CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 MICHAEL KELLY
6th Battalion, 101st General Support Aviation Brigade
Fort Campbell, Ky.
Author’s note: The following event took place during my recent deployment to RC South in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It taught me a valuable lesson about compliancy and fatigue.
In August 2010, I was the pilot in command of a CH-47F, accompanied by a UH-60 for a general support mission in the local area of operation. The day started out normally with the regular prefight, permission brief and crew brief on a mission to conduct general support to local forward operating bases that included supplies and personal. The mission and duty day were scheduled for about 12 hours for duty and six hours of flight time.
About 4:30 p.m., we were approaching our duty day and flight time limit; however, we still had not completed the last leg of our mission. I radioed the tactical operations center and requested a duty-day and one-hour flight extension so we could complete the mission. Upon completion of the last leg, we returned to Kandahar Airfield. Upon arriving, the TOC radioed and told us to standby for a follow-on mission. I explained we were already operating on a duty-day and flight extension, which they acknowledged that they were fully aware of.
The follow-on mission was to transport 30 personnel and their gear to a FOB about seven miles northwest of Kandahar Airfield. The Soldiers had been stuck at Kandahar for more than a week due to weather, so I agreed to take the mission. Shortly after takeoff, I made contact with the landing zone and reported we were inbound for landing from the east. The controller requested we land on a 090 heading. I replied, “Roger 090.” I then proceeded to the north and started an approach from the west to land 090.
The FOB was small and on the side of a mountain. It had a very small LZ in a bowl in the hillside. In Kandahar, the winds are generally from the west, and this day was no different (winds 280/8). When the controller made the request for 090, I thought for a moment that the landing direction was 275, but disregarded the thought after looking at the clock and saying, "Man, it's been a long day.”
As we approached the LZ, I began to notice the reason the controller wanted us to approach from the west. The already confined LZ was even more confined because of several vehicles parked on it. As I continued the approach, I noticed a large tower that had been erected since the last time I had landed there. This tower had not been reported and was another reason for the request to land to the east. At this point, I had seen three different red flags and twice thought about aborting the landing. However, I was tired and ready to complete the mission, so I continued on.
The approach was going fine until about 150 feet, when turbulence and a strong updraft violently disrupted the aircraft. With the tower at my direct left front and the mountain on my right front, a go-around was not an option. The helicopter nose pitched up and then immediately down, and the aircraft began a rapid descent toward the ground. I remember telling the crew to hold on because we were going to hit hard. The helicopter finally stabilized at about 30 feet. I landed and checked on the crew and then off-loaded the passengers and supplies.
My co-pilot and left-door gunner were shaken up by the event. I had my flight engineer check the outside of the helicopter and asked if everyone was OK to return to KAF. In about 10 minutes, we were ready to depart. Once at KAF, I debriefed the TOC and spoke with our battalion TACOPs, explaining what had happened. I told him the details of the LZ at that FOB. I also filled out the close-call database report.
This incident could have very easily ended differently and with deadly consequences. I allowed myself to let compliancy and fatigue interfere with my decision-making process. Already on a duty-day and flight extension, I accepted a follow-on mission, thinking it would be quick and easy. By doing this, I found myself disregarding red flags that posed a great threat to me and my crew. I placed everyone on the aircraft in a situation that had unnecessary risk. Because I was tried, I found myself in a “let’s-just-get-it-done” mindset.
This incident taught me that although I was trying to help, sometimes you just have to say no. We know ourselves better than anyone, and when we are tired, we often make mistakes we wouldn't normally make. In this instance, I would not have landed had that been my first stop of the day. But because it was my last stop, I did land. I am thankful my crew and passengers are safe and will use this lesson for the rest of my career.