Comfort Breeds Complacency
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 NICK GLEIM
Company C, 1st Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment
Washington Army National Guard
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
My unit had been fighting fires with as many as five other crews at once for a little over a month when the following incident happened. During this time, many of us had logged between 50 and 70 hours on the fires, which is an extremely intense environment for all crewmembers. The more we flew, the more familiar we became with our crews and the mission in general. We knew what we had to do and began to value speedy response times more and more as the operations continued. As our comfort grew, so did our complacency.
The typical routine was to preflight the aircraft and then head to the morning interagency briefing for the latest information and learn the planned operations for the day. After the briefing, we’d fire up the aircraft to complete the preflight items and engine power assurance checks. We would also conduct the cargo hook check and a functional check of the water buckets.
One day, a request for a bucket mission came in during the morning briefing, which was unusual since the fire typically gains momentum as the ambient temperature rises around noon. We were quick to get to our aircraft and launch. Because we were in a hurry, we failed to conduct the cargo hook check. We also forgot to arm the hook for use below 300 feet above ground level (AGL) as specified in the aircrew training manual.
Due to extremely low visibility during the mission, we chose to conduct a recon of the drop site before getting our first load of water. We wanted to be as light as possible in case the terrain wasn’t what we expected. While flying up the mountain, we realized we should have rearmed the hook passing below 300 feet AGL and I did so as the pilot not on the controls. When I did, the hook opened and the bucket fell among some burned-out trees. We landed on a cool patch of ground in the black and the crew chiefs hiked over to assess the condition of the bucket. It was damaged and we would be unable to evacuate it without more crewmembers to load the helicopter.
We troubleshot the situation back at the helicopter base and found that dust had jammed the pilot’s side cargo release switch in the release position, which caused the hook to open when I moved the SAFE/ARMED switch to ARMED. This would have been caught during the cargo hook check, had we performed it. The end result was a damaged but repairable bucket and lessons learned for us about being in a hurry. Take the time to do what you know needs to be checked in your preflight — all of it.