Remembering the Basics
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 DEAN BAXTER
Fort Bliss, Texas
Many aviation accidents or near misses result from a failure to practice procedures that have been taught since the very beginning of pilot training. As time passes and we gain experience, sometimes these foundational elements are easily overlooked. The results can often be catastrophic. As the mission evolves and the timeline condenses, it’s essential to not overlook these keystone elements to ensure the job is done safely and successfully.
At the time of my near miss, I was a “senior” pilot (PI) and working my way to becoming a pilot in command (PC) at my unit in Fort Bliss, Texas. Being the only CH-47 company there, we were constantly supporting a variety of field exercises on our installation and remained busy. As an aspiring PC, I was one of the lead planners, along with another PI, for a two-ship night air assault that would take place in the next couple of days. Both cockpits for the mission were comprised of an experienced PI and an instructor pilot (IP).
The mission was pretty straightforward; two CH-47s would insert the ground assault force at the predetermined landing zones (LZ) at the H-hour and then reposition for the exfiltration call later that night. With the supervision of our IPs, the other PI and I began creating a route and other required preparations for the mission. However, throughout the planning process and as “go time” approached, last-minute changes to our original planned route occurred due to new LZ locations and forecasted winds, requiring modification the night of the mission. The final route ended up being roughly a three-minute flight from the pick-up zone (PZ) to the LZ, which was almost a straight shot.
Everything went along without incident as both chalks landed at the PZ, loaded up and prepared for takeoff and infiltration. I was in the lead aircraft and knew things were going to happen rather quickly with our short route to the LZ. We departed on time and headed inbound. Unbeknownst to us in the lead aircraft, as we approached the LZ, Chalk 2, which was flying slightly lower than us, saw wires just in time to increase power and clear the hazard. After landing, Chalk 2 asked if we saw the wires (we did not) and reported that they were going to return to the airfield to determine if they had overtorqued the engines. I had no idea how close I was to hitting a hazard I hadn’t even known was there! Fortunately, this is a story of a near miss and not a fatal accident.
There are a few lessons learned from this incident — the main one being the importance of remembering the basics. Proper route planning techniques are taught early in a pilot’s career, and this was clearly overlooked on this training mission. With the multiple last-minute changes to the route direction and location, we had failed to notice we had planned our route to go directly over clearly marked wires just short of our LZ.
Being a night mission with little illumination and contrast out in the desert training area, I never saw the danger. Luckily, Chalk 2 saw it just in time to maneuver. This incident took place in our own training area, where we all had flown many times before, so we were very familiar with it. This was a big eye opener for me about how a neglected basic principle I learned years ago could have devastating consequences on a simple training exercise in my own backyard.