Recognizing Stress in the Cockpit
If you’re an Army aviator, do you know why it is important to recognize the signs of fatigue and significant events in your life or the lives of the other Soldiers in your unit? I do. This is my story.
It was a typical day in Iraq — at least it began that way. My team was working the late night/early morning shift. At 0300, I showed up at our command post to prepare the mission packets for our upcoming flight. I was teamed with our company instructor pilot (IP).
It was the last day of my birth month that I could finish my annual proficiency and readiness test (APART) check ride and we were in a real time crunch. Since there were several other aviators’ birthdays in September, it was hard for our IP to make his rounds to the different shifts to get everyone up to date on their APART and perform mission duties at the same time. This was one of those nights.
We were scheduled to fly a recon mission for four hours and then return home and complete a standardization flight. At this point, we had been in Iraq for 12 months of a 15-month tour. Every day was running together into one long day, and most of the aviators were suffering from sleep deprivation. On top of this, our IP was having “issues” with his fiancée back home. He had talked about this to our platoon leaders but not in detail. We will finish that portion of the story later.
Our flight started with us flying from Camp Speicher to the Diyala province, which was about a one-hour trip. Along the way, we reconnoitered Military Supply Route Tampa. The whole time we were focused inside the aircraft at the multipurpose displays and target acquisition display screen. You feel like you’re in a daze looking at the roads and villages for hours on end.
Once we got into the sector, we checked in with the unit that owned that province. They didn’t have anything in particular going on that night, so they had us conduct an area recon of the whole sector. We split up the recon duties between both aircraft in the flight and it still took us until the end of our shift to complete it. As usual, we didn’t see significant activity, so we refueled for the one-hour flight back to Camp Speicher.
En route to Speicher, my IP quizzed me on the basic aircraft capabilities. By the time we reached Speicher, we really wanted to just call it a day because we were so tired, but we still needed to finish a couple of maneuvers to complete the check ride. We broke off the formation flight and began to complete a couple of traffic patterns, doing basic maneuvers required in the aircrew training manual.
After the basic maneuvers, we continued to Memorial Range to conduct combat maneuvering flight. I started running through the maneuvers and had just one last one to go — the pitch-back turn. I conducted the maneuver in a conservative manner, which met the standard. My IP then took the controls and asked if I wanted to see the maneuver in a more aggressive manner, but still within standard. I said sure.
We picked up airspeed and started our steep pitch-up climb. He then began to roll the aircraft 90 degrees to the left. If it’s properly performed, there should be a positive G force on the aircraft at all times; if not, you get into something referred to as flap-jacking. Once the aircraft started to roll, we could feel the weightlessness and realized we had flap-jacked and ended upside-down at about 1,000 feet above ground level.
My IP immediately rolled the aircraft upright. We did not have any airspeed, but we did have a massive rate of descent. With only a few hundred feet left, we put the aircraft into a dive to build forward airspeed and then proceeded to pull in power. We “mushed” through for a couple hundred feet. Seeing the ground coming up really fast, we pulled all the power we could as a last-ditch effort. We pulled out at the last second, leaving a dust trail behind us. Being so close to camp, we continued straight to the parking area as we dual overtorqued the aircraft.
Now here are the events that led up to this incident. The night before, our IP had gotten word his fiancée had left him for another military guy. He stayed up on the phone half the night trying to fix things back home. Once he went to bed, he couldn’t sleep. This was brought up to our platoon leaders but brushed off because we only had one IP in our company to conduct all of the standardization training and evaluation.
The bottom line of this story is to pick up on the little signs of what’s happening in the lives of the Soldiers and aviators in your unit. As a leader, you almost have to be a psychologist. Did we flap-jack because my co-pilot was distracted by issues back home? It’s hard to say. It is the responsibility of the individual aviator to ground yourself in the event you think you can’t perform your duties in a safe manner. Remember, you are putting more than just your life in danger.