NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
Years ago, I learned the value of speaking up for what’s right, regardless of the consequences. Early in my career as an Army aviator, I was told if I closed my pie hole and opened my ears, I might learn something. I was careful not to judge other pilots’ mistakes too harshly because one day I may do something less than brilliant. We have all done something stupid, whether we admit it or not.
I had the unfortunate circumstance to be in the field with a unit that suffered a catastrophic Class A accident with multiple fatalities. It was a single aircraft with troops on board. Most of the crew and passengers were killed and the aircraft was destroyed. Only one passenger and one crewmember — the pilot — survived.
The subsequent investigation determined the primary contributing cause of the accident was reckless operation or “hot-dogging” the aircraft. The pilot in command, who was on the controls at the time, was leaving the Army soon. He wanted to give the Rangers in the back a “ride.” The radar track of the accident displayed the aircraft as it made radical heading changes (bank angles) and showed excessive speed. This culminated in a tree strike and the resulting crash. I can vividly remember the devastating impact the accident had on the unit and their families. It was a tragedy, made worse because it was completely unnecessary.
Later I was sent to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., as an observer/controller for a sister company from our battalion. My duties included riding in the aircraft jump seat with a radio to monitor the aircraft in flight, ensuring compliance with JRTC rules of engagement. On one mission day, I was assigned to fly in the jump seat with a pilot in command who I knew well and considered a friend. His career was rocky — he’d been twice passed over for chief warrant officer 3 — and he had just a few months left in the Army. His PC orders had been pulled several times, and he had a reputation for stubbornness and trouble following orders. Most of his difficulties were from the latter.
The pilot was a captain from battalion staff with a meek personality and little flight experience. Soon after takeoff, the PC began to tease and intimidate the PI. The PC was going to show the captain how to “really” fly the aircraft. By the end of the flight, the PI was barely speaking.
Throughout the mission, the PC, who was on the controls, became increasingly reckless — flying low and fast and excessively banking the aircraft. I found myself grabbing my seat to hold on. We were behind on the map, flying fast on the confined JRTC real estate. At one point, we overflew a running aircraft at an altitude of less than 100 feet. He had become autocratic, ignoring complaints from the crew and me. His reaction was to laugh us off as a bunch of whiners.
After the flight, a crew chief went to the standardization pilot to complain about the PC. The SP began to investigate the incident by informally interviewing all of the crewmembers. The PI and one crew chief corroborated the other crew chief’s statement, but used less forceful language than they had in flight.
Finally, the SP came to me and asked point blank if I thought the PC had been unsafe. I vividly remembered the tragedy three years earlier and the devastation it caused. I hated to dime out my friend, knowing that this would likely be the end of his Army flying and our friendship. I decided the consequences of not speaking up were much greater and more permanent — not just for the PC, but for the crew and passengers on his aircraft. I said I thought he was unsafe.
As I predicted, the PC was grounded and never flew in the Army again. He later confronted me about what I had said to the SP. I told him the truth. He didn’t agree and we never spoke again. I’ll never know for sure whether I prevented an accident. It’s possible nothing would have happened, but I felt the potential cost of not speaking up was too high.