Luck-Plain and Simple
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
While deployed to an Eastern European country as a chief warrant officer three, I was a maintenance test pilot assigned to a UH-60L air assault company. My unit was more than halfway through our deployment with no major aircraft mishaps. Well, at least none yet.
I started my duty day late in the afternoon with the intent of flying a night vision goggle (NVG) currency mission later that evening. I was in the flight operations office reviewing the mission and maintenance status boards to determine what needed my attention to support the night’s missions. Seeing no major issues, I went about planning my own mission while the other night crews planned theirs.
A short time later, one of the pilots in command (PC) approached me regarding a two-ship air assault mission scheduled for that night. He asked if I was available to fill in for his pilot (PI) if he was unable to perform the mission. I told him I was available, and since it would meet my currency requirements, it was all the better. The PC replied he would let me know. The afternoon progressed and I heard nothing, so I continued planning my own mission.
The PC informed me later that evening I was needed for the air assault mission. Now I had to jump through my butt because the takeoff for the assault mission was rapidly approaching. The mission briefs were changed to reflect the correct crews; however, the PC already conducted the detailed crew brief and there wasn’t time to get me up-to-speed on what the mission entailed. The PC of my aircraft said it was an easy mission and all we had to do was follow lead. I knew better, but I went with the flow. That was mistake No. 1.
We found no issues during our preflight. It was during our run-up checks that the first issue surfaced. Our NVG searchlight would only extend about 45 degrees. It swiveled fully left and right and turned on and off, but it just wouldn’t fully extend. After a brief discussion of the meaning of an “operational” searchlight in Army Regulation 95-1, we decided it was sufficient for our mission. Mistake No. 2.
The rest of the run-up, linkup and pickup of our passengers went off without a hitch. So, off we went into the inky blackness of the mountains with me on the controls to drop off 22 infantrymen on some dark ridgeline. I knew nothing about the route or the location. Mistake No. 3.
The flight to the mountains was also uneventful. I was flying and my PC was comfortably watching the world go by. I continued fiddling with the searchlight, hoping that just one more cycle of the switch would free the stuck light and provide enough illumination for my totally dark environment. Instead, all I had was the 30 to 40 degree illumination under and slightly forward of the nose. Also during this flight, I was applying a technique I had subconsciously learned of flying higher than lead. I believed that as long as I was above and behind the lead aircraft, I wouldn’t hit any unnoticed wires that might be along the route of flight. Mistake No. 4. Never mind that we had an updated hazards map onboard, and flying the specified route would have eliminated that hazard.
We entered the mountain range in a valley and flew up it at about 100 knots indicated airspeed. I clearly saw the lead ship navigating up the valley, probably 100 to 200 feet below me and 10 rotor disks ahead, with an infrared (IR) searchlight illuminating its pathway. This is where the fun began.
For whatever reason, I pushed the IR searchlight button one more time to attempt to see in front of me. Lo and behold, what did I see? Three sets of large wires spread evenly and neatly dead center in front of our windshield! I reacted instinctively, yelling, “Wires!” across the internal communication system (ICS). I then yanked all the collective I could pull, applied aft cyclic and mentally prepared for impact. The engines screamed in rapid response and the rotor held its 100 percent RPM, but I just knew it was too late. Suddenly, a thought flashed through my mind of what our sleepy passengers were thinking in the back, oblivious to what I had just yelled across the ICS and what was about to happen to us.
I knew I had reacted soon enough to avert a full head-on strike, but I was also dreadfully aware it would be a miracle if the tail section or tail landing gear didn’t snag those wires. After a few terrifying seconds, nothing happened. The PC was pulling himself together, asking what had just happened, so I told him. He never saw the wires. We continued flying, discussing the last few moments with the lead aircraft, and soon realized that they did not see the wires either and actually flew just under them, never realizing it. My technique of flying above lead to avoid wires had put my aircraft at risk.
We all took a deep breath, continued the mission and dropped off our passengers at the designated landing zone without further incident. We flew back to base, shut down and pulled out the maps of the section where the incident occurred. We immediately realized that not only had lead flown under the wires, but they were plainly marked on my PC’s and the lead ship’s hazard maps. Talk about complacency, overconfidence and a lack of discipline that created a chain of events that nearly led to disaster.
In this case, the result wasn’t a mishap. Nevertheless, it wasn’t due to any planning on our part either. We were just lucky, plain and simple. The dice were rolled and we came out on top. Why I just happened to turn on the searchlight moments before a potential impact can only be answered by the big overwatch guy in the sky. Needless to say, we changed our ways.