The Little Things
MAJ. ALAN B. MCCORD
Headquarters and Headquarters Company
28th Combat Aviation Brigade
Pennsylvania Army National Guard
Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania
I’ve been told many times that it’s the little things that will come up and bite you. While this bit of advice has served me well throughout my Army aviation career and life in general, an accident I investigated several years ago really drove home the point.
A fellow aviator had just completed a Fourth of July flyover in an OH-58C that lasted slightly less than two hours. After changing from his flight suit to civilian clothes, he donned all of the required motorcycling personal protective equipment, including a DOT-approved full-face helmet and leather boots, gloves and jacket. He secured his backpack, which contained his flight suit and other items, onto the seat of his Kawasaki sport bike with bungee cords and set out for the 50-mile trip home. The Soldier only made it eight miles before his backpack struck his rear tire, causing a bizarre accident that dramatically and permanently changed his life.
I was assigned as the investigating officer for the line-of-duty (LOD) investigation into the Soldier’s motorcycle accident. I initially heard he was in a coma in our local medical center’s intensive care unit. After receiving the LOD assignment, I began the investigation by visiting the hospital to check on the Soldier’s condition and learn the details of his accident. At the hospital, I found out he’d suffered a substantial traumatic brain injury (TBI) and was being kept in an induced coma to reduce brain swelling. His other injuries included a fractured wrist, lacerations, contusions and some slight road rash. None of the injuries, except for the TBI, was potentially life threatening.
I continued gathering information by interviewing the investigating police officer, who provided me with a copy of the Soldier’s accident report. I also interviewed the sole witness to the accident, who happened to be a registered nurse. She had been on her way home from work when the accident occurred and provided medical assistance to the Soldier until paramedics arrived on the scene.
The investigating police officer estimated the Soldier had been traveling about 70 mph in a 65-mph zone on a four-lane divided highway. He determined the backpack rotated down into the bike’s rear wheel while the Soldier was passing the nurse’s vehicle. The backpack caused the rear wheel to lock up, which vaulted the Soldier off his bike. The police officer also told me he found the Soldier’s helmet, with the chinstrap still secured, lying next to a guardrail.
The witness told me she was traveling the speed limit when the Soldier slowly passed her on the left. When he attempted to return to the right lane, it appeared to her that the motorcycle’s rear wheel hit an imbedded reflector in the center of the roadway. This, she believed, caused the Soldier to lose control and be catapulted from his motorcycle. She described him as looking like a rag doll bouncing down the highway. She saw his helmet hit the road once and then come off his head. Then she saw the Soldiers’ head, now minus the helmet, hit the road a second time before he came to rest.
After he was brought out of his induced coma 26 days later, the Soldier was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where he began his long journey to recovery. Because of the severity of his TBI, he was never able to regain flight status in either the military or state police. He left the Army National Guard and began working ground duties with the state police.
What events led to the Soldier’s motorcycle accident and TBI that altered his life forever? Two things were identified. One was the backpack he had bungee-corded to the back of his seat, which rotated into his rear wheel and locked it up. The other was the failure of his helmet to remain on his head during the accident. Was it haste, mechanical problems or just the wrong equipment for the job that caused these failures? Possibly all three, but most likely it was attention to detail — the little things —that initiated this accident’s chain of events. If the backpack had been better secured to the motorcycle or had he used other means, such as saddlebags, to carry his gear, the accident probably wouldn’t have happened. If his helmet — which was a quality DOT-certified piece of equipment — had remained on his head during the crash, he probably would not have suffered a TBI. Was the chinstrap secured tightly enough or was there a design flaw in the way it was constructed? All that is known for sure was the Soldier was wearing the strap when the accident occurred.
This Soldier lost his flying career and could have died because the little things comprised a chain of events that resulted in this accident. The little things he overlooked had a huge impact on his life. How about you? When it comes to your safety, are you overlooking the little things?