A Creature of (Good) Habit
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 HANS JOHNSON
501st Military Intelligence Brigade
Camp Humphreys, South Korea
All aviators are familiar with the mission day duties from “show to go,” and most often execute them in robotic fashion. Flight plans, weather briefs, mission briefs/approvals, logbook and preflight — all are necessary things to get the aircraft in the air. We’re are creatures of habit, which I believe is a good thing as long as good habits are formed. It is when external influences break us of our habits that the simple things can be missed or even forgotten, and a mistake can turn into a problem the size of a mountain … literally.
After seven years of flying the H-60 Black Hawk, I transitioned to airplanes, starting with the De Havilland Dash 8 and currently the RC-12X Guardrail Common Sensor (GRCS) aircraft. During my career, I’ve tried to create good habits and hold myself to high levels of discipline with them. Even with all my good intentions, an oversight of one checklist item, an incorrectly set altimeter, was the slice of humble pie that served as a stark reminder that, “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” Have we built good habits and behaviors as a crew? Are you, an aviator, a creature of (good) habit?
After my assignment to the RC-12X GRCS, I had a rapid, but thorough, progression and was quickly sent to U.S. European Command to support Operation Atlantic Resolve. I looked forward to flying in Europe and the challenges it presented. One of the differences from flying in the national airspace system to flying overseas with International Civil Aviation Organization rules is when to change your altimeter from local setting to standard. Aviators in the U.S. are accustomed to switching to 29.92 in/Hg at FL180 both in the climb and descent. In much of Europe, the transition altitude (when to switch in the climb) and transition level (when to switch in the descent) are different altitudes, and much lower than FL180 (i.e., 5,000 feet and 6,500 feet). To make things more confusing, each aerodrome sets their own altitudes daily, so remembering a set of numbers is not practicable. To compound the mater, our particular airfield did not have radar available below 4,000 feet mean sea level (MSL).
One marginal weather day, I was assigned to a maintenance test flight (MTF). After checking weather, we decided we could accomplish the mission, but it may require us to adjust our routing as necessary for clouds. Our maneuvers required altitudes from 10,000 feet to FL270 and visual meteorological conditions (VMC).
Because of congested airspace and weather, the test flight was not normal by any stretch of the word, and we had many obstacles to overcome. We repositioned and changed altitude many times, and at all times, we were worried about crossing international borders. We used our checklists and all cockpit instruments to our advantage for completion of the MTF tasks and navigation.
After completing our check at our highest altitude of FL270, we descended to 10,000 feet to complete our last check. We completed the descent-arrival checklist, omitting the step for setting the altimeters because it did not yet apply, as we were above the transition level and would not be going below it. As a crew, we verbalized that we would get it on approach. After juggling many more requests from air traffic control (ATC) and completing our last checks, we needed to hurry to return to base before the restrictive airspace went active.
After putting the RNAV approach in the FMS and flying to the initial approach fix, the pace in the cockpit quickened and we encountered instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). As the checklist doesn’t call for an altimeter check after the descent-arrival, and it had been some time and several tasks later since the check, our altimeters were overlooked and never changed from standard to local settings.
We began the approach like normal, though hurried, and descended below radar coverage to the final approach fix (FAF). We were feeling good about ourselves and getting the mission accomplished through all the many challenges we had faced. Final approach fix inbound, the aircraft was configured and all checklist items completed — or so we thought. We broke out about 900 feet AGL on glidepath and we were 4 miles short of the runway with four red lights on the PAPI. It was instantly apparent we had the wrong altimeter setting.
We immediately leveled off with the runway in sight and continued the approach to landing. During the after-action review (AAR), we identified our oversight of the altimeter and the reason it was postponed during the descent-arrival checklist. Because we flew the approach using the GPS, the pseudo glidepath was centered and all indications looked correct when, in reality, we were about 250 feet below actual glidepath.
My crew was fortunate that the terrain surrounding the airfield was flat, no major obstacles were present between the FAF and the runway, and clouds were above minimums. A similar mistake at many other airfields could have resulted in a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) mishap with dire consequences. After years of safe flying, the omission of one thing could have ended everything.
In the ever-challenging environment of flying across the many mission sets required of Army aviators, it is imperative good habits and attitudes are created early and deliberately, solidifying the foundation of an aviator’s flight experiences. When the external influences seek to take priority from the essential, your good habits and discipline to them could save your life one day. Don’t let a mole hill mistake turn into the mountain you fly into.