CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 KEKILA KEUMA
B Company, 2-4 GSA
Colorado Springs, Colorado
As time goes on, our comfort and confidence with our aircraft inevitably grows, and what used to take intense concentration becomes easy to do. We all strive to become exceptional pilots, and it is easy for us to fall prey to the vanity of demonstrating our hard-earned skills. However, we are obliged to remember the inherent dangers that are easy to forget, which can have deadly consequences.
I fly the CH-47 Chinook. Rarely is it or its crewmembers ever projected in a glamorous light. Movies are not made about us, we rarely perform medical operations and we don’t have awe-inspiring weapons. One thing we do have, however, is a simple canvas seat located inside the companionway, just a few feet behind the pilots, commonly called the jump seat. A Solider sitting in this seat is almost inside the cockpit. It allows the Solider an unfettered view — the same one the pilots have.
If there is passenger on board, such as a ground commander, re-enlistee or sister-service member, it’s a common practice within our community to allow that person to ride in the jump seat. This creates an almost irresistible trap for us because we are afforded the chance to impress someone.
I was pilot in command of the aircraft, and my co-pilot was a lieutenant with about 300-hours. Our mission was to support a newly established infantry unit’s air assault training. They were in the walk phase of training their junior enlisted Soldiers. Our part comprised of two turns of infil to the objective and then two more turns of exfil back to base.
The route was on the reservation within the standard flight corridor during the day and there weren’t any extraordinary weather considerations. It was a well-known route and was fun to fly because of the terrain. I enjoy flying nap of the earth because it’s thrilling being low over the trees and between the hills; but when I have a commissioned officer, I’ll let them fly the majority of the time if they want.
The lieutenant flew the infil and exfil, both NOE, while I managed the cockpit. The first turn began as expected, in that the turns were gradual and altitudes were constant. As the mission went on, each progressive turn became a little more aggressive and cavalier. For each of those turns, there was someone in the jump seat. Honestly, it was fun. It was a beautiful day and we were getting to indulge our inner 6-year-olds.
Near the end of the mission, on the second to last turn, we had just descended into a small valley that was lined by large granite cliffs. Heading to the next checkpoint, our path led us directly over one of those cliffs. The lieutenant was on the controls, flying roughly 90 feet above ground level and 100 knots indicated air speed. As we neared the cliff, we maintained the same altitude. I looked over and saw him staring at the cliffs and I asked him what he planned to do. He told me he was going to perform a cyclic climb to get us up and over the cliff. A cyclic climb is a standard maneuver and something I trained him on in previous AMRs, so I knew that he was capable of it.
The cliff got too close for my comfort and I reached to take the controls. I think he saw me going for them, which led him to say, “Clear up,” and execute the maneuver. It seemed as if the edge of the cliff barely cleared the chin bubble. My body tensed and I raised my feet as if that would have made any difference. Looking at him, it was visible he didn’t feel any of the unease I did. I looked at the Solider in the jump seat and saw the excitement in his face, which is what we usually aim for.
Perhaps the co-pilot intended to execute the climb at that exact moment. It had been months since we first trained on it, so there had been ample time for him to practice cyclic climbs. Perhaps he would have waited longer and only my movement catalyzed his own action. I won’t ever know because, at the time, I laughed it off and didn’t talk to him about it in the after-action review.
It’s only now that I am forced to think about it. What did we gain from that flight? Possibly the respect of whomever was in the jump seat. And it is fun to pretend we’re Luke Skywalker assaulting the Death Star, without guns and X-wings. We were in a Chinook the size of a bus.
The adage of training as we fight is always a solid argument as well; it’s perhaps the strongest argument I can think of. Flying like we would during combat does help pilots become comfortable with the more aggressive maneuvers. Where do we draw the line, though? Where is the line that balances risks to training value and being a badass? While downrange, accomplishing the mission can mean the capture of a high-value target or take the life of a Solider. Inarguably, the risk-to-benefit ratio is clear and those risks are undertaken. At home, do the risks outweigh the benefits as easily as they do in combat? Yes, we want realistic training, but if we had hit the cliff and shorn off a landing gear, or worse, no one would look back and say that the potential training value was worth the cost of the damage to the aircraft.
I don’t know how close we actually came to hitting the cliff. It’s my habit to set the radar altimeter to sound off at 25 feet. I don’t remember hearing it when we passed the cliff, so perhaps we weren’t near it at all and I’m just being overly cautious. Or, perhaps it did go off and in my fright I missed it. I don’t know. Nor do I have a definitive lesson to learn since no limitations were broken.
Training must be as safe as it can be because injury or death isn’t worth anything in garrison. Yet, we can’t be risk averse; this business we’re all in doesn’t permit it. In the end, I believe it comes down to the individual on the controls and their inclination to ask themselves where they would draw the line.