CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 BRENT BACHMAN
Author’s note: To ensure this article receives maximum exposure, it contains no actual operating post call signs or crewmember names. As such, I will call the OP the crew was tasked to resupply “Big Apple.” It’s on a cliff face, about 4,000 feet off the valley floor. Big Apple is typically manned by a small Army element and was notorious for being littered with trash.
It was just another night mission in Afghanistan. The aircrew was tasked with a sling load resupply in the Kunar Valley. This meant business as usual for our Chinook detachment, which typically completed this mission three nights a week. However, as we would find out, the events that transpired on this mission were far from typical.
Our company commander raised his concerns about the litter at Big Apple to the squadron commander; however, it is hard to affect change without threatening to cancel missions. That was not deemed necessary because “nothing had happened yet” — a flawed logic, especially when flying missions in a combat theater. So the mission continued and only minimal hazard controls could be put in place by our aircrews. It turned out to be a recipe for a potential disaster.
Because of its location, Big Apple was to be the last sling load resupply of the night, and that was yet another contributing factor. As we approached the small drop zone (DZ) with our external load, all members of the crew visually and verbally identified the blowing sand and debris. The crewmember monitoring the load had the DZ in sight and was slowly calling the pilots forward.
Just as we crossed the protective barriers — BOOM! — the entire helicopter shook violently. The unsecured crewmember monitoring the load was thrown to the side of the airframe. Our flight engineer shouted, “We’re hit, put it down, put it down,” an intense task for the pilot on the controls given the DZ location.
The pilot in command was on the controls at the time of the incident. He was an experienced aviator and as ready as anyone could have been for this contingency. As the aircraft swung 180 degrees while drifting toward the landing area, the co-pilot began to start the auxiliary power unit to facilitate an immediate shutdown. Fortunately, the ground forces realized the aircraft was dealing with an emergency situation and cleared the landing area. Our aircraft touched down with a thud and the engines were shut down in seconds.
So what was the culprit? An unsecured generator tarp and debris on the ground had flown through the aircraft’s tandem rotor system. The aircrew was very fortunate to still be alive. Luckily, there was no damage to the rotor blades and the aircrew was able to self-extract once approval was given.
Needless to say, Big Apple and all of the other OPs under the control of that ground force were litter-free during the next mission. But it was too little, too late. What had been a series of near misses turned into an incident and impacted our unit’s operational trust of other units.