When the Plan Changes
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 BRAD SHEALY
Army Aviation Supply Facility
South Carolina Army National Guard
Eastover, South Carolina
The night shift started as it typically did for an air medical pilot. Log in by 7 p.m., talk with the outgoing pilot about the day’s activities and check pertinent information like weather, notices to airmen and temporary flight restrictions. The forecast promised an improvement in marginal visual flight rules conditions, so I looked forward to a good movie on the tube by 9 p.m. The crew brief with the nurse and paramedic concluded with a tongue-in-cheek wish for a quiet night — or at least a normal one. Little did I know that in a few hours we would be caught in a situation reflecting one of the leading causes of fatal accidents in the air medical business.
The 11 p.m. call interrupted what was a slow night. A stabbing in a local town led to a request for air transport. A check of the weather revealed a scattered cloud layer at 2,500 feet with visibility at six miles. The radar showed a few small, isolated showers, but nothing that prompted the crew or me to decline the mission. After a quick walk to the Bell 206L4, we were on our way to the scene. An in-flight observation of the weather confirmed the report we received prior to takeoff. This mission should be a quick, easy turn — get to the scene, load the patient and get back to the hospital. Maybe we would even get a few hours of sleep before shift change in the morning.
The first mission change came soon after landing at the scene. Dispatch notified us that we had to transport the patient to a medical facility farther away from our base hospital due to an unusually busy night in the emergency room. A quick re-check of the weather revealed even better conditions for our destination. Our fuel status was good and our patient was stable, so we accepted the change. So much for a few hours of sleep on this shift, but mission change is a fact of life in the air medical business.
We loaded the patient and departed. I climbed to 2,000 feet and settled in for the flight. Suddenly and without the warning of gradually disappearing ground lights, I found myself fully engulfed in clouds. A feeling of dread and denial swept over me, and for the moment, I did nothing. The first words out of my mouth were, “We are IMC!” The medical crew’s initial reaction was total silence. I suspect they were also experiencing a bit of denial. Every instinct in me wanted to reduce the collective in an attempt to descend out of the clouds, but my training told me not to. “Fly the aircraft first,” I reminded myself.
I tried to return to visual meteorological conditions (VMC) via a 180-degree turn with no luck. I struggled to make the mental transition to instrument flight rules (IFR) flight, still trying to figure out how to get out of the clouds as soon as possible. I reluctantly initiated the inadvertent IMC (IIMC) procedure and confessed my dilemma to the local approach control agency. The situation deteriorated as heavy rain pelted the aircraft and lightning flashed. I had flown into a developing thunderstorm. I asked the controller for a vector out of the weather. He issued me the requested vector with the reassurance that I should be clear of the storm cell in a few miles.
Things were happening fast and I constantly had to remind myself to aviate first, then navigate and, finally, communicate. I had not expected how difficult it would be to maintain altitude, airspeed and heading while simultaneously setting up the avionics for a night approach in instrument conditions. Even with a user-friendly Garmin 430 GPS, this was a challenging task for a single pilot. Fortunately, the controller’s information proved correct and I exited the storm while being vectored for the instrument landing system. I advised the controller of my return to visual conditions and landed safely, shaken but alive.
As I reflect on that night, a few hard-earned lessons come to mind. First, I realized I never really settled the issue of when I was going to commit to IMC in deteriorating weather conditions. Although the decision was essentially made for me, the next time it might not be so clear-cut. How much am I willing to slow down and go down to maintain VMC? It’s a personal decision for each aviator to make; however, when the situation arises, will it be a time of debate or time of action? Decide beforehand and the mental transition to an emergency instrument condition will be much easier.
Second, I underestimated how the stress of an emergency amplifies the difficulty of accomplishing simple tasks like inputting the approach into the GPS in a dimly lit cockpit. Training and frequent practice will reduce this stress when the time comes to do it for real and your brain temporarily turns to mush.
Finally, I was lulled into a sense of complacency by the improving weather situation. I let down my guard and got caught. I was forced to be reactive that night instead of proactive. I walked away from my experience determined to be better prepared the next time the plan changed.