Wrong Switch Wrong Time
Ask any Soldier who has been deployed about the inherent stresses caused by the theater of war and you will surely hear the near-miss and there-I-was stories. The multitude of things that can go wrong during any deployment cause a state of constant and heightened situational awareness. The problem with this is that over long periods of time, it can lead to chronic fatigue of both mind and body. This fatigue, coupled with the dangers from the enemy and environment, can lead to disaster.
My aviation unit was about four months into a 12-month deployment, and the operations tempo was raging. It was not uncommon for our aircrews to be flying the max amount of hours our crew endurance policy would allow. Often these long flights would start during daylight hours and carry over into the evenings. The night vision goggle mode of flight during the hours of darkness required full vigilance and awareness due to limited visibility and certain illusions associated with night system flight.
This particular significant emotional event took place deep in the bowels of Iraq. Our aircrew was finishing a full day of flying and had one final stop before heading back to our own forward operating base. The FOB we were approaching was notorious for how dark and dusty it was at night. We were given clearance by the control tower to land and started our approach to what we thought was the runway. Due to the zero illumination that night, we strained to make out the landing area through our goggles.
The dust started to form around the aircraft at about 20 feet above the ground, and the landing area we were approaching disappeared. The pilot in command was on the flight controls and called a go-around through the internal communications system and pulled in power to start a climb out of the dust. As we cleared the dust cloud during our ascent, the crew chief announced we had actually made our approach to a UAS runway that had been built parallel to the landing area to which we were supposed to land. The UAS landing area did not have the support structure to hold the weight of our helicopter. If damaged, the landing area may not have been usable for the much lighter unmanned systems.
We entered the traffic pattern again and informed the control tower of our go-around and intent to make another approach. We were cleared for the approach and started our descent. On short final, the PC asked me to turn off the heater. The intensity of the situation, coupled with fatigue and the environmental conditions, had made it extremely hot and uncomfortable in the cockpit.
The heater switch is located on the upper console above and between the heads of the two pilots. Focused outside due to the gravity of the situation and the fact we had already aborted one landing, I reached up and turned off what I thought was the heater switch. Nothing happened. The heater was still on. I thought I had accidentally turned off the vent blower, which is co-located with the heater switch, so I flipped the switch that was immediately beside the one I had just turned off. The cockpit then went black!
The aircraft started to shudder and there was beeping in our helmets. The PC landed the aircraft safely. Luckily, we were merely 10 feet from the landing area when I had inadvertently shut off both of our main generators. That’s right — the first switch was generator No. 1. Nothing happened because the other generator picked up the load. The second switch was generator No. 2. We lost all lights, causing a blackout in the cockpit. The beeping was caused by the power interruption and radios being knocked offline. The generator switches were inches away from the heater and vent blower switches and identical in shape and size.
Safely on the ground and our hearts about to explode through our chests because of the near-death experience, the PC reached up and turned both generator switches back on, restoring power to the aircraft. Keeping his composure, the PC reminded me that we need to identify switches before turning anything on or off during NVG flight because of the low light levels.
Now, many years later, as a PC, I have used this experience to mentor my younger pilots. I teach them the importance of keeping their composure in high-stress situations even when exhausted. They learn that it is critical to know your equipment even in the dark. Most importantly, they learn from my mistake so they hopefully will never make the same one.