CAPT. NATALIE D. MILLER
B Company, 2nd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment
Air National Guard
Greenville, South Carolina
The flight was my first as a new pilot in command, so I was excited and a little nervous. I planned for an uneventful flight, taking off from our Army base (co-located with a Class D airspace civilian airport), through our unit’s training area and then entering into a neighboring Class C civilian airport before returning home.
Overall, the two-hour flight was designed to familiarize a new Readiness Level 1 (RL1) pilot to a broader section of the local flying area. Since my pilot had achieved RL1 status, he was familiar with the home airfield and local entrance and exit procedures. The intention was to familiarize him with entering/exiting procedures of the Class C airspace in which we operated.
Throughout our flight he seemed comfortable navigating around our unit’s home station and within our training area, about 200 square miles located 20 miles from the base. I was pleased with the flow of our flight. Our preflight had gone well and we had divvied up the duties, filed all the appropriate paperwork and briefed our route and procedures.
Bob (his name has been changed to protect his identity) understood the intent for today’s training and expressed enthusiasm to be flying with someone other than an instructor pilot. During the flight, Bob seemed at ease and was competent in his duties on the controls. We used standard terminology, proper clearing procedures, backup navigation techniques and verifying radio traffic. For the majority of the time, Bob remained on the controls and I managed the radios, which included changing the frequencies, setting the GPS to follow-on points and tuning navigational equipment.
During the training area portion of the flight, our transponder read 1200 for general visual flight rules traffic. Upon completion of training within the training area, I requested a northern route toward the Class C airspace. In accordance with our standard operating procedures, air traffic control advised we were under “radar contact” and gave us a squawk, or transponder code, highlighting our position in the sky.
I was on the radios and my PI on the controls. I reached down and pushed in the plugs that corresponded to the numbers into the four-digit window on our transponder. With our attention once again outside, we continued on our flight. I occasionally pointed out good ground reference points on our common northern entrance into the Class C airspace. In accordance with ATC’s instructions, we continued our path toward a visual flight rules checkpoint.
About five minutes after ATC gave us our specific transponder code, my pilot was flying straight and level at a heading of approximately 330 degrees. I double-checked the radios and our navigation and continued my cross-check to outside the aircraft. I turned to look at Bob in the right seat and noticed a dark shape floating immediately above and to the right of his helmet. As the realization dawned on me that we were not alone in this little patch of sky, I heard myself say, “I have the controls,” and initiated a descending left turn. Bob released his grip on the controls, sat back and took a look at the small white Cessna flying 200 feet above us within 10 rotor disks. “I never even saw it,” he exclaimed.
So where was the disconnect here? Was our cross-check procedure off? Maybe. Were there blind spots in our scan? Definitely. As my heart rate slowed and I replayed the events leading up to the close call, I couldn’t help but think, “Why didn’t ATC let us know the proximity of this traffic?”
As I leaned forward to double-check the code in the transponder, I realized I was one number off. I was floored. I’d placed us in danger by not verifying one number! Bob felt responsible for not catching the aircraft in his scan, but there was also a crew chief sitting on that side of the helicopter in the crew seat. Nevertheless, I failed to follow ATC instructions and utilize ATC’s safety system, placing the lives of my crew in danger.
Since that day, there is not one assigned squawk code in my aircraft that does not get verified by the other pilot. As my pre-flight briefing clearly states: my co-pilot will cross-check systems and instruments and, in accordance with the aircrew training manual, I shall ask for assistance.