CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 ANDRE LAVALLEE
Company B, 2/149 Aviation
Grand Prairie, Texas
The last thing you want to hear from the backseat while flying an instrument approach in an AH-64 is, “Oh, crap! I’ve got the controls!” But that’s exactly what I heard just before a steep-diving left turn. I think my heart was in my throat.
I was assigned to fly an instrument training flight with a relatively new pilot in command. I think we had less than 1,000 hours of flight time combined. I was two years out of flight school, and he was less than three. As pilots in the National Guard, we don’t get the flight hours full-time pilots get, but we make do.
Our flight plan took us to three airports with three different instrument approaches and then back home. Two of the three were uncontrolled airfields within our training area, so I was comfortable flying in and out of them. That, in hindsight, may have added a hint of complacency.
The flight started out great. It was a gorgeous spring day without a cloud in the sky. The air was smooth and it seemed like you could see forever. This probably added to our overly relaxed demeanor. As we flew at 3,000 feet mean sea level, I saw our first airport and set up the cockpit for a direct-entry nondirectional beacon approach followed by the published missed approach. This was the first of the two uncontrolled airfields we planned to visit on the mission.
We made our radio calls, and I shot the approached and the missed approach and held on the NDB for two turns. After a short debrief on the maneuver, I handed over the controls to the PC in the back seat to make the next approach. It was into a controlled airfield, and we received vectors to a precision approach radar approach.
I maintained my scan, but there was only one other aircraft in the pattern. We were under positive control, so I found myself inside on the instruments a few times during his approach. The PC executed the missed approach and we headed to our last airfield before heading home. I would be flying this last approach, so I set up the cockpit while he flew.
The NDB was on the uncontrolled field, so I decided to overfly the fix and fly outbound, conduct a right procedure turn and then fly back inbound for the approach. I took the controls and trimmed the helicopter for 3,000 feet MSL. At about 2,000 feet above ground level and 110 knots airspeed, I made my common tower advisory frequency call at 10 miles out, followed by another at five miles, then crossed the fix and turned left to track an outbound heading.
It seemed like only seconds passed before I heard the dreaded phrase from the backseat. I looked up immediately and saw the flash of a twin-engine airplane in a steep left bank. I swear to this day that I could see the pilot’s eyes, which were probably as wide as mine at that exact same time.
Luckily, this was only a near miss; but on the flight home, there was absolute silence. During the debrief, we discussed what happened. We decided the pilot in the other aircraft was most likely not making the required radio calls or using the wrong frequency. More importantly, we discussed that I hadn’t made my required radio call when I crossed the fix. The PC also admitted that he was inside monitoring my performance with the instruments. No one was maintaining visual flight rules separation with a visual scan.
It is very easy to be lulled into complacency when you are at a familiar airfield in great weather on your last approach. Unfortunately, all too often that is exactly when accidents occur.
Fortunately for us, the other pilot saw us about the same time we saw him, so this was only a near miss, but I still replay that scenario over and over in my mind. Hopefully you can learn from my experience.