The 30-Cent Washer
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 MICHAEL BUSCHMAN
Eagle Team, Operations Group
National Training Center
Fort Irwin, California
It started out like most any other night in Balad, Iraq — same mission, same timeline, same hot preflight. My co-pilot/gunner (CPG) and I were to be the trail aircraft in a flight of two Apaches for yet another ground support mission over Baghdad. We conducted the preflight of our primary aircraft and then met with the crew of our lead element at the backup bird to prep it in case we had to make the inevitable jump. After our usual team update, we got in and cranked.
Having been told by my most trusted maintenance noncommissioned officer (NCO) that this would be the first flight for the aircraft after coming out of phase maintenance, I completed an extra-thorough run-up, expecting the worst. Everything was flowing along smoothly and all systems were showing good-to-go. With the backup control system check complete, I started the aircraft.
Once up to 100 percent power and showing Readiness Condition 1, I called lead and waited for them to taxi to the northern “H.” I announced we were off our pad and would back-taxi and fall into their trail. With the health indicator test completed, lead called tower and we prepared for a takeoff to the south. I pulled in collective and noticed it took a bit more effort than normal to get us off the ground, but both flight controls and the center of gravity felt normal. With lead departing and us at a 5-foot hover, I waited for their downwash and dust to dissipate and then we were on our way — or so I expected.
The resistance on the collective was now way more severe than it had been just a few seconds earlier and it would not glide smoothly. To even get it to move at all required a lot of effort; then I needed to push it back down as soon as it would move to prevent the torque from spiking too quickly. As we climbed out of our dust cloud and up to altitude behind lead, I discussed it with my front-seater and asked him if he could see anything blocking the collective. He assured me all was clear and I quickly glanced around the back. Lead called to announce we were leaving the wire and I replied, “Chalk 2, we have an issue.”
The senior pilot in command/air mission commander of the other aircraft calmly asked for an update and then suggested some troubleshooting for us to try. After checking the CPG crew station for any possible pens, pencils or Rip-It drink cans that might have gotten lodged in the collective, my co-pilot assumed the controls and I inspected my own station. With both collective control areas clear and the CPG stating he was unable to move his collective, I took the controls and instructed the other aircraft that we needed to turn around. Recognizing this could turn into a real-world emergency situation, lead quickly told me to turn back immediately and then fell into trail and made the appropriate tower calls.
Being about two clicks outside the wire, we started to come up with our plan of attack. The collective was seriously binding by this time and required a lot of effort to move up or down. Because of it, I do not believe I would have been able to control the aircraft at a hover. Balad has a good-sized helipad on the southern end of the attack helicopter parking area and, as I had been parked at the far north end, there would be plenty of room for me to perform a roll-on landing. Alpha taxiway was clear of aircraft and had both a larger area to commit a roll-on and would also allow for quicker access of crash-and-rescue vehicles should they be needed. In the end, I decided on the southern “H.”
On final approach, my front-seater started calling out my airspeed and altitude. I slowed it back to about 35 knots and made the most beautiful textbook roll-on landing by the numbers. I continued a hasty ground taxi and guided the aircraft back to parking. Having witnessed us turn around and our faster-than-normal approach to the pad, my co-pilot and I were greeted by considerably more than the usual amount of ground personnel.
While starting the two-minute engine cool down, I instructed the front-seater to jump out and told my trusty NCO to jump in. He threw on a headset and I told him to try pulling up on the collective. Expecting the norm, he was shocked at how much pressure it took. With him being the muscle head he was, I was surprised when he told me how hard of a time he was having and commented about not seeing how I was able to fly the damned thing.
I exited the aircraft and moved my gear over to the backup bird. We then carried on with the mission without incident. It was not until the next day that I was informed of what had caused the problem. A 30-cent washer on the pilot station’s collective guide was installed incorrectly, not allowing it to function properly. It was moving without incident until power was applied to pick up the aircraft, then it started cutting into the guide. Once it was correctly installed, there was no further issue.
Looking back, I am very thankful for how everything turned out. The good crew coordination between not only the front-seater of my aircraft, but also with the senior PC in the lead ship, allowed this junior one to end a possibly hairy situation with nothing more than a vivid memory and some large smiles. After the mission, the PC of the other ship advised me I coulda/shoulda used the alpha taxiway for a less extreme roll-on and should have alerted the crash-and-rescue personnel to meet us there. After all, they could use some practice too. All of that for a little 30-cent washer.