Luck is not a Plan
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 DOUG DETERMAN
Western Army Aviation Training Site
Silverbell Army Heliport
There I was, Chalk 2 in a formation of three aircraft. We had just completed our mission and were returning to base. The formation was in echelon left and we were briefed to fly with two to five rotor discs of separation.
I was flying from the right seat when Chalk 1 announced they had a fire and immediately turned hard left. I had no time to react and limited options. I could not turn left because Chalk 3 was there; why destroy three aircraft when we can keep it at two? I applied some aft cyclic for a cyclic climb and found my chin bubble picture filled with the rotor blade system of Chalk 1. Luckily, when Chalk 1 turned left, they significantly lowered the collective, which kept us from hitting each other. My actions did nothing to save my crew; I simply had no time to react.
So how did this very near miss happen? There were many contributing factors, beginning with crew selection. Chalk 1 paired the least experienced pilot in command (PC) in the flight with the least experienced pilot (PI) in the aircraft. Second, the PI on the controls incorrectly responded to the fire light. This should have been a simple step to execute. Chalk 1 could have simply asked or given us a chance to tell them there was no fire. Ironically, the incident that nearly destroyed two aircraft and killed eight crewmembers was all over a false light. Third, the PC failed to direct the PI accordingly or take the flight controls from him when he reacted poorly. In addition, the PI failed to process the information given to him by the crew chief and respond correctly. When the PI was asked why he turned directly into the formation, he blamed it on the crew chief directing him to do so.
I want to go over this in greater detail because I am very passionate about this failure of aircrew coordination. The crew chief did an excellent job in this situation. When the pilots called out the fire light, the crew chief simply called out a landing zone at the 10 o’clock position. Had this been proven to be an actual emergency requiring a landing, he properly identified a suitable landing area. As pilots, our job is to process the information we get from the aircraft, radios, crewmembers and our senses and make an informed, safe decision. The PI failed at this task and the PC failed to correct it, leading to a near miss.
I know it seems like I am beating up on the pilots of Chalk 1. Truth is, I am. Their actions nearly killed themselves and six other innocent bystanders. I always feel bad for the nonrated crewmembers who are just along for the ride when pilots make poor decisions that lead to their deaths. However, I am not without blame in this incident. I am very confident in my ability to fly formation. My confidence led me to fly at about one and a half rotor discs separation instead of the briefed two to five rotor discs. I find that the closer I get, the easier it is to catch the movement of the other aircraft and make minimal corrections to stay in perfect formation. Had I been flying at two discs, it would not have been quite as close. Better yet, had I been flying at five discs, I would have given myself more room and time to react instead of depending on luck to save my crew.
Do not depend on luck to bring you back home. When planning your crews, mix the experience levels. Do not overreact to caution and warning lights; verify the emergency first and think about your situation and surroundings before you act. Again, the nonrated crewmembers depend on you to make sound, safe decisions. Never blame them for giving you information. That is their job. Your job is to process the data they give you. Lastly, don’t just acknowledge mission and crew briefs — follow them. These briefings should be designed with safety in mind.