… with Thresher Sharks

They can be seen most mornings — early mornings — at the Monad Shoals, off Malapascua Island in the northern Philippines. The vertical wall, with a convenient viewing point 30 metres down, provides a convenient cleaning station for the graceful beasts with the elongated tail flukes. Johnny and the Varmints hitched themselves to the guide-rope.

IMG-20171021-WA0001The small island of Malapascua lies a 40 minute boat ride from the northern tip of Cebu, which itself is 200km from the international airport on the southern tip. The journey between these two points can be covered by a rental vehicle, either a car, van or in our case, a float plane. Never assume that the fastest vehicle will be the most convenient; we had arrived at the fag-end of a typhoon so adjustments were necessary. As it turned out, including the plane, the poor weather meant we utilised nine separate modes of transport to reach our destination.

Some transfer or another

One of several boats and chairs. This one was in brown rattan

For the final leg the dive centre sent its boat (there is a public service but it was now way too late for that). We made a night assault on the beach and I and the kit was dragged round to the shop. Johnny’s hotel was next to the Fun&Sun PADI centre, one of several dotted along the fine sandy beach on the southern island coast. An idyllic setting for grown-ups but never less than challenging for wheelchair users. Luckily, son Ryan would be at my side throughout the adventure.

To visit Malapascua from the UK and return after only four nights may seem an odd use of one’s time and money. But Ryan was joining Cheryl, his girlfriend, for a family reunion and a subequent invitation to me seemed too good to turn down. I love my diving; I knew this would be difficult but was also confident there would be plenty of willing hands.

Our programme began the next morning, bright and early. The boat’s ever-resourceful crew would experiment with ways of getting me on board from beach, boat or ocean, before settling on a plastic chair lashed to a pole and hoisted by them onto the fore-deck.

We made several dives during the build-up to the thresher descent; one to the small marine reserve of Gato, where we swam through a tunnel that was long enough for us not to be able to see the other side. It took a small leap of faith to make the dive into the abyss but it was probably only half a minute before the pale blue exit hove into sight.

And thrillingly, there were white-tipped reef sharks! Several of them, more of a conventional shark shape than a thresher and more menacing for that. By the time we saw them I was clear of the swim-through but others behind me inadvertently hemmed one in, and it darted towards them before finding a way out.

But the threshers were the highlight and they didn’t disappoint (video by Warwick Ngan Kee. The shadow at the end is of the diveboat, 100 feet up). As we were deeper, our sightings were limited to appearances through the gloom. Later there were arguments about just how many we had seen — several in succession or just one swimming in circles? Their mouths, while the familiar sickle shape, are far too small to pose a threat. But sharks of any kind have this mystique and thresher tails, which they use to stun their prey, are especially impressive.

Again due to the depth, our bottom time was limited and we needed to make a decompression stop while surfacing. On our way back to breakfast we were an excited group.

I always enjoy night dives, from the tip backwards into the blackness to giving the thumbs-up signal and piercing the silver surface above. And you always see good stuff; to improve my chances I tied a torch to my mask strap. This evening’s highlight was a writhing mass of green and black sealife, presumably feeding on some corpse, looking for all the world like the fabled snakes on Medusa’s head. They looked like eels but I later learned they are a type of catfish.

IMG-20171028-WA0000Now, back in England, having spent most of the past week either in the air or under the water, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I also feel shattered, which is odd considering others were doing most of the hard work. Would I go back? I initially thought never again. But on the other hand the hotel quickly put up several ramps, one permanent (Ryan christened it before the concrete set). I eventually found an almost sand-free route between the hotel and the dive school (the FreeWheel was again invaluable). The chair device works, although we must have stressed this particular one to its limits. And I finally made it into the shower without Ryan’s help (the exiting manoeuvre requires more thought).

So, with all that infrastructure now in place — madness not to, really.


Johnny gets a pressy. Thank you all!

… to Helitech

So farewell, biennial helicopter trade show

Has it really been 30 years? It sounds about right. And I’ve been to every one of these shindigs. I was there in London yesterday but have decided it’s time to call it a day.

