x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Chopper pilot Kim Hatch, a man of high standards

The Abu Dhabi-based helicopter pilot Kim Hatch flies the flag for chopper enthusiasts around the Emirates.

Kim Hatch in the pilot's seat of the helicopter he uses to tow the 10,000 sq ft Abu Dhabi Grand Prix flag.
Kim Hatch in the pilot's seat of the helicopter he uses to tow the 10,000 sq ft Abu Dhabi Grand Prix flag.

Kim Hatch takes a seat in the reception area of one of the clutter of low-rise buildings clustered a few metres inside the high perimeter walls of Al Bateen Executive Airport. Without pausing for thought he tells me: "Helicopters are the most incredible machines ever built. They are the only mode of transportation invented that have saved more lives than they've cost. They are," he says, pausing briefly, "the most amazing things."

Hatch talks about helicopters with the rhythm of a mystic, speaking with unwavering conviction about their positive attributes. An American expatriate pilot, he trained in the US Army, before leaving the forces in 1985 to fly commercially. Right now he works for Falcon Aviation in Abu Dhabi. "I love them, they are my friends. They have proven themselves to me," he says. "If they have a problem, a vibration or something, they will usually let you know and give you enough time, as long as you treat them right. My first instructor in the army used to say that 'a helicopter is like a lady, you can make them do anything if you are gentle'."

He is currently, for want of a better term, the flag man; the pilot charged with making those eye-catching weekend sorties along the capital's Corniche, towing a 10,000 square feet banner in his wake, promoting the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Next weekend the flag will trail over Dubai for three teatime flights, moving from Jumeirah Beach Residence along the Sheikh Zayed Road to Dubai Creek and, finally, back along the beachfront to the Palm.

It is a mesmerising sight, a mechanical bird moving at snail's pace, dwarfed by fluttering block capitals across perma-blue skies. So, is Hatch aware his image - or at least the tiny dot of his airborne profile - is most likely stored in the digital archives of the thousands of camera phones trained on the helicopter throughout each promotional flight? Not so much, is the short but appropriate answer.

"I hear the reactions when I get back in here, but for the most part I'm looking out of the helicopter and placing the load. It's almost like you are flying a big parachute. You have to make sure you are high enough and you have to pay attention to what the flag is doing. "The other day I was flying along the Corniche by Emirates Palace and I was conscious of the flag, because they were swinging a crane on a construction site. You have to be aware, because that thing is big," he says, the master of understatement.

Distant construction hazards aside, it turns out the trickiest part of the flight is the return to base. Hatch leads the conversation into the kind of territory that generally leaves laymen slack-jawed in awe. "The flag is 250ft below the chopper as I'm coming in, so I'm paying attention to my altitude and I start going outside the helicopter," by this Hatch means he's craning his neck and body out of the chopper's door to get a better look at what's going on.

"I try to hover and then settle vertically. But when you do this you have to watch it or you can get into a condition called 'settling with power' or 'vortex ring state'." Vortex what? It's a moment when "the more power you pull, the faster you'll descend. You are just settling in your own vortex and you'll come down really fast. It's real attention grabbing," he says, the master of understatement once more.

Hatch's career has taken him to four continents, flying flags, fighting fires, leading search and rescue teams, from the Alaskan wilderness to the searing heat of the summer in Abu Dhabi. There are plenty of war stories. He was part of a dramatic search in Utah's Zion National Park during which he dropped his helicopter into a deep canyon to help recover a party of six - one adult and five boys - who had been trapped for five days after their recreational field trip turned fatally wrong. Two more adults, including the father of one of the surviving boys, died at the scene days before Hatch mounted his heroic mission.

"When we saw that helicopter," Josh Nay, one of the boys said in an account of the rescue reported in a 1993 issue of People magazine shortly after the incident, "our hearts just went up to the sky." More recently he had been in "the Boonies" (the boondocks, or wilderness) of Alaska where he rescued a teacher who had been missing for four days after she failed to return from a kayaking trip. A party of more than 70 people had been searching for the lost lady before Hatch located her.

"So we're going along and I told my co-pilot to turn left. As she's turning, I'm looking out of the window and I see someone. "I figure it's just a kayaker waving to say hi, but as we've got closer I could see the letters SOS spelt out on the beach. We had her back in hospital in 30 minutes. "Stuff like that is an act of God. That's nothing I did. She was saying her prayers and Father in heaven had me turn," he adds, mystically.