well camouflaged, so can be hard to spot, especially in rough weather. Suffice it to say, once you have spotted one, you don’t want to lose sight of it. I made that mistake once, but soon learned to lock onto them.

We had our own FADs with GPS locator beacons attached to them, but the game was to find FADs belonging to other companies’ boats, remove their beacon, and attach yours. Every company was at it.

Working from such a remote location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean provided the opportunity to take in some spectacular sunsets. Matthew Hayes Photo
Working from such a remote location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean provided the opportunity to take in some spectacular sunsets. Matthew Hayes Photo

As the helicopter pilot, you’re not required to look for fish, but if you learn to spot and estimate tonnage it’s appreciated by the captain and your spotter, plus it gives you something to do besides calculate fuel burn, wind, and time and distance to the boat.

The helicopter was sometimes used to encourage the fish to stay in the net (this is called “herding”) before it was closed. Some captains use the helicopter for this every set, but I was only asked to do this a few dozen times.

The company would get huge fines or lose its fishing licence if the operators fished illegally, and the boat had an independent fisheries observer onboard to ensure all was “above board.” Still, I wasn’t so keen on seeing hundreds of tonnes of fish come aboard destined for a can.

A spotter keeps a look out for fish or fish-attracting devices. Matthew Hayes Photo
A spotter keeps a look out for fish or fish-attracting devices. Matthew Hayes Photo

Life at sea

As a contractor, I was simply required to fly and keep the helicopter in serviceable condition. This meant there was a lot of downtime to read, watch movies, study, and watch the world go by. I took lots of photos and edited some videos.

Some days were just unreal: Seeing massive whales breaching while feeding; hundreds of tonnes of tuna feeding; watching whale sharks, manta rays and huge pods of dolphins on the move. It was amazing. Plus, there were some incredible sunsets.

It was pretty much always 35 C (95 F) during the day. My mechanic Bob and I would often sit on the heli deck at night enjoying a beer, looking at the stars, spotting satellites and shooting the breeze.

Fish-attracting devices are often manmade, and these have a GPS buoy attached to help boat crews find them. Matthew Hayes Photo
Fish-attracting devices are often manmade, and these have a GPS buoy attached to help boat crews find them. Matthew Hayes Photo

One night I saw a small meteorite that came within a few miles of our boat. It streaked across the sky in front of me before hitting the ocean. I could see great detail in its contrail, it was that close.

Early on in my contract, I was out on a routine patrol looking for FADs. About 400 nm (740 km) northeast of Pago Pago, American Samoa, I spotted something that I thought was a FAD, but soon realized there were people waving from it. I descended to sea level from 800 feet (250 meters) to get a closer look.

There were 11 people sitting on top of a makeshift raft, and not one of them had a life jacket, so I was mindful to keep at a safe distance and not disturb them or the water with my rotorwash. We radioed our boat, which was 90 minutes away, to give them our position, and tried to signal to the people on the raft that the boat was on its way. We were running low on fuel, so returned to the boat. It was a calm clear day, so there was no danger of losing them.

An hour and a half later, we pulled alongside them and launched our net boat to recover them. Our Indonesian crewmembers translated their harrowing story.

They were longline fishermen. The captain and first officer were from Taiwan and the rest of the crew from Indonesia. Three days earlier, they had been taking a break after lunch and the boat was drifting. Everyone had been asleep. They believed their captain fell asleep with a lit cigarette on the go, and set fire to his room. By the time the crew knew what was going on, the fire was out of control, and one crewmember died trying to save the captain. They realized they had to abandon ship, grabbed whatever personal belongings they could, and threw large polystyrene blocks over the side to create a makeshift raft.

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They spent three long days and nights on the raft before we found them. Fortunately, it had rained the night before, and they managed to suck some water from their clothing. They stayed with us for three nights, and then transferred to one of their company’s sister ships.

Up to five tonnes of fish could be brought up from the main net at a time. Here, they are placed in the hopper, ready to be put in the storage tanks below deck. Matthew Hayes Photo
Up to five tonnes of fish could be brought up from the main net at a time. Here, they are placed in the hopper, ready to be put in the storage tanks below deck. Matthew Hayes Photo

A launching pad for a career

From what I could see and what I heard, the experience of a helicopter pilot working on a tuna boat depended on a huge variety of factors: which boat you got; the captain; the condition of your helicopter; which islands you stopped at; the knowledge, experience and attitude of your mechanic; and, of course, your own attitude and expectations. I had a pretty good run with the boats I was on, as did many other pilots I met in the company.

Two crewmembers pose with an average-sized yellowfin tuna. Matthew Hayes Photo
Two crewmembers pose with an average-sized yellowfin tuna. Matthew Hayes Photo

My guru mechanic, Bob, who is now a good friend, had spent 20 years in the Philippine air force working on MD 500 gunships and had worked 10 years in the tuna grounds. He’d only ever worked on 500s and knew them inside out, so I was in pretty safe hands. We never had any down time through machine issues and it flew smooth. He was also happy to teach me about the 500.

The machine was constantly being maintained and corrosion control was a daily battle. Most of the major maintenance and balancing was done during the two or three days in port while the boat was unloading. The helicopter was inspected by the company whenever in homeport and again at the end of my contract. If it had been in bad shape, the company would not have been impressed.

Boat life can be tough. You’re away from your family for over a year, you’re most likely the only one on board who speaks your language, and you’re at sea anywhere between two and nine weeks at a time with limited communications. Fortunately, I have a very understanding wife who supported me in chasing this dream. I was in daily contact with her through my inReach GPS and she could track me. In the end though, we didn’t see each other for almost 18 months.

With the aircraft tied down, washed, and serviced, the pilot and mechanic can rest for the night. Matthew Hayes Photo
With the aircraft tied down, washed, and serviced, the pilot and mechanic can rest for the night. Matthew Hayes Photo

Overall, I found flying off tuna boats an amazing adventure. I got to see some places that I’d probably not have visited otherwise, such as Pohnpei, Tuvalu, and the Marshall and Solomon Islands. Over the 14 months I was on the boat, we covered an area twice the size of Australia. I met some good guys from all over the world. Some of them used the turbine experience they gained to move onto other roles. One went to a co-pilot position bucketing fires in Chinooks, another guy is flying fire suppression in Chile and Italy, others moved on to medevac.

After my contract, I was lucky enough to land a job with Glacier Country Helicopters in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I’m currently getting trained on the ins and outs of mountain flying, as well as dealing with powder snow and flat light conditions. It’s another steep learning curve and I’m soaking in as much as I can. Without the 500 hours turbine time I picked up on the boats, I wouldn’t have got this break.

I’m by no means an authority on flying off tuna boats, just a low-hour pilot who got a start and has first-hand experience of being out there and flying a one-year contract. The work and lifestyle wouldn’t suit everyone, but I loved the experience it gave me.

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