Stay Alert to Stay Alive
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 CHAD E. STINAR
Company B, 12th Aviation Battalion
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
There I was, a fairly fresh pilot in command, flying away from a place called Salerno in the eastern part of Afghanistan on a warm day in a fully loaded UH-60A Black Hawk (the “A” is noteworthy in this story). By fresh, I mean I had a couple hundred hours of PC time. To some, that might sound like plenty. But to me, on my first combat tour, I still felt unsure of myself.
Flying west from Salerno put us into mountainous terrain rather quickly. Many of the pilots in my battalion had received mountain flying training at Colorado’s Army National Guard High-Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS) prior to our deployment. This was essential, considering the terrain in Afghanistan. I had those techniques in the back of my mind as we proceeded back to Bagram Air Base, just north of Kabul.
I was on the controls and our route was the same as usual, or so I thought. In typical complacent fashion, I had made a small error without realizing it. Instead of the pass through the mountains that I usually took — the one with the gradual increase in elevation — I accidentally took a different path that required a much more abrupt climb. What’s more, I hadn’t yet noticed my navigational failure. Remember when I said that the “A” would be noteworthy. Well, the A model Black Hawks our unit was flying were pretty old. The newer L models had more powerful engines and better performance. I was high, hot and heavy in an A model with a mountain ahead of me and my crew acting fat, dumb and happy, paying little attention to our route. As you can see, the strikes were adding up.
I finally noticed the looming ridgeline out the windscreen. I soon realized this wasn’t our usual route through the mountains and, without delay, informed my crew. I immediately started a climb, but it seemed slow. In reality, it was slow due to all those strikes I referred to earlier. As each crewmember caught on to the gravity (pun intended) of our situation, the lively conversation we usually had while cruising diminished and then went silent. I looked down at my engine instruments and adjusted the power to the maximum I could, increasing the collective, noting limitations on engine temperature, etc. The whole time, I was also slowly reducing my airspeed to the Hawk’s maximum climb rate speed. Basically, I had set up the aircraft to climb as fast as it was capable, and the distance to the crest of the mountain was steadily shrinking.
While my HAATS training was going through my head like a mantra, I noticed one last thing I hoped wouldn’t turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The pass we were in was shaped like a horseshoe, with us on the inside of the curve. One of the concepts we learned in our mountainous terrain flying course was to have an escape route whenever approaching a ridge. This meant I needed to turn, preferably to the right — the direction that required the least power — to avoid flying into terrain. In this situation, it didn’t really matter which way required the least amount of power because being on the inside of the horseshoe-shaped pass, I couldn’t turn either direction. All I could do was fly straight, keep my aircraft set to climb as fast as it could and hope for the best.
The silence was deafening as we watched the crest of the ridge slowly fall away in the windscreen. Our altitude above the ground was decreasing as we climbed, so by the time we made it over the top and were able to breathe again, we had gotten uncomfortably close to the trees. I was able to reduce the strain on the engines, transmission and rotor system and accelerate a little. Breathing again was a welcomed privilege. I don’t remember who the first to speak was, but it took another 10 minutes before we had all relaxed enough to fully discuss what had just happened.
These kinds of stories always have a lesson to learn, right? Well, this one is no different. Former NASA astronaut Frank Borman once said, "A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skill." As pilots, we’ve heard the warning “complacency kills” many times, and it is especially true in aviation. Watch what you’re doing. Treat every mission with the same focus and attention to detail as if you’d never flown it before because circumstances can change. No flight is ever truly the same as any other. As my drill sergeants always told us, stay alert to stay alive.