A Rush to Jump
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 RAYMOND ANDREL
F Company, 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Our “lift” unit had been in-country for several months flying general support, air assault and VIP transport missions. One mission called for us to circulate a task force commander through his area of responsibility for subordinate unit assessment. The flight consisted of two UH-60 aircraft. Chalk 1, the flight lead, was responsible for transporting the commander; Chalk 2 carried the air mission commander and the task force commander’s security detachment and support personnel.
The aircrews showed up like any other day for the mission brief. We received the mission, departed operations to conduct our aircrew brief and went over the details. All the standard information was covered, followed by a few aircraft-specific issues.
The crew chief on Chalk 1 noted that at the halfway point of the mission, his aircraft would reach the flight hours limit that required a maintenance inspection for torque checks. We decided we would return to base as that time approached during the flight, change aircraft and depart immediately to retrieve the task force commander after his initial battlefield circulation. To meet time-on-target, this had to be accomplished quickly, without shortcuts and conducted to standards.
Chalks 1 and 2 departed the briefing area, satisfied with the method of execution. We conducted our individual aircrew briefings, covering more specific details, to include rules of engagement, weapons status and emergency procedures. One thing we failed to discuss as a crew was the detailed procedure for jumping aircraft — the tail number, how we would preflight and the movement of equipment were the only points covered.
The pilot in command was satisfied all crewmembers understood their inherent responsibilities. All aircrew members acknowledged the brief, conducted preflight then executed the run-up and line-up procedures. The flight repositioned, picked up the task force commander and his support element, and started the mission as briefed.
Halfway through the mission, Chalk 1 returned to the parking area to begin the aircraft swap as Chalk 2 repositioned to refuel as briefed. Up to this point, the mission had been flawless. The crew chief of Chalk 1 exited the aircraft and shutdown was performed per the applicable checklist.
Meanwhile, the door gunner gathered all equipment and began transferring it to the bump aircraft. With shutdown complete and the PC and co-pilot both unbuckling and preparing to exit the aircraft, the crew chief and door gunner removed the 240H machine guns unannounced. The co-pilot grabbed all remaining gear and the PC did a final sweep. It was standard for the PC to verify all weapons were clear prior to transport. The PC, noting the weapons had been removed, ran after the door gunner and mildly reprimanded him for not allowing him to clear the weapons, but, in the essence of time, allowed the door gunner to continue.
In a rush to get the bump aircraft run up, the PC passed in front of the weapon the door gunner was carrying and arrived at the aircraft an instant before the door gunner placed the weapon on the ground. Then, the inevitable happened. As the 240H was placed on the ground, it discharged. Luckily, the barrel was facing down and the round struck the concrete parking pad. No one was injured and the aircraft was not damaged.
Immediately following the unintentional discharge, the PC ordered the door gunner to move away from the weapon. He then proceeded to point the weapon in a safe direction, clear it and assess the situation. The PC gathered the crew and explicitly pointed out deficiencies in the actions that took place and the poor judgment exercised by himself and the crew. The company commander was notified and the appropriate punitive punishment followed.
The door gunner was a recent transfer to the unit. Although he had limited experience with our operations, it was assumed he knew how we operated. Up until this point, eight months into the deployment, we had not experienced a single unintentional discharge. Continuous training covering weapons safety and clearing procedures, supplemented with leadership supervision, prevented this.
This Soldier had only been in the unit for two weeks and did not receive as much training as the other Soldiers. Also, he had earned a poor reputation from his previous unit and began to build on that reputation with us. Prior to this mission, it was brought to the attention of the company commander, first sergeant and company standardization pilot that the Soldier had exhibited poor judgment and substandard performance with previous tasks covering weapons operations. Further investigation found that many of the Soldier’s peers predicted he would be involved in a serious incident and they were not surprised by his unintentional discharge.
Needless to say, the mission was a failure. The rush to jump aircraft resulted in an oversight by the aircrew, causing an incident that delayed takeoff time and resulted in failure to meet time-on-target. The task force commander was going to get home late.
Maintenance. During the aircrew brief, it was identified that the Chalk 1 aircraft would require mandatory maintenance checks halfway through the mission. This factor was identified early, but the two aircrews chose the far more complicated solution to jump to another aircraft mid-mission instead of using the bump aircraft to begin with.
Training. The new door gunner never received the detailed training and supervision previous door gunners received. He was expected to fit seamlessly into unit operations and not given the proper instruction and evaluation by company flight instructors. If the applicable progression training program had been followed and leniency not allowed, deficiencies would have been noted and remedial training provided.
Leadership. Deficiencies in character, judgment and training were identified shortly after the door gunner’s arrival to the company. If the leadership had taken immediate action and demanded reassessment, these contributing factors would have been validated and the risk eliminated. The complacency of the aircrew’s PC and his assumption that all proper procedures would be followed led to a break in standards and safety. Following the briefing checklist and providing time for a back brief may have covered many unanswered questions.
Crew coordination. Had the PC stated to not touch the weapons until he personally cleared them prior to the door gunner and crew chief disconnecting from the aircraft communication system, this incident may not have occurred. Crew coordination failure began prior to mission execution when the PC failed to brief, in detail, all actions that would take place during aircraft swap. The PC assumed every crewmember knew the standard procedures. The pilot failed to announce that other crewmembers were removing the weapons, and the crewmembers failed to acknowledge or announce they were dismounting the weapons. If the crew had taken a few extra seconds to brief in detail, offer assistance and announce their actions, the mission would have been a success.