MAJ. JARED SEKELLICK
Pennsylvania Army National Guard
Army Aviation Support Facility #1
Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania
Many articles are written about situations that could have resulted in something catastrophic happening because of a momentary lapse in judgment. These are tough lessons to learn. However, I believe very important lessons can also be learned when everything does go according to plan. I am fortunate to be surrounded by extremely knowledgeable and professional aviators who constantly work to improve themselves as well as those around them.
Several years ago, I was tasked to fly our division commander and sergeant major to a nearby airport. The flight would take about an hour in good weather. I was a newly minted pilot in command with roughly 600-700 hours of total flight time and about 150 hours as a PC. My co-pilot was a new pilot recently back from flight school with a little more than 200 hours. My crew chief was a highly experienced crewmember with well over 1,000 hours just in the UH-60.
We received the mission the day before, which gave me ample time and opportunity to plan the route. The largest challenge was going to be the weather. The mission was to take the VIPs to a funeral for a fallen Soldier so they could meet with the family. This type of mission is obviously a priority to the division commander. As a crew, we understood the importance of getting the leadership with the family. The division commander would not have been able to attend the viewing and meet with the Soldier’s family if we did not fly him to the location. The mission was legal and a necessity.
The preliminary forecast we received indicated the aircraft would be under instrument meteorological conditions for the entire route of flight. Also, due to the remnants of a hurricane, there would be a 60-knot head wind in both directions. On top of all that, moderate icing was forecast. The UH-60 is equipped to handle up to moderate icing conditions.
With all this in mind, I began planning my route and quickly consulted several senior aviators. Each provided numerous considerations and suggestions to improve the safe and efficient execution of the mission. I considered my overall comfort in IMC conditions as well as my co-pilot’s comfort level. Having flown quite a bit of time in the clouds, I was very comfortable flying IMC. Considering my co-pilot’s experience, I was cognizant I would need to be ready to adjust in the event she became disoriented or overwhelmed.
Since I was given the mission the day prior, I had ample time to test all the necessary systems needed for moderate icing conditions and found all required de-icing and anti-icing systems worked correctly. I was confident the systems would work when I needed them.
The flight route and plan was briefed to include alternate airfields, as required by Army Regulation 95-1. As a precaution, additional airfields along the route were identified in the event of a failure of one of the anti-icing systems. Main and tail rotor blade icing was my largest concern.
A thorough review of icing conditions with the crew and my briefer, as well as the possible effects of ice accumulation on the main or tail rotor blades, was discussed. As a crew, we reviewed the most likely cockpit indications in the event of icing. We considered increased aircraft vibrations as an example of the presence of ice we might experience. Everyone knew what to look for and what actions to take. The overall risk was a moderate due to the icing conditions, so I included my briefer and final approval authority on the crew’s preparations.
The VIPs boarded and our mission began. As briefed, we received our IFR clearance and departed using procedures. My co-pilot was on the controls while I managed the radios and flight. The ceilings were low enough that we were IMC after only a couple hundred feet of climb. My co-pilot executed an excellent VMC takeoff to IMC transition. We continued on course per the departure and filed flight plan.
We were flying using ground-based navigation aids and backed it up with the 128B Global Positioning System. After climbing to our assigned altitude, we discovered the weather predictions were right on the money. We were flying at about 125 knots indicated airspeed with about a 65-knot ground speed. About 10 more minutes into the flight, the ice-rate meter began to move and eventually settled in the moderate area. All anti-ice and de-icing equipment was on and all equipment appeared to be fully operational. Everything was going according to plan.
With such an important mission, I must admit I did not feel completely relaxed. I was not overly stressed or consumed with fear; it was more that I was hyper-alert and calm. My co-pilot was tense but managed the flight workload as needed. To help alleviate the stress, I continually updated her on my actions.
To further assist, I would regularly call out altitude, airspeed, heading and distance to destination. By following on my map, I was able to provide an idea of our position. It should be noted here that later, during our after-action report, she told me my constant talking and informative comments greatly assisted her in alleviating the stress. As a young aviator, she stated she was concerned about being in IMC that long. Because I kept talking in a calm and controlled manner, it gave the appearance I was completely confident in our situation. This, in turn, calmed her as well.
As we approached our destination, air traffic control provided radar vectors for the final approach fix to a precision approach landing system ILS. While making the turn toward the final approach course, my co-pilot become disoriented. Recognizing this, I offered assistance by taking the controls. She later stated that as soon as she released controls, she immediately became oriented again and knew exactly what was going on. The combination of stress as an inexperienced IMC pilot in icing conditions overwhelmed my co-pilot momentarily. But the relief from a highly demanding flight task permitted her to re-cage on the situation. As much as we want to think we can do it all as pilots, it is a reality that humans cannot multitask. We are just really good and really fast at switching between tasks.
After landing, we did a post-flight inspection of the aircraft. There was ice on the windshield wiper blade arms, FM antennas and around the cargo windows. The blades, engine inlets, Pitot tubes and windscreens were all clear. After clearing off the ice and conducting a thorough post-flight inspection, we went inside the FBO to update weather and prepare for the return flight.
The return flight was much the same. Due to the unique weather system, we again encountered a 60-knot headwind with icing conditions. We continued a slightly more direct path back that helped make up a little of the time we were losing due to the headwind conditions. While returning to the airfield, we initiated a non-directional beacon approach; yes, there are still some out there in the FAA world. During the approach, this time I became disoriented on where I was in relation to the intended flight path. I couldn’t quite understand why I wasn’t getting back on course.
The air traffic controller in the tower had been monitoring my progress on radar and saw I had not yet reached the missed approach point. The controller, recognizing the IMC conditions and that I was obviously not on the correct course, suggested I break off the approach and be radar vectored back around for another attempt. I gratefully accepted the suggestion and began the necessary maneuver and procedures.
The airfield ceiling and visibility were slowly getting worse and worse. After coming back around, my co-pilot executed the approach, this time flawlessly. Upon breaking out, I took the controls and landed. As we taxied off the helipad, the airfield became low IFR with less than a half-mile visibility and a 200-foot ceiling. Had I attempted to follow the NDB approach to the missed approach point and then executed the go around, I most likely would not have broken out prior to the ceiling coming down. That controller, based on her experience, knowledge and situational awareness, offered assistance. Because of that, we were able to execute the mission safely.
Since that day, I have had ample time to review and reflect on not only the flight, but the entire professional environment of an Army aviator. At every corner of our professional organization are men and women who continually reinforce the foundational aspects of collaboration and cooperation. We are expected to seek out concrete information, work together and support each other with our knowledge, skills and abilities to ensure effective and efficient mission execution.
With time and experience, I became more confident in my abilities. That is shadowed by the confidence I have in my aviation peers. The dedicated men and women of our organization are always working to ensure we execute our missions safely. Army aviators are known for their constant evaluative and critical, outgoing demeanor. The overall goal is to eradicate complacency while continually striving to ensure safe and efficient mission execution. This culture is what led to the successful mission that day.