CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 EDWARD CAMPBELL
12th Aviation Battalion
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
Until I experienced my first instrument flight in real weather conditions as an aviator, I never fully understood the workload and focus required by the pilots; nor did I realize how quickly and easily things can get out of control. If I had known this as a crew chief, I would have probably stopped flying.
It was a cold and dark night in the California high desert when my air ambulance crew received a call for a patient transfer to Loma Linda Medical Center. I was a 750-hour NG crew chief, and the medic was the detachment first sergeant. On the controls was a fresh-out-of-school WO1; the pilot in command was a CW3 instructor pilot.
After we departed the hospital, our route of flight took us from the high desert down to the San Bernardino Valley and passed over Cajon Pass, an area known for its high wind, turbulence and fog, as well as a collection of high-tension lines. Shortly before reaching the pass, we encountered heavy fog and transitioned to instrument flight. We were unable to receive clearance from Los Angeles Center for our requested altitude and were instructed to climb to 9,000 feet.
As we climbed through a solid cloud layer, I relayed to the pilots that ice was building rapidly on the airframe. They immediately double-checked the anti-ice and de-ice systems to ensure they’d been turned on. I heard the pilot tell the PC the aircraft was nose low. I looked up at the gauges and saw us rocking between 5 degrees up and 10 degrees down while our airspeed indicator was intermittent between 0 to 110 KIAS.
There was no response from the PC, and the pilot repeated that the aircraft was nose low. Again, there was no answer, so the pilot declared he had the controls. The PC then said, “The hell you do.”
I was glued to the instrument panel, trying to figure out what was happening. I noticed the master caution and caution advisory panel illuminate. The blade de-ice had failed, and this led to the controls becoming nearly unresponsive. We were in a slow descent and notified the air traffic control center of our situation. We were high enough at this point to clear the power lines in Cajon, but silently we all hoped we were on the downslope side just to be safe. The pilots regained full control of the aircraft around 3,000 feet above ground level and we finally punched out of the clouds at 700 feet, three miles from the hospital.
After shutdown, the crew had a chat. The PC’s attention had been fully focused on the situation and he did not have the confidence in the new pilot to handle the aircraft in our situation. He did acknowledge he should have announced his actions and responded to the pilot’s declaration of nose low, but he was task saturated. The PC’s rocking of the aircraft was an attempt to register airspeed on the indicator when it was reading zero. (This was caused by the intermittent operation of the Pitot heat that would allow ice formation to block airflow, then open back up when it melted.) The pilot, however, though it was the PC having difficulty handling the aircraft.
While waiting for the weather to improve, we discussed the flight and events, identifying what went well and what was problematic. However, we did in a friendly manner because we were still alive to do so.