Insurance, PNG style: Phil Latz

With reference to Rod Noble’s story in the March 2014 edition of Una Voce about the ‘mighty’ Sepik river and Bam Island, here is another regarding that area. In March 1987, prior to Shell drilling an exploratory oil well inland from Wewak and near the Sepik River, they asked our company to provider a twin engine helicopter. Shell were pre-stocking supplies for their drilling program and had parked several loaded barges in the wide mouth of the Sepik River prior to tugs towing them upstream for off-loading near their rig site. These barges had been towed to PNG from Singapore. One dragged its anchors in the muddy bottom. As it headed out to sea the watchman wisely jumped overboard and swam ashore. Five days passed before the barge, that was loaded with millions of dollars worth of casing, was missed.

I flew the twin engine Bell from Wewak with several observers aboard the 14-passenger machine, to try and find the barge. Fixed wing pilots flying the coastline were also asked to report a sighting.

The Sepik truly is a mighty river, which dumps hundreds of large trees and so much fresh water into the Bismarck Sea that islanders forty kilometres off the coast are reported to drink surface ‘sea water’. The fresh water, being lighter, floats above the salty stuff and is palatable.

The first day’s search along the coastline proved fruitless. Being loaded with steel, the barge presented a low profile. Next day, equipped with lifejackets, we flew much further out to sea and found our quarry had been pushed fifty kilometres offshore. I reported its position: a tug could now fetch it.

That evening I phoned the boss, Tony, and he said, “Phil, you should have claimed salvage on that barge.”

I was surprised at his remark but found he had good reason to make it. Shell had reneged on much promised work, for which the company specifically purchased another multi-million dollar aircraft. Their cavalier attitude had significant financial consequences for our Hagen-based company. Of course, it was now too late to negotiate compensation over a salvage claim. Shell took more care of their barges after that. If one had sunk or was lost at sea, their drilling program would have been delayed by months and cost many times the barge’s value.

And here is another story, regarding the ‘mighty’ Purari River. Soon after the Sepik event, we lost an early model leased Bell 206B helicopter we operated. While working on a seismic survey, after landing on an incomplete pad surrounded by jungle, the machine tipped rearwards and damaged its rotating tail rotor. The site then had to be enlarged to enable a rescue chopper to land there with an engineer and parts. During that process, a tree fell across the unserviceable chopper’s cabin. With the machine now badly damaged, it had to be lifted out for a workshop repair.

I flew there in our Bell 205 to sling out the cabin section. It was to be taken to the nearest airstrip, Wabo, on the banks of the wide Purari River. After picking it up I was unhappy about the way my bulky load was hanging and swinging to and fro. Returning and trying to re-sling it might have resulted in more damage so I reluctantly continued. During the slow twenty-minute flight to Wabo, the load rotated, in addition to swinging sideways.

My approach to land at the airstrip entailed flying over the river. At a height of about thirty metres, while slowing, the sling holding my load untwisted with a roar, spinning the cargo hook rapidly, then everything fell off the hook. Quickly banking, I watched my load hit the water, narrowly missing several people in a canoe and almost swamping them. They came ashore and complained bitterly, but I managed to fob them off with a few cigarettes, which probably avoided a claim for compensation against a ‘rich’ white man and our company.

My load floated down the deep river for a minute then disappeared forever into the mud.

The final irony to this sad tale was that, when receivers moved in, quite some time later, to take over the ailing company from which we leased that helicopter, it was found to be still on the books as an asset years after it became a home for fish.

The reason for the load falling off was probably that the manual release cable was flung outwards by the rapidly spinning hook mechanism and become caught between the hook rim and restraining bodywork. This could result in the manual (as opposed to the electric) hook release operating and jettisoning the load. Someone had made the manual release wire too long, making it easier for a loadmaster to find and pull if the electric hook release failed. The person overhauling the complex hook mechanism wouldn’t be aware of the possible consequences of his action. It’s another lesson in the importance of exactly following specifications when working on aircraft. Murphy is just waiting for a chance to strike. I certainly did not release the load.

Can you imagine these calls to an Insurance Company regarding the damaged chopper, had they happened at the time?

“Sir, we wish to make a claim for damage to a chopper’s tail rotor.”

Next day: “Sir, it seems a tree has fallen across the machine’s cabin.”

The following day: “Sir, the helicopter is now at the bottom of a big, fast flowing, muddy river.”

Just imagine the paperwork!


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