For the last two weeks, the Tailored Air Group aboard UK Naval ship RFA Argus has been providing air cover in the absence of the Royal Cayman Islands Police helicopters.
The Wildcat and Merlin helicopters have become a welcome sight over Grand Cayman, creating awe and excitement in their wake; therefore, this journalist jumped at the prospect of covering a hurricane exercise involving the RFA Argus crew.
It was 11 June on the scenic Colliers Beach when I witnessed the Wildcat approaching. A thrill swept over me as it landed for a mock medevac.
If you are wondering if it’s as cool in real life as in the movies, I can assure you, it is.
However, what they do not show you in the cinema version is the tornado-like funnel of wind, sand and dust the helicopter’s thunderous propellers kick up.
As media, we got a front-row seat, which meant being sandblasted and tossed back a few inches by the draft from the propellers. It was not that pleasant an experience, to say the least, and I was still tasting the sand in my mouth the following week.
I thought that would be my last encounter with the choppers.
The flight of a lifetime
There I was, minding my own business, frantically writing a news story to beat the daily deadline last Thursday when the Governor’s Office number popped up on my cellphone.
“Oh God, what did I do this time?” I thought, as I answered cheerily. Hopefully, my pleasant tone would take the edge off what could possibly be a verbal thumping for some story I had written or question I had asked at the COVID briefing.
On the other end of the line was Matthew Forbes, head of the Governor’s Office.
“Hi Reshma, how are you?” Forbes asked.
His tone was friendly, he was exchanging pleasantries, always a positive.
“I’m doing good,” I replied, hesitantly.
Then he popped the question. No, not that one; it was the, “How would you like to go for a helicopter ride with the governor and the premier on the Merlin tomorrow?” one.
My heart was pounding and my head was spinning. “Keep cool, keep cool,” I repeated in my head, as I calmly and professionally responded. “Let me check my schedule … (dramatic pause). Of course; I would love to go on a helicopter ride.”
With my impending journey now cast in stone, or so I thought, I ended the call and returned to the important task of deciding what to wear for the flight.
I never did meet that news story deadline.
Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I prepare for any task, whether it is doing research ahead of my interviews or brushing up on the latest news to prepare for the COVID briefings.
So, it should come as no surprise that I Googled the Merlin specs and tips for preparing for a helicopter ride, which, of course, led me to YouTube tutorials.
As most who search videos on YouTube would know, it is very easy to go down the rabbit hole. I went from zero to 1,000, just by starting out with simple videos on what the Merlin can do, and somehow ended up on ‘How safe are helicopters?’ and ‘How to survive a helicopter crash’.
Needless to say, a restful night did not follow, as I tried to shake the subsequent misgivings about my looming flight.
No turning back
The day had arrived. I shook off the cobwebs, took my morning walk and got ready for the flight of a lifetime.
As I entered the RCIPS Air Operations Unit at the Island Air hangar, Commander Steve Fitzgerald greeted me with a look of remorse as he broke the news that the Merlin was not coming and it would be the Wildcat helicopter instead.
The worse news was yet to come; I could not get on the flight.
You see, the Wildcat is smaller, therefore the seating was limited. Crestfallen, I put on a brave face and waited for the officials to arrive.
This bit of news was definitely not a group chat message I was going to share, as my newsroom colleagues were so excited for me.
I kept my disappointment to myself, smiling cheerily as the governor and his policy officer Simone Eade entered. We were told the premier would not be joining us … maybe my chances were improving.
Alas, Fitzgerald said that still would not mean I could get on. I could see my golden wings fluttering further away as we waited for the final word on seating.
Everyone knows by now that Governor Roper has been bitten by the Caymankindness bug, but not everyone has seen in it action.
On Friday, I witnessed it firsthand. When told of the situation, he – without hesitation – offered his seat so I could get onto the helicopter.
I was touched and overjoyed, but humbly declined. How could I accept?
Thankfully, no sacrifice had to be made in the end, as the seating arrangement was sorted and I was given the green light.
Of course, now the reality was sinking in that I was going on a helicopter. I watched the Wildcat make its descent; this time there was no sand or wind-blast, but it was just as impressive.
We were greeted by Royal Navy Captain Philip Dennis, Commander of the UK Task Group in the Caribbean, and Royal Navy Lieutenant Christian Smith.
They gave us helmets, safety vests and a mini air tank.
Face masks were mandatory for the flight, as the crew aboard was COVID-19 free and needed to be kept safe.
Smith ran down the safety procedures over the cacophony of the propellers. I tilted my head, trying to listen and remember how to push a button, while controlling my trembling hands. Dennis was kind enough to assist.
Sorry, Smith. The most I caught from your safety rundown was, “Do not pull on the string inside the helicopter … (something, something) … we will not leave you behind if there is an emergency.”
“Wait, what? … an emergency?!” I thought.
“Are you all right?” he asked. I nodded my head and gave him a thumbs up.
“Oh God, what did I just agree to?” I said to myself, as I signed the waiver form before boarding for the flyover.
With my helmet on securely, visor down and camera equipment in tow, I paused with the rest of the group for a brief photo op before climbing into the helicopter.
I prayed softly as I buckled up, “Lord, keep my hands steady to get good shots and make my stomach strong, ‘cause I’m sitting opposite the governor and I cannot afford to throw up on him.”
As we lifted off the ground, I was grateful for the thunderous sound of propellers overhead, because it covered the loud pounding of my heart in my chest as I saw the tarmac fall farther away.
That was small potatoes, however, compared to the sheer horror of having Smith open the side doors once we were up in the air.
The wind howled and battered us, but the sight below us was breathtaking.
I fought against the gusts to hold my camera steady so I could get footage that would do justice to the scenes that lay before us.
I already loved Cayman, but if I’m honest, I fell head-over-heels for it all over again on that flight.
The turquoise waters were mesmerising as we flew over the island with the wind in our faces.
Distracted by the extraordinary sights and the thrill of the ride, I was surprised at how quickly the 45 minutes passed. Before I knew it, we were ‘heading back to base’.
The landing was mercifully smooth, thanks to the skill of the pilots. We were safely back on terra firma.
Days later, I have my feet on my ground, but I still have my head in the clouds.
Thank you, RFA TAG; I am officially a fangirl.