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Unless you’ve experienced spatial disorientation while flying an aircraft, it’s difficult to truly understand the feeling. Fortunately, I’m still here to talk about the night it happened to me.
We were in Hawaii and planning a three-ship UH-60M training flight around the island, where we’d be practicing formation flight and approaches to a couple of airfields. My aircraft would be Chalk 2 in the flight. I was a junior pilot in the company with about 300 hours total and around 40 hours in night vision goggles. My pilot in command was an experienced aviator with more than 1,000 hours total and at least one combat deployment. Chalk 1 had a captain and a first lieutenant, and Chalk 3 had a captain and a chief warrant officer 2. Each aircraft also had one crew chief.
We were all familiar with the training scenario and had flown similar flights many times previously. The island is only so big, so as a pilot or crew chief, you become familiar with its features and layout quickly. There are some things a little more difficult to get accustomed to, such as flying in or around unpredictable or unforecasted weather and zero illumination flight over water, all of which came into play on this particular night.
We warmed up with a half hour of day formation flight before donning our goggles and starting the night portion. About an hour into the night portion, we rounded the northwest corner of the island and prepared to make a straight-in approach to Runway 8 (the winds were from the east) at our target airfield, which parallels the shoreline within 1,000 feet of the ocean.
As we were making the approach to the runway, we could see that farther to the east, where our planned route would take us, looked like it was getting socked in with a layer of unforecasted clouds. The flight made an uneventful approach to the runway and we discussed the weather situation and how to proceed. Do we continue along our planned route to the east or do we turn around and go back the way we came? Illumination was zero percent, so it was difficult to see just how bad the clouds were seven to 10 miles to the east along our route. After consulting with the flight, however, the air mission commander decided we wouldn’t chance it. Instead, we would go back the way we came. The plan was to take off into the wind using Runway 8 and then make a left downwind to depart to the west.
The formation was staggered left. As I was in the right seat of our aircraft in the Chalk 2 position, it made sense for me to be on the controls for the takeoff. The upwind leg and half of the left turn to downwind were like any other formation takeoff under similar conditions. It was dark, but I was about three rotor disks away from Chalk 1 and could see and stay with them in the turn just fine. But as the shoreline disappeared from my view to the right, all that remained was the black abyss of the Pacific Ocean as we continued the accelerating, climbing turn to the left.
I rapidly became disoriented. The distance between our aircraft and Chalk 1 was decreasing and I didn’t know if they were decelerating or we were accelerating. Before I could process what was happening, we were flying over Chalk 1 from left to right and overtaking them. I vividly remember momentarily seeing Chalk 1 in my chin bubble and then losing sight of them. At that point I said over the ICS, “You have the controls. I lost Chalk 1. They’re out the left side now.”
My PC had no idea this ordeal was occurring until he heard my statement. He didn’t have a visual on Chalk 1 for most of the turn, so he couldn’t see what was transpiring. Our crew chief was on the right side with me and also didn’t know what was happening. Perhaps he was looking aft at Chalk 3 or down at the water to ensure we had adequate altitude. I still don’t know.
My PC took the controls and began trying to deconflict to ensure aircraft separation after the inadvertent lead change while I announced airspeed, altitude and heading to him. Luckily, the aircraft had not entered into an unusual attitude during the transfer of controls and we were relatively straight and level when the PC took the controls.
Chalk 3 was a mile or two behind Chalks 1 and 2 during the near-miss and didn’t see any of it, so they were quite confused by what they heard on the radio. After an intense minute or two, safe separation with Chalks 1 and 2 was achieved and we would now be leading the flight back to our home airfield. We quickly tightened up our formation and arrived at the airfield about 20 minutes later, where we conducted a thorough after-action review of the flight.
In the AAR we determined there were some things we could have done to prevent or lessen the probability of the near-miss from occurring. We could have repositioned on the ground to take off from Runway 26 with a 10-knot tailwind. With a crew of three and no cargo in each aircraft, we were light. Along with a 9,000-foot runway, we could have easily mitigated the tailwind and taken off to the west.
Additionally, we could have briefed that we would all get to our en route altitude and airspeed on the upwind leg before turning. Moving one axis (turning) at a time instead of all three (accelerating, climbing, turning) over a black ocean with no contrast likely would have lessened the probability of spatial disorientation. Perhaps we could have continued eastbound and moved farther inland away from the ocean, as well as increased separation from the mountains, before turning either left or right. This course of action would have been dependent on the clouds in that direction, but there likely was adequate room to accomplish this prior to reaching them.
Every crewmember in that flight learned a lot that night. I’ve taken the lessons learned and applied them to every flight I’ve had since. Contingencies should be predicted and planned for in pre-mission planning and briefed thoroughly with all crewmembers prior to execution.