Don't Lose Your Head
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 FARLEY R. MILLER
Detachment 1, A Company, 30th Brigade Special Troops Battalion
North Carolina Army National Guard
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
I think everybody has at least one “there-I-was” story. In my years in Army aviation, I have acquired a few. To me, these stories are life lessons. After all, if it didn’t kill you, it should make you smarter. Here’s one of my life lessons.
I was a staff sergeant in the National Guard assigned to a CH-47 maintenance squad stationed at Kandahar International Airport, Afghanistan. We were proud of not having to drop a single mission due to aircraft maintenance. On most days, we were the only thing flying and weren’t shy about letting the active-duty Soldiers know it.
One job called for us to perform maintenance on a Chinook’s blade grip seal. The aircraft had to be ready for a mission the next day, and my squad was given the assignment. We were ready to work on the aircraft as soon as it returned from a resupply mission, but, of course, it was late in the afternoon when it arrived. The crew chief took oil samples and the flight engineer entered data into the log book; then they both disappeared, possibly for crew rest.
Of the six mechanics in my squad, all were school-trained but only three had CH-47 experience. One handled the write-ups and the others began turning wrenches. Our first task was to remove the aft rotor blades so the prop and rotor specialist could work on the head. It would take the whole squad more than two hours to complete the work. While the rotor head work was underway, we began performing other service items because the CH-47 is a large aircraft and demands a lot of attention.
At 1830, we stopped for a meal break. All that remained was to put the blades back on, flush the engines and lube the swashplates. When we returned, we hurried to get the blades on so we could do the rest of the work inside the hanger because it got cold quickly when darkness fell. The engine wash was put off until the morning because the engines would have to run after the rinse to burn out any excess water. The prop and rotor specialists completed their work and the blades were put back into place. The next task was to perform aircraft lubrication.
The interesting part of this job is lubing the aircraft swashplates. These devices resemble dinner plates that are large and round and connected to the rotor head by linkage. They allow the rotor head to tilt and provide direction and movement for the aircraft. For servicing, we attached tie-down ropes to all six rotor blades and pulled them to rotate the swashplates 360 degrees. While they are slowly spinning, new grease is pumped into them until the old grease is purged.
Here’s my there-I-was moment: I was on the aft pylon platform, cleaning the swashplate while a sergeant turned the rotor head slowly. There is not a lot of space in those pylons — and remember those linkages I mentioned earlier? If you get your head too far into that pylon while the blades are being turned, it can get caught between that control linkage and the pylon wall. If the blades keep turning, you lose your head. Well, my head was too far in because I had stretched around to reach a spot I’d missed.
My sergeant was still turning the blades very slowly and I felt that control link pull on the back of my neck. I got up on my toes and tried to pull my head out of the way, but it was too late. That control link got tighter and tighter. I called out for them to stop while I actually started climbing into the pylon. The Soldier on the ropes had stopped pulling and was afraid he had injured me. I told him I was OK, but don’t rotate the blades any further. Once everyone calmed down, they rotated the blades counterclockwise and I was able to free myself. My only injury was a small cut from a cotter pin and a sore neck.
I made a safety call and sent the crew home after midnight. We had been working on that aircraft far too long and it almost cost me my life. I learned something that night. I had become focused on meeting the mission and maintaining operational readiness to the extent that I forgot about safety and taking care of the troops. Because of this incident, I put safety first each and every day.