COMPILED BY THE KNOWLEDGE STAFF
Four months into my second deployment, I found myself thinking that this tour was much different than the last. Although it was still just as hot and gritty, the flying tempo was definitely at a higher pace and we were doing a lot more with a lot less. I remember my boss saying we would probably go to war with the Army we have and not the Army we want. And we did.
As I was walking back from the aircraft after my 13th consecutive day of flying, I got the infamous, "Hey you." I was handed a kneeboard packet and told we were picking up some Soldiers who had been put in the night before. I turned on my flashlight, did an about-face and thought there must have been a mistake as I skimmed over the packet. The orders declared the air mission commander as the pilot in command and I was his co-pilot. Anticipating my anxieties about this flight, he reassured me that this was a simple mission. We would be Chalk 4, following three other aircraft to the landing zone to pick up the guys and drop them off at their forward operating base. Too easy.
Buoyed by my fortitude to never decline a mission, I agreed against my better judgment to make this trip even though I was exhausted. The crew briefing and aircraft pre-flight procedures were completed. However, I wanted more details for this operation, so I tried looking at postage-stamp-size black and white pictures of the LZ. The imagery looked as if clipped from an outdated newspaper. I laughingly remembered overhearing an experienced pilot say, "If all else fails, just fly to grid and land."
We started the aircraft and, as promised, were Chalk 4 out the gate. A few minutes later, we were on the downwind expecting a right turn, landing to the north. The PC was busy on the radio while I was playing follow the leader. The GPS looked about right and I saw the first aircraft start his approach to the ground, then the second and the third. They generated a huge dust cloud, and the winds from the west weren’t helping me as we flew in a staggered-right landing formation. I tried to space off Chalk 3 and then looked at the GPS and noticed a signal from the ground unit awaiting pickup. That was nice, I thought, my own personal beacon. I spaced off the troops on the ground to my right and Chalk 3 to my left as the crewmembers called me clear down to the ground. Other than not seeing much of the ground, all seemed well enough.
My rate of closure and descent appeared normal as the aircraft touched down. Before we fully stopped, I heard a loud pop and the aircraft lurched forward and the front end started to drop. I picked up to a hover and saw through my left chin bubble a ditch 2 feet wide and about 3 feet deep with my front landing gear laying in it. The PC took the controls and we assessed the condition of the aircraft. I remember looking into the ditch and wondering, "Why would you stage your ground troops beside a ditch, knowing you were going to be picked up by a helicopter?"
After assessing the damage, we deemed the aircraft flyable with only a minor hydraulic leak. I secured the utility hydraulics and the PC passed the controls back to me. He then coordinated with the ground unit that the passengers would have to board one of the other aircraft.
The PC and I discussed our new plan. We decided to fly the aircraft back to our point of origin and have maintenance create a makeshift landing area from pallets. We hovered for about 30 minutes while maintenance assembled the pad. This gave us time to discuss how we would shut down the aircraft and the possibility of it rolling over. The landing and shutdown went relatively smooth. After we departed the aircraft, I saw a few of the antennas crunched between the aircraft and pallets, but that was unavoidable.
Looking back, this incident is still vivid in my mind. Some have told me it’s just the cost of doing business. This "business" cost us a Class C accident. Although no one was hurt and the aircraft was up and flying in just a few days, I couldn’t help but ask myself, "What was I thinking?"
War is tough, uncompromising and unforgiving. For all Soldiers, the rigors of battle demand mental and physical toughness and close-knit teamwork. Between the anxiety of battle, we spend long hours doing routine but necessary tasks in cold, wet weather, moving from position to position, often without hot meals, clean clothes or sleep. The potential for a breakdown in discipline is always present. In my case, fatigue combined with pressure to fly — either real or perceived — was a dangerous combination. I failed to admit to myself how exhausted I was and that everyone has limits. This demonstrates the importance of establishing firm personal limits for the go/no-go decision and then sticking with the decision once made.
I also fell into the complacency trap. I let down my guard by trusting the ground unit to guide me to a safe landing area.
Complacency is probably the biggest threat we face, even in combat, so we continually must be aware of its presence and strive to combat it effectively. The bottom line is that aviation is an unforgiving business, and a moment of inattention can lead to disastrous results.