CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 BRIAN LANE
B Troop, 6th Battalion, 17th Cavalry Regiment
Fort Wainwright, Alaska
During a night vision goggle (NVG) flight 20 miles south of Camp Humphreys, South Korea, another pilot in command and I were working on terrain flight tasks at landing zone (LZ) Elbow. The LZ was bordered on the south and west sides by water that had frozen over in the cold. On the north side of the LZ were east/west power lines about 150 feet tall. This was one of the only LZs you could practice terrain flight takeoffs and approaches to the ground.
The weather brief for the flight was broken clouds at 3,000 feet with three miles of visibility. Winds were light and variable. About 4 to 5 inches of snow had accumulated on the LZ and frozen water, so our first approach terminated in a hover at 3 feet altitude to test whether we would have whiteout conditions during landing. The pilot and I thought we could see where the LZ met the water, and the snow was wet and heavy enough that we wouldn’t have any whiteout problems.
We took off and decided that for the second approach we would land to the surface. As we landed, the pilot on the controls gradually put weight on the skids, which was followed by a sudden drop on the left side of the aircraft. Looking to the left, I could see the skid had broken through the ice and was underwater. The pilot, still in control of the helicopter, smoothly increased power and picked back up to a 3-foot hover. We then returned to base and had maintenance conduct a visual inspection on the landing gear for any damage. Fortunately, none was found.
So what happened? We were overconfident in our knowledge of the LZ and landed too far on the south side with the left skid on the ice. At night, the LZ covered with fresh snow, and under NVGs, was deceiving. The edge of the LZ meshed perfectly with the ice-covered water.
In hindsight, we should have inspected the LZ more closely and used the white light on the first approach to ensure there were no new obstructions and confirm the edge of LZ Elbow. The only reason we didn’t have a dynamic rollover on the second approach was the fact that the pilot on the controls had treated the landing as a slope landing, gradually reducing power, and was able to quickly recover and pick up to a hover.
“Every landing is a slope landing” was always preached to me during flight school and progression to Readiness Level 1. Now, instead of just doing it because I was told to, I believe in it from experience. We continued to use LZ Elbow for terrain flight training; but after fresh snow, we conducted thorough recons in daylight prior to using it for landing at night. And, of course, we treated every landing like a slope landing.