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NG-J32 Counterdrug Aviation and Safety
Arlington, Virginia

Author’s note: This incident occurred in Alaska a long time ago when I was flying as a non-crewmember in one of five legacy aircraft (OH-58A+) in formation. We were returning home after spending two weeks living in tents with temperatures reaching minus 50 F during a field training exercise.

The flight was to take about an hour and a half, beginning at sunrise, which at this particular time of the year in Alaska was roughly 11 a.m. The sun never really gets much above the horizon, so the sky appears as dusk and lasts about six hours. My company had very few pilots in command available to fly the five aircraft. The lead aircraft had our standardization instructor pilot and the company commander, while Chalks 2-5 were made up of a PC and an enlisted non-crewmember (crew chief) in the left seat (co-pilot station). This was not uncommon for cross-country flights.

The weather had been checked and the forecast called for the usual scattered snow showers with an overcast sky and good visibility throughout the route of flight. Lineup and takeoff went well, and all five aircraft launched and leveled at about 800 feet above ground level. It was not long before the first light snow shower was upon us and visibility decreased to about five miles. I was in Chalk 4, and all of the other aircraft were within sight.

As we pressed on, the light snow shower gradually turned in to what we call in Alaska a snow squall, which decreased visibility to less than two miles. If you took your eyes off the aircraft in front of you, it was very difficult to reacquire them. The ground was snow covered with little contrast and the sky was overcast. It was snowing heavily, which produced a dangerous whiteout condition.

I was just saying to my pilot how Chalk 2 was climbing and descending erratically when its pilot radioed an expletive-filled message that made it clear he was having trouble because of the weather. To this day, I swear his aircraft flew just under and past Chalk 1 based on size-distance indications. Instantly, the SP in flight lead announced what no one in the flight wanted to admit needed to be said, “Execute break-up and return to the airfield,” which meant we were not getting home today.

The company had practiced the break-up exercise enough to be proficient, but never under the conditions we were now flying in and with two pilots in separate aircraft experiencing symptoms of spatial disorientation. The events that followed for Chalks 2, 3 and 5 were nothing short of miraculous, as well as horrific, and hard to listen to for us and flight lead.

Lead and our aircraft made the turn and the climb without incident. Chalk 2’s pilot, however, had SD to the point he had to pass the controls to his non-aviator crew chief. It was fortunate the SP placed these two crew chiefs with those two low-time pilots. The crew chiefs actually knew how to fly because the unit pilots always thought it best to teach them given the common practice of pairing them with PCs in this single-pilot aircraft.

That said, Chalk 3 inadvertently descended during the 180 degree turn and struck the tree tops, which broke out the chin bubble, snapped off the FM antenna and ripped off the fuel cap before the crew chief came on the controls and recovered the aircraft to altitude. Chalk 5 also lost ground reference and had to declare inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions without the aid of radar. He and his crew chief managed to recover as a single pilot utilizing the instrument approach. I think he sucked down three or four cigarettes after landing before even speaking to anyone.

Chalks 2 and 3 gradually returned to the airfield, mostly flown by their non-crewmembers. The after-action review was interesting and full of praise for those non-crewmember heroes.

The following day we were able to return home without incident. And guess who received some flight instruction along the way? Yep, me! That’s the reason I am a pilot today. Even though this incident occurred 26 years ago, I can still picture everything vividly. I'm sure it’s helped shape my decision process as an aviator for the last 24 years.

  • 6 November 2016
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 952
  • Comments: 0