CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 RAY ILLMAN
A Company, 4-6 Attack Reconnaissance Squadron
16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
As a pilot, I know that helicopters have vibrations. Heck, every vehicle has vibrations — some good, some bad. In an aircraft, there is the shudder of effective translational lift; the wind hitting your tail rotor just so, causing a bit of a shake; and the rotors just a “little” out of balance, causing another vibration. We all have experienced vibrations, some that trigger a little voice in the back of our minds saying, “What the heck was that?” The point is you have to be able to determine if you should continue the mission, return to base or, in our case, just land!
The Fourth of July is my favorite day of the year. In 2009, I was lucky enough to find myself in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Even luckier (I thought), I was going to fly and hopefully get an opportunity to find some bad guys. Little did I know that about an hour after I took off on my flight that my fellow pilot and I would be standing next to our destroyed aircraft.
The seconds you take when deciding what to do can be the difference between a normal landing and a very forced landing. Evaluating each situation using risk management (RM) can be an easy, common-sense process. However, it can also be an immediate necessity to determine the risk of continuing or calling it a day right then and there. A bad feeling in the pit of your stomach is also something you have to take into account (relying on your experience level).
If a situation doesn’t feel right, it very likely isn’t, and that can be incorporated into the RM process as well. Experience is what gives us the ability to weigh probability and severity and determine a course of action for whatever risk level we come up with. Principally, the step of continuous evaluation is where you focus during a mission. The hazards for the mission profile will have been identified before takeoff.
For us, this was an emergency procedure (EP). Every pilot knows it can happen; therefore, we train for EPs so we can respond instinctively. For this particular emergency, I knew the procedure. However, we had never before felt the vibration we did that day. I knew it was a drivetrain component, but my first guess was something to do with the tail rotor. I never guessed that it would be my main driveshaft that was in the process of failing, as I had no indications in the cockpit for such a case.
So now we come to the continuous evaluation aspect. In hindsight, deciding to land 30 seconds earlier would have been a great idea. Evaluating a vibration that neither of us had felt before, and the ‘vibe’ in the pit of both our stomachs saying, “This is not good,” did not take long. Immediately, we turned back toward the airfield, which, thankfully, was only about 10 miles away.
It was the seconds from when the vibration got worse to when the decision was made to land that counted — just a few seconds too late to get a Broken Wing Award. Instead, what we got for a Fourth of July present was a Class A accident in an Afghani farmer’s field. Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. My point is when something is wrong, seriously without-a-doubt wrong, and the pit of your stomach — combined with your experience — is telling you it’s wrong, seconds count to make your decision.