The Importance of Having an Out
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 DALE FOERSCHLER
3-238 General Support Aviation Brigade
Michigan Army National Guard
Grand Ledge, Michigan
I was a new warrant officer just out of flight school who was eager to learn to fly, so I volunteered for a mission with a first lieutenant. Our mission was to support our state’s anti-drug division, which later became nationally known as the RAID program. The concept of the operation was to fly a local drug enforcement team in a UH-1H to look for marijuana. Our area of responsibility was the state of Nevada. It was during this six-month period that I learned more about flying than I did the rest of my career.
One of the missions was in the mountains just south and west of Las Vegas in the Red Rock National Forest, where there had been reports of marijuana being grown. We took seven investigators to scout the area. On this day alone, I learned two important lessons about power management.
The first lesson happened in the morning as we were following a water line into the mountains. Everyone’s attention was outside, watching a water line that led up a series of valleys into mountainous terrain. As we flew up the mountain passes, we inadvertently flew into a high box canyon. Suddenly, we didn’t have power to continue forward. There was no place to land, and we didn’t have any altitude to turn around. Basically, we had flown into a trap and were out of options.
The only way out was behind us, so I started a turn to the right while trading off precious airspeed for a little altitude. As I finished the turn, I started a slow acceleration, which in turn started a descent, and I was at max power and had no more options left.
The terrain in front of us was rising and we could not get the helicopter to climb, so I tried to increase the collective, which only caused the low-rotor horn to sound. I was getting ready for the impact when, amazingly, we started to ascend because we had finally gotten above effective translational lift and barely cleared the terrain. The lieutenant, who was also the pilot in command, looked at me and said with a nervous laugh, “I was going to take the controls, but I couldn’t think of anything better to do and thought it would be better if you crashed instead of me.”
The second lesson occurred later that day. Once again, we followed a water line that eventually led to an area where a few marijuana plants were growing. The agents wanted to check them out. We tried landing in the immediate area, but there was no good area close to the plants. We decided to put a skid on the slope and let the agents out one by one. While they were looking around, we would orbit until they were ready for pickup. The first part of the plan went flawlessly, and all the agents left the helicopter without incident. It was not until the pickup that things went awry.
Unlike when we let them off, they all tried to get back into the helicopter at the same time. This caused a sudden need for power, resulting in a momentary drooping of the rotor. Upon hearing the horn and feeling the helicopter tilt, I decided to take off, which was a good decision except there was one agent half in and half out of the aircraft. As we lifted off, he grabbed the bottom of the seat while the rest of him dangled outside the helicopter. Fortunately, he was able to hold on until we found a clear area to land and let him get into a seat.
On that day, we got lucky in not having an aircraft accident — or seriously hurting someone. I learned the importance of power management. Even though we had calculated our performance planning just as we had been taught in flight school, I didn’t have the experience to truly apply it in flight. Now, whenever I teach flying techniques in mountainous terrain, I always emphasize the importance of having an “out” at your disposal, whether it is airspeed or altitude.