CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 5 WILLIAM T. FERGUSON
U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command,
G-4 Aviation Maintenance Support Branch
Fort Campbell, Kentucky
We’ve all been trained on blind cockpit drills and the need for “knowing your cockpit.” However, we tend to forget some of the reasons for these drills.
When we first started flying with night vision goggles, the aviator’s peripheral vision was limited or nonexistent, so the need for quickly identifying cockpit equipment and switches by memory and feel was paramount. While the NVG evolved and the aviator’s field of view in the cockpit returned, the mentality associated with blind cockpit execution did not. Here’s my story.
We were trail in a flight of nine aircraft consisting of two CH-47s and seven UH-60s. The airfield we were flying out of was controlled by the Marines in an area not visible from the tower and busy with ground vehicle traffic. We pre-flighted the aircraft during daylight at the beginning of the mission day and moved to the briefing area. Upon completion of the mission brief, we headed to the aircraft and completed the walk around and run-up.
It was still pretty dark then. Once ready for taxi, I called the lead aircraft and moved into position. To ensure we wouldn’t be run over by Marines on the flight line, we used overt lighting while taxiing. After we completed all required checks and decided the entire flight was ready, we made the “up” call to lead and waited for takeoff. I instructed my co-pilot to switch our lighting to covert upon takeoff.
At takeoff time, lead departed and we prepared to follow. Our aircraft weighed 22,000 pounds and, since we were flying trail, I decide to make a rolling takeoff. The aircraft in front of us started to move and, after allowing plenty of spacing, I began to depart. As I began to lift, my co-pilot reached over with the best of blind cockpit intentions and switched the lighting to covert. Here’s where things went wrong.
Instead of changing the position lights to infrared, he initiated the hydraulic leak test. I know, that’s not supposed to do anything when you’re in the air, but we hadn’t taken off yet. The circuit logic had just enough time to think we were on the ground and started the check. Then we were airborne. The aircraft was 10 feet off the ground at just over 35 knots when the No. 1 tail rotor servo turned off. A Black Hawk 10 feet off the ground and flying 35 knots will yaw tail left greater than 60 degrees before the backup tail rotor servo takes over. Trust me, don’t try it yourself. My co-pilot’s immediate reaction was to try and move more switches. Fortunately, he didn’t have time to do that before I gained control of the aircraft and said, “Touch nothing!”
Once we were airborne, things were going OK. A quick glance at the master warning panel revealed the problem. I informed the very inquisitive crewmembers on what had happened and told them we were OK. Again, I instructed the co-pilot to touch nothing. A reset of the hydraulic leak test put everything back in order and we continued the mission.
The lesson here is even though we train for blind cockpit procedures, the requirement to positively identify switches still exists. The days of the full-faced fives (an early version of NVG) are gone and, with the peripheral view afforded by today’s goggles, the occasion is rare when visual verification is not available and prudent.