The Danger of Poor Aircrew Selection
Author’s note: This article discusses my experience as an inexperienced aviator, unwilling to speak up when paired with a reckless, yet more experienced, pilot in command (PC). During our flight, we faced several life-threatening situations, all of which were initiated by the PC and never challenged by me. Like most mishaps, there were several warnings that could’ve led to the destruction of an Army aircraft and, more importantly, the death of the crew onboard. Though no one was hurt during this flight, my story is an example of how important it is for all crewmembers to identify the hazards and do what they can to mitigate and, if possible, eliminate them before flight.
An aviator who lacks discipline can be more dangerous than any combat mission or emergency procedure. The aviator without discipline often takes unnecessary risks and demonstrates a mix of carelessness and invincibility that compromises not only his life, but the lives of his crew. Most cockpits are comprised of a PC and a co-pilot. The pilot/co-pilot relationship presents checks and balances, allowing one crewmember to speak up when danger arises in the cockpit. However, this is difficult when you put an experienced aviator, acting as a dangerous PC, with an inexperienced co-pilot. Dangers seen prior to flight
As an aviator assigned to a VIP unit in Korea, it was common practice to receive last-minute mission changes as well as last-minute crew changes. This meant one might be paired with a different co-pilot than originally planned if the situation dictated. However, a thorough crew brief was always conducted when this occurred.
In my case, I was called the same day and asked if I was available to fly. Of course, I was eager to accept the mission but was apprehensive because I had never met the PC, nor did I know anything about this flight. The only information I had was how long I had until takeoff and where the PC would meet me. This was the first red flag for this mission: an inexperienced aviator wasn’t given adequate time to plan or prepare for the flight.
The second red flag came in the form of a proper crew briefing. As I gathered my equipment and headed to the company area to find the PC and introduce myself, I was immediately greeted by a gentleman in a rush who asked if I would be his co-pilot for the day. I said yes and was handed a risk assessment worksheet (RAW). I vigorously worked on the RAW and rushed it to the PC. He took it and glanced over it, apparently satisfied with the work I had done. He made minor corrections and told me to meet him at the aircraft and begin the preflight. He stated we were running late and that he would join me at the aircraft. The PC’s sense of urgency also added additional stress, especially since there hadn’t yet been a formal crew brief or a mission overview.
I conducted what I thought to be a thorough preflight using the checklist. The PC arrived several minutes later, grabbed the aircraft logbook and began to walk around the aircraft for a final glance. We strapped in and I immediately felt a sense of nervousness. I was inexperienced and used to being double-checked and questioned after every preflight. Though the PC was not at fault for assuming that I was able to preflight the aircraft, I thought that, having never flown together, he had assumed too much of my abilities. Dangers seen during the flight
We buckled up and were ready to start the aircraft. Under normal circumstances, the aircraft is started utilizing a checklist. Technical Circular 1-237, Aircrew Training Manual Utility Helicopter, states that each crewmember will complete the required checks pertaining to his or her assigned crew duties per the appropriate operator’s manual/checklist. However, as we began the flight, the PC started going through the startup procedures without using the checklist.
Suddenly, I had an immediate feeling something wasn’t right. I remembered the brigade commander hosting a pilots’ class where he expressed his disappointment in aviators not using the checklist. With the understanding that we were in a rush, I didn’t question the actions of the PC. My feelings were that the PC had twice as much experience as I did, thus who was I to question right from wrong?
We started the aircraft and were en route to pick up our passenger. During the flight, everything went smoothly. We were on time to pick up the passenger, and I began to feel more comfortable with the PC — so much, in fact, that I thought my own insecurities had made me feel uncomfortable. We dropped off the passenger without any issues.
As we returned to base, the PC asked if I wanted to do a roll-on landing. Generally, I had only done this maneuver with an instructor pilot. Therefore, I told the PC I was OK with performing a roll-on landing. He had the controls and stated he would perform the maneuver. According to TC 1-237, the pilot not on the controls will verify the brakes are released before starting the approach. This is a critical part of the maneuver and is acknowledged in the before-landing check in the UH-60, but we weren’t using the checklist. The PC began the maneuver and I, being very inexperienced and unfamiliar with the maneuver, missed the most critical step — to release the parking brake.
We landed with the parking brake still applied, and the aircraft touched down fast and started to skid and shutter. We slid for about three to five seconds before the PC realized the parking brake was still applied. He immediately released the brakes and regained control of the aircraft. It was not until after the flight I realized we were truly lucky the aircraft wasn’t damaged and, more importantly, our lives were not lost.
Upon completion of the flight, the crew was unusually silent as postflight was performed. We tied down the aircraft and parted ways. The final mistake of this flight was there was no postflight briefing, no after-action review to discuss what we could’ve done better. I accepted this as the way things were done in his company and went on my way. Conclusion
This flight was a clear example of the importance of having a good crew mix in the cockpit. There were warning signs throughout the mission that required the crew to take action immediately. This crew had never flown together. The PC should’ve conducted a thorough crew briefing and not assumed the experience level of his co-pilot. Ultimately, when something goes wrong in flight, the PC is responsible. On the same token, I should’ve asked the specifics of this mission from the PC.
During the startup procedures, I was just as responsible for following the checklist as the PC. I should’ve insisted things be done correctly, like slowing down and taking the proper steps per the checklist. Being short on time doesn’t mean safety ought to be sacrificed.
During flight, as things appeared to go smoothly, I should’ve spoken to the PC and expressed my concerns. The more relaxed environment could’ve allowed the PC to acknowledge the comfort level of the crew and act accordingly. The same holds true for the roll-on landing; it was my responsibility as a Readiness Level 1 aviator to be familiar with all RL1 maneuvers. If I were not comfortable with the maneuvers to be executed during the flight, then I should’ve spoken up.
Although the PC was more experienced than I, there was no reason for me not to speak up when things were going wrong. I assumed too much about the role of the PC and not enough about my role as a crewmember. I could’ve mitigated much of the risk just as easily as the PC. Though the PC is ultimately responsible for the cockpit, we all are responsible for following the proper procedures. At the least, the crew as a whole could’ve spoken up and stated there was no way for us to safely accept this mission.
The PC’s company commander later flew an aircraft the PC had previously flown. The commander noticed the aircraft had not been shut down properly which immediately signaled the PC had not used the checklist. This, along with other complaints in the company about him being unsafe, eventually led to the removal of the PC from the unit.