Let’s Talk About It
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 EVERETT T. MITCHELL
C Company, 1-150th Air Assault
Army Aviation Support Facility #2
West Virginia Army National Guard
Wheeling, West Virginia
While attending the Aviation Safety Officer Course at Fort Rucker, Alabama, I was reminded of a let’s-not-do-that-again event that occurred while I was deployed to Kosovo in 2012. Such lessons learned situations shaped how I operated as a young pilot in command. Unfortunately, it seems many aviators — myself included — are reluctant to air their dirty laundry.
Even though my initial feelings are to share my near misses with others, there are times I have been asked to not bring them up and told there is no need for further discussion. What are we hiding from? Is there a risk to your career to share such events? The concern seems to lie with our peers’ or leaders’ opinions of our abilities, skills or decision-making after hearing about a near miss.
My father, a retired Army aviator, has always shared lessons learned with me. His letters almost always contain some accident story or near miss, torn out of one of his aviation trade magazines. (Thanks, Dad!) His love is not misunderstood, nor are his efforts in vain. The articles have become great reading material.
For unknown reasons, I’ve adopted this mindset of not sharing my near misses. Granted, my stories contain 100 percent human error along with absolutely poor decision-making. Looking back, those decisions were made based on my lack of experience, and several could have ended as a catastrophic event. All of them were attributed to overconfidence. I am hopeful that in time I will be more open with other experiences. This article is the first step toward that goal. It’s a story about a "near" failure based on a decision to announce a damaged part during a preflight and the importance of saying, "I don't know.”
Our unit had just taken over the KFOR-14 rotation in Kosovo. I was on one of my first missions and my solo walk to the aircraft was greeted by refreshing spring air accompanied by the warm sun and clear skies. As a young pilot still brushing off "Rucker dust,” I was eager for the flight experience that would come with the nine-month deployment. I was focused on aircraft start-up, departure headings, reporting points and call signs. A voice in my head said, "Don't mess this up, Mitchell," and kept repeating it as I met with the crew chiefs, who were already hard at work preparing the aircraft.
While completing the preflight, I noticed the strap around the bottom-right strut was broken. At first, I considered not mentioning it. Then I thought there was no harm in asking the crew chief.
I summoned Staff Sgt. Lightning (obviously not his real name), one of the unit's finest members. In a childlike fashion, I pointed to the component in question and asked if we could still fly the aircraft. His silence was a rare event for me because he was the go-to crew dog for maintenance questions. Breaking the silence, I said, "Yes or no? Am I OK to fly with it if the PC and you are?” At this point, the PC arrived from his final brief from operations. The PC said he was comfortable to fly, but the question at hand still had not been answered. I asked, “Is the aircraft status a red X?”
After a few seconds, Lightning looked at me straight-faced and answered, "I don't know, sir.” My young, overconfident, inexperienced thoughts were, "There is no way this strap could ground an aircraft.” Then again, I have never seen one that was broken. Our crew chief returned to the hangar to consult with the technical manual and our maintenance officer. With much anticipation by the PC and me, he returned with an unexpected answer. The aircraft was "red X-ed.” The mission had to continue, so we moved to our jump aircraft and completed it with no other events other than being late.
Later, I learned how significant that "insignificant" part could be if we had continued the flight. The strap holds a bearing pin in two holes that are 90 degrees from each other. There was fluid present around our aircraft’s right wheel that we did not attribute to the strut at that time. With the strap broken on the aircraft side, it was hard to notice the bearing pin's condition, let alone that a bearing pin even existed. If the bearing pin managed to liberate itself from the strut while in flight, the remaining fluid would have drained without the crew knowing it. Upon landing, the lower-stage strut would have collapsed or bottomed all of the way. It is anyone's guess as to how this scenario would have ended when landing on a slope to an unimproved landing zone.
My takeaway from this event and subsequent scenario was profound. First and foremost is the long-preached reason for conducting a preflight inspection. From our infancy to flight to our final ride, we perform this task. The repetition leads to complacency. It also can make us aware of things that just don't look right. When questioning such events, rely on official publications and subject matter experts for answers.
Second is a crewmember's ability to be honest. Our crew chief responded with the right answer — "I don't know.” This response is not an indication of incompetence, but, rather, a sign of professionalism. Would a less-experienced crew chief respond the same way? Are we teaching them to recognize overconfidence? Our crew chief’s professionalism helped prevent our crew from making the poor choice to fly that day.
I now share this story with our new crew chiefs. As pilots, we should encourage such professionalism. Avoid being overconfident about the maintenance aspect of our airframes and remain vigilant on preflight inspections.