CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 MICHAEL SNOW
Rhode Island Army National Guard
North Kingstown, R.I.
Back in flight school, they told us it would happen. They also said it would likely occur right away, before we had a chance to settle in to our new careers. Perhaps you also remember the scenario: you, the new warrant officer flying with the seasoned veteran and how you should recognize the links in a chain of events that build to what could be a calamity. I remember the instructors saying, “Don’t be afraid to speak up — no matter who you’re flying with.” In my case, it turned out I wasn’t even 10 hours into my first assignment when the scenario played out on a sunny fall afternoon.
While working on readiness level progression upon returning to my National Guard unit after flight school, I was scheduled to fly with a full-time instructor pilot who was also the battalion commander. I felt a little intimidated as we prepared for the flight, but I was confident in my abilities, and the battalion commander seemed cordial enough. The mission involved aircrew training manual activities in the morning followed by paradrop operations that afternoon at a drop zone about 10 miles west of the airfield. We would complete as many paradrops as possible on a single fuel load and return before the afternoon down time.
The weather was beautiful, but winds were forecast to increase later. We spent the morning at the airfield completing a number of base flight tasks without incident. Following lunch, we collected our crew chief and headed to the DZ. As we approached to land, we established radio contact with the DZ and were told the supported unit had about 30 parachutes and hoped to use them all. Risking some “public math,” I confidently announced that, at four jumpers per lift, we should be able to complete the mission in eight trips around the pattern. Assuming 15 minutes per, I quietly concluded that fuel would be tight but not a showstopper.
Upon arrival at the pick-up zone, we shut down the Huey, completed our premission briefs and distributed the monkey harnesses that would become one of the links in the event chain that led to the problem later that afternoon. The training called for the jumpers to be dropped in groups of four from an altitude of 1,500 feet above ground level. The initial drops went off without a hitch as we refined our altitude and flight track to ensure the jumpers impacted the drop target. By the third drop, we had our timing down to the point that we were touching down just as the jumpers were landing on the DZ. Things continued to progress well as we departed for our eighth and, what I thought, final drop.
As we completed the drop and began our decent, the master caution flickered. I glanced down to see the low fuel light flickering as well. I remember thinking it was no big deal since we would be on the ground in a minute and home within 10.
As we touched down, the radio sprang to life. It was the jump controller, who said he had three more parachutes and asked if we would take the jumpmasters up for one final drop. The battalion commander pondered the fuel gage, and, to my surprise, said, “Sure, we’ll take them.”
As the jumpers piled on, I remember thinking this felt like one of those chain-of-events scenarios, but who was I to say anything? As we climbed out on takeoff, the master caution light illuminated again. However, this time it did not extinguish. I reached down and started the minute tracker on the dashboard clock.
As soon as I started the clock, a request from the rear came over the intercom. These guys wanted to go to 3,000 feet AGL rather than the briefed altitude. Again, I was surprised when the battalion commander agreed, but who was I to say anything? I saw he was doing his best, but it took extra minutes to reach the desired altitude. As we rolled out on our established ground track, I remember thinking that we probably should alter the drop point now that the altitude had changed, but who was I to say anything?
The jumpers departed on command and slowly drifted toward the DZ as we completed the run and began out decent. Halfway to the ground, the jumpmaster expressed concern that the jumpers appeared to be drifting toward the tree line that fringed the DZ. Without hesitation, the battalion commander offered to slow our decent and circle to monitor the situation. I noted that four minutes had elapsed since starting the clock and felt that another link had clearly been added to the chain, but who was I to say anything?
After what seemed an eternity, the jumpers cleared the tree line and we made a beeline for the DZ to drop off the jumpmaster and collect our harnesses. When we landed, I could clearly sense the concern in the crew chief’s voice as he quickly chased out the jumpmaster and attempted to collect our gear. Nobody on the ground knew where it was, and those who did know were just now touching down some 500 meters away. As a frantic search ensued, I remember thinking we should just leave it, but who was I to say anything?
Suddenly, the crew chief entered the cabin and announced that he had the gear and the aircraft was clear. As we lifted off, I again glanced at the clock. I could clearly see that 12 minutes of our 20-minute low-fuel light had elapsed since it came on steady. Focusing my attention out the windscreen, I could see the large hangar that marked our destination was still about eight miles away. I also noted that a direct flight path would take us over a no-fly residential area and a mile or so of ocean. As the crew chief started mumbling over the intercom, I adjusted my water-wings, said a quick prayer and questioned why I didn’t say anything.
During the next few minutes, we made it over the residential area, the open ocean and the large hangar that marked home. Once clear of it, we made a rapid descending decelerating turn to land directly to a parking pad. As the aircraft skids settled to the asphalt, I reached down and stopped the clock. It read 17 minutes. I remember feeling both relieved and angry as the rotor blades coasted down, but who was I to say anything?
The fuelers put 205 gallons of JP-8 into that aircraft that afternoon. I did some more mental math on my drive home and concluded that the so-called 20 minute fuel light was about right that day. I remember being upset and disappointed in myself for not saying anything. Clearly the links presented themselves one at a time. Stopping any one of them could have avoided a very stressful and dangerous situation.
Two years later, that same lieutenant colonel was part of a crew that ran an aircraft out of fuel. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the resultant Class C accident. I remember sitting through the post-accident briefing 20 years ago and recognizing the links as they strung together leading to that accident. Although the specifics were different, the thought process was eerily similar to my earlier flight. To this day, I am convinced that the later accident could have been avoided had I spoken up, but who was I to say anything?