Russian Helicopters, September 14, 2015 - Traditionally, being a pilot is a male dominated profession, especially when it comes to heavy military helicopters.
However, as with any rule there are exceptions. In the ranks of the Peruvian Army there is a girl with the romantic name Melody Moon and a disarmingly radiant smile. She pilots a military Mi-171Sh helicopter built at Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant, a Russian Helicopters company.
We talked with the only female helicopter pilot in Peru about her choice of career path, the complex and risky profession of being a pilot, and operations in which she had a chance to use the Russian Mi-171Sh.
- Melody, what influenced your decision to link your life and destiny with service in the Peruvian Army and aviation?
Since childhood I have been fascinated by the image of the aircraft that roam the expanses of sky and the role they play in our lives. They can be used to transport people, food and supplies to settlements and military bases, thus helping the development of the most remote border villages that have no access to road infrastructure. I always wanted to help people. I chose a profession that gives me the opportunity to do something useful for my people, my country.
- Which helicopters did you fly before piloting the Mi-171Sh?
The Enstrom F-28F and the AgustaWestland AW109
- What is it like to pilot the Mi-171Sh and what distinguishes it from other machines which you fly?
The Mi-171Sh is easy to use and reliable to operate, and is equipped with all the necessary equipment and systems for flying. The machine has powerful VK-2500 engines, which allow you to fly at an altitude of 6,000 meters in all weather conditions. This helicopter has awesome capacity; it can take 20 passengers on board. Furthermore, one of the other advantages of the helicopter is that it is multirole. It can be adapted for various tasks, such as search and rescue operations with the help of LPG-150 and SLG-300 winches, for medical operations, for which the helicopter is equipped with 12 stretchers, as well as for military purposes, for landing, descent on ropes and cargo transportation on an external sling. These advantages distinguish this helicopter from others.
- How long did it take you to train at a flight school to start your career as a professional pilot?
Over the period of a year, I studied theoretical aviation disciplines such as the theory of flight manuals, technical operations and helicopter aerodynamics, and flight rules. The following year, I started to fly; this stage lasted six months and was devoted to working out missions, studying all the subtleties of manoeuvring in the air. After receiving my pilot qualifications, I was able to start receiving instruction in Lima for retraining to fly the Mi-17 helicopter. In my case it was the Mi-8, my first helicopter, which at that time my first flight instructor was piloting. Then the Mi-17, as we did not have the Mi-171Sh. For the Mi-17, I took 50 hours of training as the co-pilot, and then won the right to fly as co-pilot or the deputy commander of a Mi-171Sh aircraft.
- Was the Enstrom before or after the Mi-8?
We flew the Enstrom helicopter for the first 120 hours of training and received a certificate for the right to manage the aircraft. Then we spent 50 hours of a flight training program as the co-pilot on the Mi-17 and Mi-171Sh, racking up a total of 800 hours of flight time, and became skilled pilots of the Mi-17 and Mi-171Sh.
- Were there any particular difficulties over the course of training in the Mi-17 helicopter?
At first, yes. The centres of gravity of the small Enstrom and the much larger Mi-17 are different, and the direction in which the blades rotate differs. Thus, the first challenge faced by all of us is the necessity of being able to control the helicopter while hovering. After that you have to master the basic techniques used for manoeuvring and get used to impressive dimensions of the helicopter when taking off and landing. As soon as you start to feel the size, you can move start selecting sites for landing and start to perform various manoeuvres and turns. Carrying them out on a big helicopter differs from the manoeuvres used when piloting a small helicopter. The main differences from small-sized helicopters are in stability and size, everything else comes easy. The Mi-171Sh is convenient enough and a steady helicopter.
- Please tell us about your experience of helicopter training at Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant.
At Ulan-Ude we were taught by Russian pilots. The course included basic instruction, repeating the instructor’s established operating procedures, air traffic control, and takeoff and landing at the airport. We carried out an ascent to the maximum height of 6,000 meters, and also some turns, the depth of which is dependent on flight hours. In our case, the turns were 30-degree rolls. We were given various landing area challenges: surrounded by obstacles, in limited spaces, landing an aircraft on the runway, vertical landing, hovering outside the landing zone and turning 90 degrees, and hovering at 360 degrees, completely taking into account counter, passing and side winds. In total, five hours of training flights in Russia.
- And theoretical training?
We studied theory for about 30 days, then went on the simulator training for 15 hours: 13 hours of flying in extraordinary circumstances and 15 days of operations for the entire group in turn.
- What operations have you already been part of in Peru as a co-pilot?
I fly the helicopter when there are search and rescue operations, for patrolling and for transportation. In the Army, troops are trained periodically on how to descend and ascend from a helicopter with use of a rope. I just had the opportunity to participate in such training and I enjoyed the experience. Here the pilot needs more precision and ability to hold the helicopter in a hover. The training took place at the Pichanaki military base. We took the troops on board, took to the air, flew to the designated area and hovered at a height of 40 meters so the descent could be made with a rope.
- Was it training?
For the troops it was training, but the flight crew were already familiar with all these actions. It was very interesting to perform such manoeuvres, since they are as really useful for troop training.
- What other operation have you taken part in?
In the tropics, there are areas where there are illegal airstrips used for drug trafficking. Light aircraft land there to deliver these drugs. And if, for example, at this moment I'm on the job, flying around the area, then command might communicate with us and ask us to deliver specialists to destroy such an airstrip using explosive devices and weapons. We then land troops in the area and they blow up the runways and then tell us on the radio when they need to be collected. At the appointed time we take them back on board.
I have also had experience of transporting paratroopers. In the desert near the city of Pisco our helicopter began to climb up to a height of 3000-3500 meters above a designated area at a speed of 120 km/h, almost the minimum speed. We used GPS to find the spot, and when they were in the desired point, the parachute troops jumped from the helicopter. Having made sure that they fall at the appointed spot, we circle and stay nearby.
In addition, I also had to cross high mountain ranges, practically at the maximum ceiling of the helicopter, and the air temperature in these conditions was very low.
- Aren’t the passengers nervous, knowing that a woman is at the helm?
No, they are not afraid, and don’t worry about it.
- What does your family think about your dangerous work with all its responsibility?
They are proud of me. The truth is that I don't tell them everything, because I don't want them to be worried about me.
- In Peru, there are women who pilot planes. You are the only female pilot to pilot a helicopter. Why did you choose helicopters?
Because helicopters are able to fly and land on unprepared sites and in remote locations. Helicopters provide people with salvation, come to their aid, bring necessary food to those who live in remote areas far from the city, and deliver relief supplies to the needy. Helicopters are used in regions with natural disasters, and help save lives. If a person, for example, is in distress at sea, it is a helicopter that is sent to help, as it arrives much faster than jetskis. Helicopters are very useful aircraft, which quickly and effectively cope with any difficulties and come to the aid of all who are in danger or in trouble.