Maneuver Center of Excellence Safety Office
Fort Benning, Georgia
It was October and our UH-60 flight crew had a mission to fly from Croatia to our higher command base in Bosnia for the pilots to attend a briefing. The flight was one of many we took to Bosnia, but this time was different because it was snowing. Little did I know what was in store for us.
The day began normally as we went through the checklist. The pilot in command (PC) briefed about the snow in the weather forecast, and I pre-flighted the helicopter, loaded the equipment and made sure everything was in place. We then geared up and started our normal before-takeoff routine. Once we were in the air, the snow wasn’t too bad. Although we could’ve taken many different routes, the one that is most important in weather is the “bad-weather” route. We went the normal route.
The flight normally took 15 minutes when it was clear, blue and 22. (For non-aviators, that’s basically a nice, sunny day.) As we started out, we were lighthearted, joking and talking about how we needed to beat the weather coming back. Once we landed in Bosnia, the pilots left for their briefing and I started maintenance on the helicopter. Our crew had a plan that when the pilots were done with their brief, I’d be done with maintenance.
While conducting maintenance, I noticed the snow was falling hard. I glanced toward the bad-weather route and it didn’t look good at all. I checked my watch periodically and looked at the sky to see if the weather was going to cooperate with us. At times it would get bad and then let up. I thought it was going to be luck of the draw when we could take off.
After I was done with maintenance, I got off the helicopter as one of my pilots met me to discuss an issue. He told me our PC was checking weather and that a sergeant needed her bags loaded on the aircraft because she was returning from emergency leave and heading back to base with us.
I loaded the sergeant’s bags and briefed her. The pilots then came out and said the weather was not the best; however, as a team, we decided we could fly the low-weather route and be fine. The pilots briefed the return flight. It was a standard brief, just with snow added to it.
We took off and started flying toward the bad-weather route when a big gush of snow plowed into us. We slowed down and discussed our options of flying back to home station or staying in Bosnia. We decided we didn’t want to stay in Bosnia; we wanted to go home.
For the past six months, we’d had the same crew. My forward support team leader was great as our commander. We all knew each other well, worked together as a professional, well-organized team, and had about 250 mishap-free flight hours. For that reason, we started down the low-weather route.
We soon realized this wasn’t going to be the normal 15-minute flight. As we chugged along, the weather got worse. One of the pilots up front said he couldn’t see the ground. The other pilot and I quickly picked up our scan and replied we could see it. About 45 minutes went by flying like this. We finally got a little bit of a break with the snow, but that only lasted about 20 minutes before we were back into the thick of it.
During this entire time, the crew talked about what to do if there was an emergency, whiteout or other various problems that could happen. As I scanned my area, I could see houses about 50 feet below us — backyards, parked cars and animals. Suddenly, both pilots said they couldn’t see the ground. My heart pounded and I replied with, “I’ve got the ground! I can see the ground!” Now I knew we were in for a long flight.
As we continued along, one of the pilots and the navigator kept us on track and somehow knew our location on the map. Every 10 minutes that went by for the next hour and a half, one of us, or two at times, would say we couldn’t see the ground. To say the least, it was very tiring and stressful.
Once we were about 10 miles out from our base in Croatia, we thought we were home-free. Unfortunately, we were counting our chickens before they hatched. Right in front of us stood 100-foot power lines. The PC’s plan was to hover up and see if we could cross the power lines. However, as we ascended, we quickly realized that was not going to happen, so we descended and settled on the ground. This was the first time we were able to land because in the Balkans, there were landmine threats, so we were briefed to only land in plowed fields.
We pondered for a while on how we were getting across the power lines until one of the pilots suggested landing in someone’s backyard and taxiing underneath them. Again, we briefed our plan and moved into action. As we taxied under the lines, a family came out and watched us from their back porch. Once we made it through, we picked up and flew back to base. A “normal” flight of 15 minutes had taken us two and a half hours.
Once we shut down the aircraft and took off our flight gear, we conducted an after-action review. We all knew that we didn’t do what was best for the crew. Our wanting to get home overran our rationale and safety thinking.
There are a lot of things we as a crew could have done differently. I believe the most important thing we did right was we kept talking and monitoring each other. We discussed and analyzed all actions as a crew as we planned and executed this mission. Crew coordination saved our lives that day.
Although we didn’t do everything right, we knew our pilots would get us home safely. Both were experienced and one was the forward support team lead for our area, so we were confident. But were we overconfident? As our flight got longer and longer, we thought we’d never get back to base. I’ll let you decide for yourselves what you would have done in this scenario. We learned a lot from this. I’m just happy it worked out the way it did.