Cheating Certain Death
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 DANIAL W. MOORE
D Company, 1/224th Service and Support (Air Assault)
Davison Army Airfield
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
We didn’t brief a change in plans and because of it, I watched as my friend walked toward certain death from the main rotor blades. It was June and my unit was activated and deployed to Germany as the first Lakota medevac National Guard unit there. The Black Hawk unit we were covering for was on a rotation in the Middle East. Although we had been flying the airframe for several years, as a National Guard unit, we had a constant influx of new people. This probably isn’t much different than active-duty units, but at least they have more cohesion and constant sustained training.
With our mission being medevac, our unit commander decided our rotation would be three 24-hour shifts with two days off in between. The tempo was not that hard, so there was always ample opportunity to fly in the box for simple training missions and to stay proficient. I had been pulling medevac rotation with my crew and was on day three of three. I think the biggest problem with this rotation was some members didn’t have the discipline to maintain any type of real sleep schedule. Several younger crewmembers tended to stay up late playing Xbox and would sleep late in the morning; others would turn in early and be up earlier. You never really knew if the crew was fully rested or not and had to take them at their word.
One evening following dinner, we decided to go for an hour-and-a-half training flight before sunset, after the air had cooled off a bit. We flew with two pilots, a medic and the crew chief. We hadn’t been in country long, so flying in the box had not yet become monotonous. On this evening, we decided to do a little collective training that would get the back-seaters involved. As the pilot in command, I said during the preflight briefing that we would look for and conduct some pinnacle approaches and find some confined area landings that would require the back-seaters to have eyes out and give voice commands to the front-seaters to safely place the aircraft.
After we successfully landed the aircraft on about a half-dozen different locations that were really nothing more than small knolls and decent-sized landing zones, we headed back to the medevac shack. That’s when I spotted a pinnacle on top of a 300-foot bluff. It was almost a saddle in that there was rising terrain, then a flat spot, and then a rise again. It seemed like the perfect combination: a pinnacle in a confined area dotted with trees that would require exact placement of the aircraft.
I proceeded to do a slow, 360 degree recon at 500 feet above ground level, and then down to 300 feet for another look. I didn’t see any obvious reason why we couldn’t land there. The winds were also in favor of a good landing direction, and we were much lighter now that we were close to the end of our flight. The approach and landing, while challenging for the whole crew, was textbook and went very smoothly. After the aircraft was flat pitch and idle, we paused for a quick hot wash of the landing.
The view from the pinnacle was quite spectacular, with the sun beginning to set in the distance. The medic on board asked if they could exit the aircraft and take a look around. We weren’t in a hurry to get back and I saw no real issue with them doing a quick recon of the hilltop even though it hadn’t been briefed. I was on the left side and remained in the aircraft with the pilot.
For some reason, I was expecting both the medic and crew chief to exit the aircraft from the right side. I suppose this made more sense in my mind as this was the downslope side of the saddle. In fact, I was focused on looking to the right to see thumbs up from them both as they exited the aircraft, but only saw the crew chief deplane. That was when I realized the medic had exited from the left side and didn’t wait for my thumbs up. To my horror, he was proceeding to walk away from the aircraft to the 9 o’clock position which had significant rising terrain.
By the time I realized what was happening, the medic was already at the edge of the tip path plane and continuing up the hill. A thousand things went through my mind at once as I desperately tried to figure out how to stop him from certain death. We were at flat pitch and idle, so there was no time to pull pitch, although that wasn’t a realistic option anyway.
My next instinct was to put a right lateral input into the cyclic to raise the tip path plane, which I did. While this caused the possibility of a mast moment in the Lakota — a small price to pay, in my opinion — the bigger issue was the downsloping terrain and the possibility of dynamic rollover. In any event, the difference afforded was minimal at best.
At that point, I just held my breath and watched, knowing I was about to take my friend’s head off with the main rotor blade. I wanted to yell to him. I wanted to honk the horn. I wanted to do a hundred things that were never going to happen. I can’t even begin to describe the hopeless feeling I had. Fortunately, God, karma, Murphy and the stars all agreed it was not his time to go. He cleared the blades by what seemed like inches and continued up the hill — completely oblivious to just how close he came to instant death.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. If it wasn’t briefed in the beginning, don’t do it. However, if it becomes necessary (“necessary” being the key word) to deviate from the initial plan, then another quick brief needs to happen beforehand. The whole crew needs to be on the same sheet of music. You need to ensure everyone has a clear understanding of your expectations and talk through the sequence of events to identify any possible hazards. Then mitigate those hazards. Always use the most conservative response.