Bridging the Gaps
MAJ. BRIAN KELLY
Tennessee Army National Guard Training Site Command
Volunteer Training Site – Smyrna
I was a motivated recent graduate of flight school and, like most aviators, eager to gain experience. I progressed through our training quickly to become fully mission capable and flew enough hours to eventually receive my first real job: I would be flying helicopters over the Gulf of Mexico for a Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 operator.
Flying offshore can be dangerous, and I heard horror stories from folks I knew who’d done the job. They shared tales of helicopters being blown off platforms and pilots having to perform emergency landings “in the drink.” Everyone had a word of caution for me, which naturally made me a little worried about performing the job safely. Nevertheless, I finished training and was assigned a contract that all of the company’s junior pilots received first.
This contract’s helicopter required more skill to fly since it was the most power-limited, combined with various other factors. Coincidentally, this was the same airframe that resulted in numerous fatal accidents and led the Army to discover the loss of tail rotor effectiveness phenomenon. This contract was also known for its pushy customers, who tried to persuade pilots to get the mission accomplished at all costs. Ultimately, this led to some poor decision-making on my part.
It was a normal, gray winter morning that started with a safety brief at 0530 before pre-flighting the aircraft and launching at first light. A weather system had been sitting over the gulf for a few days, resulting in low ceilings and visibility. Going into the morning’s meeting, I was confident we wouldn’t be able to fly until after lunch at the earliest — as our offshore minimums were a 500-foot ceiling with 3 miles of visibility. I checked the weather offshore at the few reporting points and conditions were bordering on legal. The customers knew what was legal and would push pilots to fly even when they weren’t comfortable with it. I informed the customers that we needed to wait. They didn’t agree and, with the help of my management, outvoted me.
The platform we were flying to was 20 miles offshore. That was better than the one 120 miles out and helped make the decision to fly a little easier. I launched with the customers onboard and beached out at the jetty, knowing I would have to turn around eventually. I was about 400 feet in altitude and slowly making my way while examining the weather ahead. I was just about to tell the customers we were returning to base when we punched into a layer of fog.
The Army treats inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) as an emergency. Studies show that 80 percent of your equilibrium comes from vision. Once you’re in the clouds without visual reference, you must rely on instruments and other systems to fly the aircraft. In that situation, the first 30 seconds will define whether you live or die.
The shortened version of the Army procedure for recovery is to climb to a safe altitude, commit to instruments and fly to the nearest airport to recover via instrument approach. We had a different procedure offshore because we could potentially be too far from land to make it to an airport. I was taught by some very experienced offshore instructors to slow and come down in altitude to try and get out of the clouds. If that didn’t work, you would turn around and go where you knew it was clear. If all else failed, pop the floats and put the aircraft in the water.
After I watched the Gulf of Mexico disappear through the chin bubble, I transitioned to instruments and regained my composure. I knew what to do, but I had to perform it flawlessly. I managed to turn around and head north toward the beach while maintaining control of the helicopter. Once I reached the beach, I followed a road that led to the base and landed safely. The whole time this was happening, the customers were climbing out of their seats like a driver’s education teacher stepping on that extra brake installed on the passenger’s side of a vehicle. They were scared to death when they got off the helicopter. I was, too, once I was able to process the event.
In safety, we learn about the Swiss cheese model and how it leads to mishaps. That day, all of the holes aligned for me to potentially have an accident. While I didn’t have the experience at the time, I leaned on my training and accomplished the mission, which was recovery. While my previous experience wasn’t in IIMC scenarios, it was at least in the aircraft I was flying. Through proper training, we can mitigate unnecessary risks like these and bridge the gaps where decisions are made in the absence of experience.