Defense Contract Management Agency
Six months out of flight school, I was assigned to a VIP/Lift unit flying UH-1Hs in Germany. Working hard to listen to my unit instructor pilots and taking any mission that would get me in the air, I quickly made the transition from wannabe to pilot in command. Lots of long days, willingness to sit for hours in the ops section waiting on a mission, working support and maintenance issues or flying as a co-pilot for a VIP flight had put me on the fast track to success. I had even gone so far as to be trained as a single PC, pretty heady stuff for a newbie and something I thought I could handle with ease.
My commander was a former CW3 AH-1 Cobra pilot who was a veteran of Vietnam, as were the majority of the unit’s instructor pilots. He had received a direct commission to lieutenant and moved up the ranks to major. As the unit commander, he insisted on flying with every new instructor and PC, which I took as a commitment to ensure the quality of his unit personnel.
I had been given the day’s mission personally by the commander. The unit had a field training exercise coming up in support of an air assault battalion and this was to be a field site reconnaissance to ensure the site would be adequate for deployment of the personnel and aircraft. The commander and I would fly to the site — I as the PC and he as my co-pilot — recon it, refuel, have lunch at a nearby air base and return. It seemed like an easy flight and a good way for me to get some face time with the “old man.” It would also knock out his process of flying with the “new guy.” All in all, I looked forward to the flight and showing him what I could do. I was one of the more mature guys in the unit and extremely confident in my abilities to handle any situation that presented itself.
It was a typical spring day in Germany, and my flight planning weather reflected the same. We would have early morning fog burning off later in the flight and eventually becoming a scattered layer with plenty of visibility. My pre-mission planning completed and aircraft pre-flight accomplished, I waited at the aircraft for the commander to appear. I would do the flying and he was to be my navigator, keeper of the map and assume co-pilot duties as necessary.
When he arrived, I gave him a comprehensive brief, cranked the aircraft and proceeded according to his guidance in the direction of the field site. I asked him to accomplish a fuel check once we climbed to our cruise altitude of 1,000 feet above ground level. The site was due north and outside of our regular operating area, but I recognized some familiar terrain features and towns and became comfortable with our position.
The commander was doing a pretty good job of navigating, and I was making our requisite radio calls and at ease with the flight. After about 20 minutes, I realized the fog was rising and becoming a thick, overcast layer below us with very few sucker holes to descend through. Still confident with our position, I quickly noted our heading and asked the commander to jot it down. I then asked for the fuel check numbers. He glanced at me with a glazed-over look, as if I had asked him for some kind of answer to an abstract calculus problem.
As the fog continued to rise, I adjusted our altitude to maintain a manageable separation level over the layer and started to think about what Army Regulation 95-1 said about over-the-top flight. It seemed as if we had been over the top for about 10 minutes, so I quickly started my clock, knowing I didn’t have much longer to maintain this position.
About this time, I was shocked to see the commander no longer following our position on the map at a rate commensurate with our speed over the ground. Instead he was busy trying to peer through the fog layer to see if he could find our field site. He said he thought it was around there somewhere. At this point he told me, “I have the controls,” and threw me the map. He started to circle the area in a right descending turn over the spot he thought might be the location without any solid view of the ground.
I started to get a little flustered and put out over the turn of events. I had the map but no idea of where we were. He then straightened out the aircraft and started to fly 90 degrees from our original heading. As I vainly tried to figure out our position over the ground, I began to feel a sinking feeling in my stomach and got a coppery taste in my mouth. The commander said that he knew the site was “around here somewhere” and insisted that we fly around until we could find a hole to descend through and get a look at the terrain. At this point, I’d had quite enough. I announced that I was taking the controls and getting us “the hell out of here.”
I thought to myself, “Well, that was a short career,” but I was determined to get us out of this rapidly declining situation. I flew a reciprocal heading back to where I thought he had made the 90 degree course correction and then picked up another reciprocal of our original heading. I also tuned in a nondirectional beacon to an airfield that we had passed some time back.
After about 30 minutes, I started to pick up a familiar landmark through the lessening foggy ground cover and flew a direct course for our home base. It was a chilly and silent flight back to base, but I was determined to defend my actions, if needed.
After we landed, the commander assisted with the post-flight. All he said was, “Well, guess I’ll try to get out there tomorrow.” I never heard anymore about it and never discussed the flight with anyone until many months later after he had left command.
I made many stupid rookie errors during the flight. I should have been on the map and let my co-pilot fly. I also should have done the fuel check and thought about over-the-top flight as part of the planning process. I eventually did what the “gut check” dictated and got us out of a bad situation.
What if I had been less persistent with my insistence to terminate the mission or had been a younger pilot afraid to question the commander’s wishes? Don’t give in to command peer pressure. You may have to answer for it later. Make the big boy decisions and stick to them. It will buy you another day and flight.