It’s Not Your Fault But it is Your Responsibility
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 JOHN VANDENBRINK
4th Combat Aviation Brigade,
6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment Fort Carson, Colorado
The Soldiers at Fort Carson, Colorado, have a motto they like to live by: Mountain Post Living. It’s a phrase that gets thrown around in jest frequently, but the idea is there is a standing order from the post commanding general that on the last day of the work week, everyone that can should be leaving work at 1500. While it is a great boost to morale, everyone comes to work on the last day ready to leave early.
Two units on Fort Carson were forced to share a hangar while new facilities were built. This forced them to leave most of their respective aircraft out on the flight line and only bring in the helicopters that needed to be inside for maintenance. Ultimately, this led to both units never having to dense pack the helicopters.
The two units were in the same hangar for over two years. During this time, I never saw anyone have to move more than one helicopter at a time in or out of the hangar. And what happens to any skill or action if you don’t do it for a long time? Those skills atrophy. Sometimes, it’s immediately apparent to everyone, so it might not take a skilled eye to see a task is not being performed to standard. This was not one of those scenarios.
The two units had forgone the mass ground handling of helicopters for a long time. It didn’t matter if it was going to hail or snow; those helicopters were going to stay outside. We’d just cover them up, tie them down and hope for the best. That was just the way things were, all the while the considerable teamwork and skills required to move 24 helicopters was deteriorating silently. Once the new hangar was built, one unit moved out and the other was able to occupy the old building on its own. This is where issues started coming together.
It was a Thursday before a holiday weekend — Mountain Post Living time! A lot of the helicopters were already in the hangar, but the command team wanted to do a squadron-wide brief ahead of the last long weekend before the unit was off to the National Training Center. The crew chiefs pulled many of the helicopters outside for the brief as 1500 approached and get-home-itis was creeping up on everyone.
Once the brief was complete, everyone rushed to put the aircraft back into the hangar. Not surprisingly, I received a call from my commander about 1520. “We’ve run two of our helicopters into each other,” he said. I immediately turned my car around and headed back to the hangar. There, I saw one aircraft’s blade had penetrated the vertical stabilizer of another that was already in the hangar.
This accident obviously wasn’t a tragedy. There was no loss of life, limb or eyesight, but the factors that led to it can be extrapolated and applied to future operations. I’m not advocating we put an end to Mountain Post Living. We need to learn from this event that “get-home-it is” is real and doesn’t just happen on cross-country flights or at the end of a long mission. It can happen any time. We must work on recognizing the signs and manage them.
We can also acknowledge that the unit didn’t intentionally decide to not hangar aircraft frequently for the better part of three years; but we should have foreseen potential friction points. It’s possible that some new crew chief at the unit might not have had much practice dense packing aircraft in a tight hangar and all the tips and tricks that go with making it happen smoothly.
Any time an accident or near miss occurs, we should look at it as a chance to learn something. What do we take from this incident? Be more careful when moving helicopters? Move the timing of briefs so they don’t double the work for people right before the weekend? Yes, those are both good options, but I propose we look a little deeper into the issue. Sometimes, things in our world seem like they have been there forever, as if they are woven into the very fabric of the culture or environment. Those things might be passively imposing risk factors on you or your unit. I challenge everyone to acknowledge the existence of these risk factors and anticipate their effects. At the end of the day, it might not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.