CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 JESSE C. BRENAY SR.
C Company, 1-25th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion
Fort Carson, Colorado
Sometimes, complacency and inexperience causes us to make less-than-stellar decisions. Thankfully, early experiences and failures in my personal career never led to a loss of life or equipment damage. What it did lead to, though, were lessons in the Army aviation safety risk management process.
When I was a new Army aviator, I wanted to make a name for myself in the unit as a solid pilot with a good reputation. So, when the opportunity came to ferry an aircraft to Fort Riley, Kansas, for phase maintenance, I was the first to raise my hand. The flight was a single-ship cross-country from Fort Carson, Colorado, to Fort Riley. A maintenance test pilot who had recently arrived at the unit from Germany was tasked as the pilot in command. The young MTP was one of the highest-hour pilots in the company and an air mission commander. An easy flight with an experienced PC would be a cake mission — or so I thought.
We started our planning two days prior to the scheduled flight. I had planned and flown cross-country flights as a civilian, but this would be my first one of any significant distance in the military. I stared blankly at the aviation mission planning system machine, not knowing where to start. I did not convey this to the PC because, frankly, I didn’t want to look stupid.
What the MTP did not tell me was he had gained all of his experience overseas and this was going to be his first cross-country flight within the United States. Had we discussed our concerns with each other about our personal inexperience, we could have consulted another aviator in the battalion for guidance. Nevertheless, pride comes before a fall.
The PC sensed my hesitation and told me to get a weather forecast and draw up a route on the AMPS and he would take care of the rest of the planning. I did not have visibility on the rest of the planning process, so I do not know how in depth it was. What I do know is that when the PC went to the battalion SIP to get his DA Form 5484 briefed, he came out of the office with his tail between his legs. We went through the planning process thoroughly and revamped the flight plan. In retrospect, our inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions plan could have been more specific and briefed more in depth. If you have ever flown in and around Fort Carson, you know the weather is unpredictable and the mountains seem to make their own weather systems. The dynamic weather is one of the reasons that make flying at Fort Carson so entertaining.
The day of the flight, weather was below visual flight rules minimums. For the entire week we came in every day, prepped the aircraft for flight and sat waiting for the weather to improve since our aircraft was not rated for instrument flight. Needless to say, at day five we were getting eager to fly the mission. We have all been there, where we start to push the envelope on weather minimums and our personal limits to make the mission happen. When we do this, it starts to become a slippery slope for safety. We need to recognize when this happens to reevaluate ourselves and our plans.
Another factor that had developed as a hindrance to the mission was my health. The bad weather had taken its toll on me as well. I had the flu, but because of the mission delays due to weather, as well as the perceived urgency to get this aircraft to Fort Riley, I masked the symptoms and remained silent. As soon as weather minimums had lifted to VFR levels at the departure point and our first scheduled fuel stop, we “kicked the tires and lit the fires” for immediate departure. En route, we had some minor issues with crew coordination due to this being our first flight together and the PC having a Type A personality, wanting to fly single pilot.
Our arrival at the first fuel stop in eastern Colorado was uneventful. Weather ceilings were dropping quickly, but the fact that we were flying from the base of the Rocky Mountains to the plains of Kansas, the drop in terrain elevation was helping. We refueled and updated weather. Low cloud ceilings were reported over the entire state of Kansas. The PC decided to take off and assess the weather from the air. We discussed briefly a plan to see how far we could fly until ceilings pushed us down to our minimums, at which point we would turn around and land back at our departure point. However, we never discussed responsibilities for each pilot in the event that we became IIMC. En route on the next leg, Denver Center advised us that due to our low altitude they would not be able to provide radar coverage.
I will admit that because I was so sick, I was not on my “A” game and my situational awareness was not at the level it should have been. When weather starts to close in, it gets scary for the inexperienced. As we got pushed lower and lower, we both started to continuously analyze the situation and think about our course of action should we “punch in.” Problem was that we did not verbalize our plan to each other, and we generally flew in silence. What we saw up ahead was disconcerting. A wall of clouds was at our 12 o’clock, and it was too large to bypass. Instead of committing to our IIMC plan and initiating a climb, we allowed the cloud ceiling to drive us lower as we tried to continue to operate under visual meteorological conditions.As we approached the wall of bad weather, clouds closed in on us from the left and right. The PC decided to turn around and try to remain VMC as we returned to the last departure point. This is a tactic that is not uncommon among the flying community, although it is sometimes not the best course of action. The PC initiated a left turn and maintained visual focus on the ground for a point of reference.
During his fixed-point turn, a cloud layer moved under the aircraft and the PC lost his reference point and became spatially disoriented. The cockpit was still silent at this point. Now things started to get exciting. I instantly got a shot of adrenaline as the PC tried to level the aircraft. We went from a climb to a dive, a right turn to an over-corrected left turn. As we oscillated back and forth, I could hear the PC’s heavy breathing on the ICS. It sounded like I was flying with Darth Vader.
I tried to calm him down by telling him, “You’re doing good, level it out, you’re in a dive, start a climb.” Later on, I found out the PC thought that I was disoriented as well because I was telling him he was doing a good job while obviously he was not. He thought he was the one who could save our lives at that moment.
I watched our flight profile develop into a right-turning descent and, as the altimeter passed through 300 feet, I announced, “Emergency, I have the flight controls.” I leveled us out, initiated a climb and flew directly to our last fuel stop. We eventually broke out into VFR conditions and landed at the airfield. After shutdown, we “recaged” and sat down and discussed what had happened, what we had done incorrectly and developed a solid plan for the rest of the flight.
The rest of the flight went smoothly because we had taken the time to thoroughly plan and brief the mission. We flew the next leg prepared, confident and with a firm grasp of what our individual responsibilities were for the flight. Lesson learned.