Stay Ahead of the Aircraft
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
My career, like those of most Army aviators, consists of routine flights that represent a lot of planning. But some of those routine flights turn into memorable events. One of those now-memorable flights for me was a routine mission transporting two people from Cairns Army Airfield at Fort Rucker, Alabama, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and then returning.
The original departure time was scheduled for 1400 local, but, due to thunderstorms in the area and deteriorating weather, we contacted our passengers and elected to leave early. After several discussions with the weather briefers, we decided to leave about 1230. The preflight, run-up and taxi checks were all normal. After departure and a quick level-off at 10,000 feet, we were cleared to flight level 260. When we arrived at that altitude, we were clear of any weather and the route was clear. The arrival weather was under visual flight rule conditions with an en route time of three hours.
The flight to Fort Leavenworth was uneventful, and we arrived on time in good weather conditions. We delivered our passengers, refueled the aircraft and updated our DD 175-1 weather data. It showed the line of thunderstorms that prompted our early departure had passed through the Cairns area with a 1,000-foot broken ceiling, visibility of three miles and winds out of the north. We departed Fort Leavenworth with no problems.
On the flight back, we used the weather radar and prepared for the approach into Cairns. During our set-up of the cockpit for night flight and the approach, our lower center console backlighting failed. We did not really discuss it much past the point that we both announced we had flashlights on our person and we expected to break out well in advance to finish as a visual approach. After another 30 minutes of flight, the backlighting for the system gauges, traffic collision avoidance system and cabin pressurization failed. We discussed how we were going to write up the faults.
About 60 miles northwest of Cairns, we received our automatic terminal information service data, which reported a ceiling of 800 feet with overcast conditions, two miles visibility and the winds from 280 degrees at 15 knots gusting to 20 knots. We set up the airplane to execute the instrument landing system approach on Runway 06, then we would be directed by air traffic controllers to circle to land on Runway 36 via radar vectors. We were handed off to approach control and received vectors for the final approach. The localizer had been tuned and identified several times in accordance with our checklist and standard operating procedure. We were given our final turn to intercept the localizer.
Everything was normal and the aircraft was just capturing the localizer when the pilot’s navigation/electronic flight information system failed. When that happened, I announced it and that I was beginning to configure the aircraft for a missed approach. My co-pilot then announced he had the controls so I could get the systems back online and inform approach control that we had a failure and would need to be re-vectored.
As I was trying to correct the problem, some of the flight management system control buttons were sticking, the autopilot failed and it was dark. By this time, we had climbed back to about 2,600 feet mean sea level, and my co-pilot redirected his attention to the lower console to assist me with the problem. At some point, while both of us focused our attention on it, I glanced at his attitude indicator to discover we were in a 60-degree right descending bank. That’s when the approach controller asked us if everything was OK.
I announced I had the controls, he acknowledged and we leveled the aircraft. He took the controls and executed the ILS approach via radar vectors until we broke out below the clouds. He then handed me back control of the aircraft to execute the circle maneuver. We executed the landing and taxied a very quiet aircraft to parking.
When hand-flying the aircraft, ensure someone is really flying and maintaining positive control at all times and not just stating the intention to fly. We let the aircraft get ahead of us by becoming distracted with abnormal indications. We had executed this approach numerous times together as a crew and allowed ourselves to become complacent with the procedures. This, along with having flown numerous missions as a crew in the austere conditions of the desert environment, showed we were complacent with each other’s cockpit mannerisms.
The point of this is to brief a real plan in the event a systems failure occurs in a critical phase of the flight. Also, always treat the other crewmember as if it were the first time you’ve flown together as a crew. Do not take anything for granted. We always brief the three-way positive transfer of the controls. If you brief this, ensure that is the way you execute the transfer.
As far as checklists and SOPs, while we adhered to and executed those items as required and briefed, we allowed our individual attention and cockpit responsibilities to become degraded due to what should have been an ankle-biter distraction that could have easily become a killer. Stay ahead of the aircraft and remember that small things can kill you.