High, Hot, Heavy and Complacent
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 ANDREW KELLER
Detachment 1, B Company, 1st Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment
Pennsylvania Army National Guard
Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania
It was an abnormally hot and humid August day in southeastern Pennsylvania. The LUH-72 crew was landing at Northeast Philadelphia Airport to refuel and brief with the special operations group of the state attorney general’s office for a counterdrug mission. The mission was to provide overwatch for an afternoon search warrant on the residence of a violent, high-profile drug dealer. The house was located in a rough suburban neighborhood, and the team was tasked with watching the No. 3 side, the rear of the residence, for anyone fleeing as the special operations group entered the front. Normally, the crew would request a full tank of fuel so they would have the maximum time in the air to support the ground team. But because the agent onboard that day was heavier than normal — 300-plus pounds compared to the average 200-pound agent — they requested only 1,000 pounds of fuel in the main tank due to the weather.
Upon startup, the crew realized the fueler must not have been paying attention and filled the tanks full. After lifting off and conducting a hover power check, the aircraft was approximately 1-1.5% below go/no-go torque, and the crew determined they could safely perform the mission without burning off any fuel. They then took off and started a slow climb to the target area. They leveled off at 4,500 feet mean sea level (MSL) and set up an orbit to identify the residence.
Once the residence was identified, the crew determined that due to the tall vegetation, there was a narrow window for them to see the back of the house. After some quick calculations, the crew estimated they were light enough to perform an out-of-ground-effect (OGE) hover and would have the additional help of a steady 25-30-knot headwind while facing the rear of the residence.
Upon reaching an OGE hover, the crew noted the power setting was just under 9.5 first limit indication (FLI), which put them in a time limit for how long they were allowed to be at that power setting. To compensate for the time limit, once time was almost up, they would do a short little racetrack pattern so they could lower power just enough to get it out of the range and then come back to an OGE hover and restart the clock. They timed these patterns so they could come to a hover just before the special operations group pulled up to conduct the raid.
Both pilots, the crew chief and the agent were glued to the monitors as the raid was carried out. At the same time, the constant 25-30-knot wind died to 5-10 knots, and the aircraft began to lose altitude. About 20-30 seconds went by when the agent spoke up and said, “Hey, guys, does something feel funny to you?” The pilot on the controls immediately snapped his gaze from the monitor and transferred to the instruments. Being an experienced pilot, he realized what was happening, immediately lowered the collective and pushed the cyclic forward, and eventually gained enough airspeed to fly out of it. When it was all said and done, the aircraft had lost between 1,500 and 1,700 feet.
Thankfully, this incident did not end in tragedy, but several things could have been avoided or done differently. First, due to the abnormally hot day and having an oversized passenger, the crew knew weight was going to be an issue. Being at a public airport, not all civilian fuelers are familiar with fueling our aircraft. The crew chief or one of the pilots should have stayed with the fueler to ensure the aircraft was not topped off. Second, the pilots relied too much on the wind or didn’t account for the wind for an OGE hover when they didn’t have true OGE power. Third, the entire crew became fixated on watching the raid on the monitors. At least one person inside the aircraft should have been monitoring the instruments.
This aircrew was fortunate they started at 4,500 feet with sufficient altitude for recovery and were able to walk away with only a lesson learned. Had they started at 3,500 feet, it would have been a really uncomfortable event. At 2,500 feet, they might not have been able to recover.