When Ego Outflies Ability
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 5 JEFF DuCHARME
991st Aviation Troop Command
Stead Airbase, Reno, Nevada
Let’s face it, aviators — especially helicopter pilots — are an egotistical breed. It’s no secret that we have Type-A personalities, but we have to in order to complete the dangerous and complex missions required of us. Sometimes, however, our egos and it-won’t-happen-to-me attitudes can lead us to trouble.
I was a young CW2 pilot in command with just over 1,000 hours of flight time when I was chosen, along with other crewmembers, to fly two aircraft from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, in support of a ground exercise. We arrived at the airfield after an uneventful cross country flight and settled in. The next day, we received our in-brief from the local aviation staff and were given our maps, the local standard operating procedure and aviation procedures guide, and everything else we needed to fly in the area. I was flight lead as we took off and began our recon to familiarize ourselves with the area.
My co-pilot was another young CW2 who just happened to have been at Fort Chaffee the year prior supporting the same exercise. He’d had an aircraft mishap while he was there — a blade strike with a wooden pole while flying along a tank trail. I felt bad for him. He was a great guy and a good pilot; he just ran into a bit of bad luck. That mishap was the third blade strike my unit had experienced in the last year and a half.
During this flight, though, everything was going as planned. We’d circled the perimeter of the reservation and were comfortable with the layout, so we started our recon of the interior. After about an hour and a half of flying, I was tired of navigating. I wanted to fly, so I put my co-pilot on the map and I took over the controls.
We were flying over a tank trail that wound through the forest, and being the “experienced” aviator that I was, I went nap-of-the-earth. What does the Army teach you? Train as your fight, right? So there I am, NOE and maybe flying a little faster than conditions dictate. Chalk 2, flown by our unit maintenance test pilot, was behind me, but he wasn’t going to be stupid and join me flying NOE. They were happy just following along behind us. The MTP came over the radio and said something along the lines of, “If you put those rotors in the trees, I’m not going to be happy.” (He might’ve been a little more colorful in his word choices.)
Just after the conversation with the MTP, my co-pilot informed me he thought this was the same route he was on when he had his blade strike. Was I worried? No way! I didn’t just think I was a better pilot than him. I knew it!
I’m sure you can figure out what’s coming next. I was fine up until I was climbing up a hill along with a trail when it took a turn to the left. No problem; I turned left with it. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the same damn same wooden pole my co-pilot clipped the prior year. I was flying fairly fast but managed to miss the pole. What I didn’t miss was the forest lining both sides of the tank trail and put my rotor disc about three feet into the trees along the left.
If you have never experienced what happens when your tip caps explode and the rotor system instantly goes extremely out of track, you’re missing the ride of your life. Luckily, I was able to control the aircraft, and we looked for a place to land. Unluckily, the closest area big enough to land was the airfield itself, which was roughly 7 kilometers away. The MTP in Chalk 2, after asking if we were OK, was concerned about the aircraft and closely followed us back.
I’ve never had a rougher flight and shutdown in an aircraft in my entire career. Afterward, the MTP came over, but he didn’t say a word. He just gave me that look — you know the one I’m talking about. I was racked with guilt, shame, embarrassment, dread and every other emotion you can imagine. Worst of all was the horror I felt at the thought that I could have killed not only myself, but everyone else on board as well. And it was all because of my ego.
One of the most dreaded calls I’ve ever had to make in my career was to my commander to tell him what I did. I thank God he was the most professional and humane leader I have ever had. It still cost me my PC orders, an in-depth check ride with the company standardization pilot, and helping the MTP replace the tip caps I had knocked off. It also wounded my pride, which in the long run was a good thing. Learn from my mistakes. Don’t let your ego ever outfly your abilities.