CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 JON K. THILGES
Installation Safety Officer, Aviation
Fort Irwin, California
It was to be an exciting night in northern Iraq. The mission was a little different from the standard ring route to the north or south of Forward Operating Base Speicher and I was eager to get started.
We were briefed for the mission and after an uneventful preflight, we went as a crew to grab a quick dinner before launching. This would be my first real external load mission with a Chinook. I was a relatively new pilot with only about 300 hours of flight time and wanted everything to go well. I was scheduled to fly with an instructor pilot (IP) and our overall crew mix was extremely experienced. I had every faith in the crew I was flying with and, after calling tower to reposition for hover power checks, we transitioned over to Echo taxiway.
Upon pickup, we went through a series of flight control checks and an automatic flight control systems check, which we completed before reaching Echo taxiway. Once there, we immediately turned the aircraft 180 degrees to face the south and put ourselves into the wind. Positioned between our Chalk 2 aircraft and the active runway, we proceeded to climb slightly, looking for a torque range between 60%-70% to complete our power assurance test (PAT). On a typical internal cargo night, this would be easy to obtain with both engines at 100% due to our weight. On this particular night, however, we had no internal load since we were going to lift an 8,000-pound external load and we were pulling just below 60%.
I called, “Clear to move No. 1 toward ground?” as I had before, night after night, but the pilot in command (PC) stopped me and said he was just going to pull in a little power to stay above 60% and we could PAT both engines at the same time. I brought my hand back down and he started his ascent and instructed the crewmembers to PAT 1 and 2. I was scanning the gauges and noticed we were in about a 300-foot-per-minute rate of ascent. I said nothing and continued scanning the rest of the gauges.
When the crewmen announced the PATs were complete, I looked down at our radar altimeter and realized we were about 800 feet above ground level (AGL). I mentioned it to the PC, who then acknowledged our altitude and stated he was bringing it back down. We still had a slight climb, but I didn’t think much of it and let my attention wander. I had been doing this nearly every night; and since I was flying with an IP, I didn’t see any need to be attentive all night long. This was the simple part of the mission, right?
After looking around outside, I brought my attention back into the aircraft and saw our VSI needle pointing at a 1,000-foot rate of decent. I immediately said, “Watch your descent, watch your descent!” The ground was approaching quickly and the PC was already putting in a thrust input, but nothing seemed to be arresting our descent. We were settling in our rotor wash.
In a tandem rotor helicopter, nosing it over to fly out of it would only increase the problem due to differential collective input. Our best option would have been to slide left, but we had Chalk 2 next to us. Our other option would be to slide right, but we didn’t have far to maneuver before crossing over the active, and by then there was another flight cleared for the runway. The PC opted to slide forward and right and was able to get out of the dirty air and arrest our descent at 10 feet AGL. The PC repositioned the aircraft back over Echo taxiway, and after Chalk 2 was finished with their hover power checks, we launched on our mission.
The rest of the night went smoothly and I enjoyed my first external load mission. However, I learned an important lesson that night. We, as pilots and crewmen, are not above making mistakes, and my mindset nearly contributed to an accident. I was so confident in my PC that I failed him as a competent pilot and allowed my attention to wander by thinking, “He’s got this.”
My job in the other seat is not to ride along, but to assist the pilot on controls in all phases of flight. Just because he is an IP does not mean he does not need my input or assistance to complete the mission. Despite the hour levels of any pilot or crewmember, we are all held to the same standards and obligated to each other to help ensure success and safety.