Against the Odds
CAPT. WENDY REED
Arizona Army National Guard
The day started like any other on quick-reaction force duty. We had just completed preflighting our aircraft when the call came in. It was a 9-line medevac chase for an urgent pickup of wounded enemy prisoners of war (EPW). This was just another day of escorting medevac birds across Afghanistan.
We were off the ground in less than 10 minutes. It was a 45-minute flight to the forward operating base (FOB) holding an EPW patient. We made our way through mountain passes to the patient’s location without incident. We had just picked up our first patient when we received a second 9-line for an additional EPW at a FOB about 30 minutes from our home base. Not a problem. We swung by and picked up the second patient and headed home.
We were 12 nautical miles from FOB Salerno, descending out of the mountains and into the Khowst bowl. Our airspeed was at a typical AH-64D sprint — somewhere between 120 and 130 knots true airspeed (KTAS). We were following our medevac brothers when we heard a loud “WHAM!” and the aircraft yawed hard right and began slipping left. It initially felt as though we had hit severe turbulence, but the aircraft attitude didn’t correct itself, despite the application of full left pedal. It was a dead giveaway that we had a tail rotor malfunction of some kind. The pilot in command calmly told me, “Hold what you got. The aircraft is still flying.”
We called the medevac bird and asked them to look at our tail and find out what was going on back there. Knowing we had a tail rotor malfunction to contend with, we pulled out the checklist and began reading through the emergency procedures (EP) for “Loss of Tail Rotor Thrust in Cruise Flight — Continued Flight Possible.”
The medevac UH-60 reported the unthinkable — the tail rotor was completely missing, as well as half of our horizontal stabilator. This wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear; however, it didn’t change the fact we had to deal with the following EPs:
- Airspeed: A minimum of 90 KTAS (until 10 to 20 feet above touchdown). Not a problem. We were maintaining about 100 to 110 KTAS without descending. We could make it back to FOB Salerno as long as we held what we had.
- Wing Stores: Jettison as appropriate. Did we want to jettison? No — there wasn’t any need for discussion. Once again, we decided to hold what we had because it was working for us. Everything was controlled at this point; punching off our left and/or right rocket pods was an unknown. The aircraft’s right yaw was uncomfortable but controllable.
- Power Levers: Retard as necessary (5 to 10 feet above touchdown). The back-seater would remain on the controls throughout the approach while the front-seater assisted by manipulating the power levers. As we neared 5 to 10 feet above ground during our approach, the aircraft started turning right, so we began pulling back the power levers as necessary to maintain lane alignment.
The odds were against us, but neither of us said anything. We locked our shoulder harnesses and lowered the seat in the front cockpit, knowing the main rotor had a tendency to violate the front seater’s headspace during a crash sequence.
We approached FOB Salerno on an extended final for Runway 90. As we made our approach, we experimented with the power settings to determine which one would give us the right airspeed, rate of descent and, most importantly, keep us properly aligned in our lane. While we were looking pretty good on lane alignment, we were going to land long if we committed to the approach on our first attempt. Since you only get one chance, it’s best to set yourself up for success. We were still flying, so we didn’t need to rush the landing. We decided to do a go-around.
The go-around was the worst part of the flight. Up to that point, the flight had been basically straight and level. We now had added two right turns to the day’s excitement, maintaining our airspeed and rehearsing the landing on the downwind leg. The aircraft rolled left as we made wide right-hand turns, and we were once again on an extended final for Runway 90. As we began our approach, things were lined up nicely for a landing well within the first third of the runway. We were coming in fast, maintaining the EP minimum of 90 KTAS until 10 to 20 feet above touchdown. As we neared the ground, the aircraft lost lane alignment and began turning right. We pulled the power levers back and heard a “Rotor RPM Low” warning.
We landed hot — somewhere between 80 and 90 KTAS — perfectly aligned in our lane. Once on the ground, we applied full aft cyclic in an attempt to slow the aircraft. We veered off to the right again, so we pulled the power levers back to the idle stop and then completely off. The aircraft then veered left about 30 degrees, heading toward a ditch on the runway edge. The only way we could control the aircraft heading was applying counterpressure on the brakes — which seemed to have little effect as we barreled toward the ditch. The thought ran through my head: “We have just landed this thing and now we’re going to roll it over in a ditch!”
We hit the ditch and rolled left, but then corrected back upright and to the right. The aircraft then leaned right but corrected back to a nice, upright position. The rocket pods we’d decided not to jettison had kept us from rolling over — potentially saving our lives. The ride of a lifetime ended just short of a fixed-wing aircraft parked off the runway’s edge.