A Near Canopy Catastrophe
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 EDWARD SMITH
C Troop, 3rd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment (Heavy Cav)
1st Combat Aviation Brigade
Fort Bliss, Texas
Army aviation — a world of checklists, acronyms, crew coordination and more checklists. We have multiple documents that instruct us step-by-step on how to start an engine. We also have regulations that tell us we have to follow them. It is so ingrained in aviators that following proper checklist procedures is important that we often find ourselves double- and triple-checking steps that have already been completed and verified by both crewmembers. Still, the checklist can’t cover everything. There are some tasks we must accomplish that tend to fall more on common sense. Sadly, many times these are the tasks that result in Class A, B and C mishaps. A few years ago, I found myself making the statement, “I wish I would have double-checked that.”
Our flight was a standard two-ship, deep-attack training mission. We launched from Camp Humphreys, South Korea, and conducted a deep attack just to the north of Camp Carroll. Aside from an intermittent issue with my gunner’s helmet avionics harness, the mission went as planned and we proceeded to Camp Walker to refuel.
We arrived about 20 minutes later than originally planned. The operations officer informed me after we landed that we wouldn’t have a lot of time on the ground. A flight of four other AH-64Ds was en route and needed the parking area. Camp Walker allows for cold refueling only, so the aircraft needed to be completely restarted before we could depart.
Now the stage was set. We were already running short on time, and, as we were expediting our through-flight, we discovered my gunner was unable to boresight his helmet and his symbology was going in and out. Fortunately for us, there were four crew chiefs and an armament technician from one of our sister companies sitting right next to flight operations. They immediately came over and began assisting with the troubleshooting. After only 10 minutes, they had it figured out and we were set to crank.
Up to this point, we had followed every step in the checklist and every standard in our safety SOP. The crew chief verified with me that we were ready for engine start and then announced he was going to close my canopy. I was moving pretty quickly through the checklist so I could get the engines cranked and get off the ground. I watched him close the canopy and rotate the handle. I reached down and touched the handle and it felt secure; thus, I completed that step in the checklist. Within five minutes, we had the engines up and ready for flight and I informed my wingman we were on the go.
Soon after departure from Camp Walker, my wingman called and pointed out the flight of four AH-64s to our front. I contacted their flight on the radio and informed them we would climb to 2,000 feet above ground level (1,000 feet above the prescribed departure altitude) and allow them to enter the pattern. After safely passing them, I called air traffic control and began my descent back down to visual flight rules altitude.
No more than 10 seconds after beginning my descent, I saw in my peripheral vision my canopy door started to move outward. By the time I recognized what was happening, it was already too late. My canopy abruptly slammed into the full open position. Miraculously, the flimsy shock managed to hold the door to the aircraft rather than allowing it to enter the rotor system. I screamed for my gunner to take the controls and rapidly decelerate the aircraft. Altogether, the entire mishap lasted no more than a minute from the time the canopy ripped open to the time I secured it.
After landing, shutting down and inspecting the door hinges, I determined I would be able to return to Camp Humphreys. The entire way back I remember sitting there in disbelief, thinking about what had just happened. Of all of the steps in the checklist, how did I manage to not verify the canopy was secure? We were traveling at 120 knots true airspeed and descending at 600-700 feet per minute when the canopy opened. It probably goes without saying that I now triple-check the canopy handle before takeoff.