CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 STEVE OWENS
Procedures are there for a reason. Here’s why.
In 1987, I departed on a routine flight as part of a battle drill in Germany. My AH-1F was equipped with a canopy jettison system that would burn the windows and explosively operate the door locks in the event of an accident in which the normal exits could not be used. Since arriving at the unit as a young aviator, I flew with the safety pin secured in this system despite the checklist requirement to remove it before flight. The handle to operate this system was near the key switch for the helicopter and I, like many of my unit’s pilots, worried the canopy would accidentally jettison while in flight. On this day, as the pilot in command, I choose to leave the pin in place. What could happen?
Everything was fine until about 1,000 feet above ground level on the East German border when my tail rotor blade broke off and ripped the gearbox off the helicopter. The landing that occurred about 25 seconds later was upright, until the main rotor blade caught the ground. Then I was inverted, hanging from the straps. My co-pilot was unconscious in the front seat.
I unbuckled, fell to the roof, sat up and looked at the yellow and black striped canopy handle. It was my way out and, thinking only of fire, I wanted out badly. As I turned and pulled the handle, it broke off in my hand. “Wow,” I thought, “that safety pin works pretty well.” I tried kicking a window — which I assumed, improperly — was the immovable window normally on the left side of the back seat. That did not work, so I grabbed my survival knife and began hitting the window. After the third or fourth blow, the window broke and gave me a deep cut on my wrist. I scampered through the hole and went to attend to the co-pilot. He was injured, but alive and would recover to finish his Army career.
The next day, I went to work despite that I could not walk very well. My battalion commander approached and told me we did a very good job since not many people survived that type of accident. He also told me not to worry about the helicopter; us being alive was all that mattered. He said he only had one question: Why had I cut a hole in a perfectly good door that opened with no problem when they got to the scene?
The point of this story is to follow procedures because they are there for a reason. Despite being a locally accepted procedure for some pilots, the pin should have been out for flight. Normally, procedures are written in blood, which could have easily been the case for me. You can’t imagine how disoriented you can become after a violent impact and finding yourself hanging upside down. You might even cut up a perfectly good door. To avoid my mistake, hedge your bets and follow procedures as they are written.