I recall Helitech’s early days at Redhill, close to London Gatwick, where we camped out in some remote area of the grass airfield, and where more than once it rained so hard that water seeped through the underfoot coir matting. I once spent an idle hour classifying the mud-types I had encountered, from carpark clag to walkway ooze, and even though said field was easy to fly into and around, and perfect for demonstrating skidded machines (wheeled ones invariably sank to their oleos), it was obvious that hugely expensive aircraft and trench warfare conditions did not chime well.

So Spearhead Exhibitions, run by the redoubtable Sue Bradshaw, upped-sticks and moved to another famous Battle of Britain airfield — Duxford near Cambridge. It was here I believe that the show found its spiritual home and, over two full decades, became quite the magnet for operators and, in turn, dragged in exhibitors and visitors. Accommodation and logistics proved problematic — as part of an editorial team I was once put up in a Travelodge on a roundabout next to a Shell station — but since you can’t argue with footfall, most folk found a way around this.

Helitech 2007 (640x427)

Helitech static line 2007

As the show settled into this new venue, it evolved into something of a must-see for the European arm of the ‘industry’. More intimate than the annual US Heli-Expo behemoth, over the years it also developed some unique selling points. Like the Day One reception in the splendid American Air Museum, a hangar so stuffed with US hardware that it took me most of my first visit to notice a giant B52 bomber suspended, amongst so many other planes, from the ceiling. Like the Glenn Miller tribute band, resplendent in USAAF ‘pinks’, that would belt out swing classics to an audience that lingered to chat long after chucking-out time. Like the dinners for many of us held at historic Magdalen College, generously and repeatedly laid on by Jeremy Awenat. And like the decent chance of seeing, over the three days of any show, an RAF Spitfire locking display practice horns with a Luftwaffe Me-109. Bugger all to do with helicopters, any of it, but you can’t buy atmosphere like that.

Helitech 2009a

Static line 2009

As a freelance I found my own B&B accommodation in an old manor house to the south of the airfield, where squadron aircrew would surely have been billeted during the Battle of Britain. I would drive in early, along the A505 past the pet cemetery (smoking today?), and talk my way into parking next to the entrance and press-room. Although still a temporary structure, this one looked more like an exhibition and less like an army canteen, and the portaloos were set up on hardstanding rather than slip-slidin’ slop. A static line of new helicopters would stretch the whole length of the exhibition hall and, opposite the chalets, scatter into an unruly mass of interlocking rotor blades.

I knew so many people. Press contacts, visiting pilots and engineers, and the odd CEO. It would take me over an hour to wheel the 120 metres from one end of the hall to the other. I loved news-gathering, interviewing, catching up; the attention dammit.

But to be honest the chalets were a bit tat and, as companies were acquired and million-dollar partnerships forged, clients began to object as the odd rain-generated power cut disrupted their Powerpoints and the barely adequate air-con. Spearhead was also swallowed up by the vast Reed organisation that soon decided, with merciless logic, that million-dollar products deserved million-dollar accommodation. Sue’s services were unceremoniously dispensed with. The writing was on the wall.


EC135, yesterday

So it shifted once more. Today, after three or four outings to its latest home, the cavernous and soulless Excel centre in London’s dockland, the industry pays top-dollar for everything. The result is certainly slick (and the toilets are lovely) but it has shrunk considerably from its Duxford glory days and, to my mind, has lost much of its attraction. Helitech now seems to me like a teeny-weeny cousin of Heli-Expo, with no distinguishing feature whatsoever.


H160, yesterday

Does that matter? The sector has expanded enormously since the mid-eighties and the helicopter is now involved in any number of new activities worldwide. Exciting new rotorcraft are in development and risks continue to be taken. Business is more corporate and less personal but it is also more profitable. Hundreds of new flying jobs have been created. When back in the day I worked for the then-BHAB, I would counsel wanabee pilots that the only way to  employment lay through the military pipeline and that no one else would pay you to fly. That soon changed and several fully-employed aviators I later met at Helitech would gleefully point out just how wrong I had been.

That new generation is now in charge and, as my trade-press writing has tailed off,  I have lost touch with most of my colleagues. Yesterday it took me less than two minutes to cross the hall without being accosted. The only friend who I did see, and who I am confident would have been at the very first Helitech, was insurance stalwart Ian Rubie. We have grown old together Ian.

So in 2019, unless there is something to look forward to beyond the press releases and media receptions, I think I’ll take a rain-check. Which is sort-of where we came in.