CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 TYLER EHNES
C Company, 1/189th General Support Aviation Battalion
South Dakota Army National Guard
Spearfish, South Dakota
I was one of the senior pilots in the company with 500-plus hours in the HH-60M, and my pilot in command checkride was approaching. I was confident I was ready — some would say too confident. Looking back, I agree.
I had several conversations with my commander and standardization pilot. They knew I was confident in my abilities and that other instructor pilots and PCs were as well. After some of my recent flights, the PCs would say, “When are you going to make PC? You are more than ready.” Although I didn’t realize it at the time, those comments gave me an inflated belief in my abilities. One flight was all it took to bring me back to earth.
My SP scheduled me for a night vision goggle training flight. I knew this was definitely the flight that he would be evaluating me for PC. I was certain it would go off without a hitch and I would be the unit’s newest PC once we landed. We were to conduct a normal NVG training flight of two hours, our standard flight time, which I had done numerous times. In the flight brief, we received our weather brief. It was going to be visual flight rules over our entire flight period, with the weather starting to deteriorate an hour after landing.
We took off and conducted our training flight. Everything was going well as we neared the end of the flight period and got ready to head back to home station. We knew the weather was supposed to begin deteriorating, so we looked for signs of the ceiling and visibility coming down. We could see the front moving in, but it was still off to the west. We listened to the Automated Surface Observing System on the field, which was reporting 10 miles of visibility and a clear ceiling. I thought to myself, “No worries. The weather is still a ways off.”
I climbed to 4,500 feet mean sea level, which is our inbound corridor altitude for NVG operations. We were about 10 miles from the field when my SP shouted, “Descend, descend, descend!” I immediately lowered the collective and initiated a descent from 4,500 MSL. Once we leveled off, I asked him why he wanted me to descend from our corridor altitude. He calmly responded that we were seconds away from entering the clouds and would undoubtedly gone inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions.
“What clouds,” I asked. I was looking through the goggles and could see through some of the deteriorating weather right in front of me. The SP explained that he saw the bright lights from the nearby city reflecting off the top of the cloud layer we almost entered. Once he pointed it out, I noticed it too. Needless to say, I was a more than a little rattled.
The tower queried us as to why were only at 300 feet above ground level, and we told them about the cloud layer we had just missed. Tower replied that the field was VFR and there were no clouds to speak of. It turns out that both we and the tower were correct. As soon as we crossed the approach end of the runway, the clouds disappeared above us and the field itself was indeed VFR.
This flight has been the most humbling of my career. I went into it overconfident in my abilities. If my SP had not been on that aircraft, I have no doubt I would have gone IIMC. Who knows what would have happened from that point. In addition to the hit my confidence took, I also realized I let complacency grab a hold of me during the last 15 minutes of the flight. The airfield was in sight and the hard part was over. All I had to do was land. I was also hand flying the HH-60M at the time we almost went inadvertent. I realize now I should have coupled the aircraft to the flight director knowing there was a possibility of deteriorating weather.
Needless to say, I did not make PC after landing, but I did not care. I was just happy to be on the ground. I gained a lot of valuable experience from that flight. Now that I am a PC, I carry that experience with me and make sure I always pass it on to my pilots. Hopefully it will keep them from making the same mistakes.