Professionalism is a Must
RETIRED STAFF SGT. A.J. POWELL
Aviation is an inherently dangerous occupation that requires a dedicated team to accomplish the mission. Professionalism is a must. Throughout my military aviation career, I have encountered numerous close calls and a number of in-flight emergencies that I know kept my guardian angels busy. Every emergency is a humbling experience, and professionalism can keep us alive to fly another day. A clear example can be illustrated in a brief, real-life in-flight emergency I experienced on a cold day in Europe.
It was a brisk morning at the airfield. Spring had not yet fully arrived and in Germany's Rhine-Neckar Valley, the sun was not out at all, making it colder still. Needless to say, I had to bundle up. We had a 0600 show time for an instrument flight rules (IFR) mission that was to last all day. It was only a training flight, but with a good meal at our pit stop scheduled in Munich, I was eager to go.
During flight planning, we learned our IFR route would be covered mostly in thick clouds, which was normal for southern Germany during this time of year. We established a safe altitude, double-checked our frequencies and made sure to call ahead. The preflight inspection, engine run-up and takeoff were routine.
The crew consisted of me as a solo crew engineer, a senior standardization pilot (SP), and a very competent and seasoned pilot who had plenty of time in the airframe. I flew with this crew once before, and the SP had asked for me by name the week prior. Our aircraft for the day was a heavily modified UH-60A+ with distinguished visitor/VIP kit installed, external wings and drop-pod fuel tanks, an advanced electronics and communication suite and, best of all, a newer auxiliary cabin heating system. We were very heavy compared to the average UH-60, yet this was our normal ramp weight and we were used to it.
After about two hours of flying east at 8,000 feet mean sea level, we relaxed and chatted away about any subject that popped into our heads. We couldn't see the ground due to the clouds, the free air temperature gauges indicated low readings and there was a strong possibility of icing. Because of that, we turned up the heat in the cabin and turned on the de-icing equipment. "Nice and comfortable" always precedes when something bad is about to happen, right? Here’s what happened to us.
Without warning, one of the front windshield deice terminal blocks on the pilot’s side exploded and sent electrical sparks everywhere. It continued to fry itself for a few seconds, then caught fire as it melted off the glass and started to hang freely by a wire right in front of the pilot’s face. At the higher altitude, the flames grew large and very quickly due to the thinner atmosphere. I heard the pilot shouting as flames roared up into the canopy, blackening and warping the windshield structure. I immediately reached for the fire extinguisher. I knew it was meant for people only, but running on "situational reactive instincts" for a second, I intended to use it for this emergency.
"I have the controls,” the SP asserted. He radioed ahead to warn Munich air traffic control of our in-flight emergency. The radio frequency was changed to "emergency." The Munich crew advised us that the closest place we could land was Nuremberg, 20 minutes away. That is when the SP saw me holding the fire extinguisher.
"Hey, A.J., I don't think you should use that because it will fill the entire cabin and we won’t see a thing,” he said in a calm demeanor. The SP was right. The air in the cabin was thin at this altitude, allowing for very fast atmospheric equalizing. I changed my approach to the problem.
“Look, just take your glove off and cover the flame with it,” I told the pilot while putting down the extinguisher. “The glove is Nomex, so it should be fine." It worked and the flame was out, but the smoke was thick. We cracked the windows or vents to clear the air. Once we could see reasonably well out the windows again, the pilot said he was OK to take back the controls. This was a good thing because it left the SP and me free to navigate, communicate and work through future problems. After a bit of verbal reassurance, we confirmed that the pilot was capable of taking the controls and they were passed to him.
As we approached Nuremberg, all other air traffic was diverted or put into a holding pattern. For a helicopter crew, this is a rarity. For everyone else, I am sure it was painful because we do not travel as fast as they do. We landed without incident and were directed to the first taxiway off the ramp and into parking. Shutdown was quick just as emergency services had arrived, expecting to find a disastrous situation.
Phone calls were made and people gathered to ask us what had happened. The pilot later told me he thought I was ice-cold and emotionless, with a sense of calm during the whole ordeal. That both impressed and scared him. Little did he know that a million thoughts rushed through my head during the event as I poured through every possible emergency procedure, system and outcome. We were picked up several hours later. The aircraft was left in the hangar overnight to be repaired with a new windshield and terminal the next day.
While in the car, I reflected on what happened and realized that everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do without hesitation. The pilot in command (the SP) took the controls for the moment, radioed the emergency, changed our navigation signals to reflect our situation and guided us safely to the airfield. The pilot, just as it was discussed in the preflight crew mission briefing, passed off the controls, handled the emergency that needed immediate addressing (even with a giant ball of fire burning in front of his face), received the controls and focused on flying the aircraft. I made radio calls, assessed the situation, devised a plan to put out the flame and provide for crew safety, and began troubleshooting other possible system issues to help bring the aircraft down safely. No one really freaked out, but, instead, flipped right over to expert. It took me time to realize it later, but the aviators whom I worked with were some of the most professional people I have ever known. The cause of the event? The terminal block turned out to be faulty.
Further reflecting on this incident opened my eyes to the many other facets of the aviation world since real-life emergencies happen and we read about them in safety magazines and aviation publications such as Risk Management and Flightfax. It takes a team of professionals, in every field, to make safety happen and get the job done. To provide one example, look at the air traffic controllers who guided us down that day. Just how stressful was their job? They already had to deal with a ton of IFR and visual flight rules traffic in their airspace. Suddenly, they had to direct a military helicopter that was restricted to certain altitudes because of weather. They had to divert or initiate holdings on other aircraft that were planning to land. They had to file reports, pass off information, make phone calls and worry about more lives than they could count. Although this example doesn’t match the level of excitement flying in combat that many of us have lived through, it still highlights the point that professionalism in aviation touches all of us.