Defeating the Vortex Ring State
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
The UH-60 Black Hawk is an integral part of the Army's aviation fleet, providing essential support for a range of military operations. Like any aircraft, however, it is subject to inherent risks, and maintaining safety is paramount. A few years ago, as part of a Black Hawk crew, we encountered a close-call incident while conducting a routine training flight. We were returning to base when we experienced a phenomenon known as settling with power or the vortex ring state. This occurs when a helicopter descends too quickly and loses lift from the rotor blades.
The pilot in command (PC) had just recently gained his status and was on the sixth hour of a day flight that was split between two pilots. I was the second pilot and had switched out with my counterpart at the three-hour mark. I noticed throughout his portion of the flight that this 500-hour PC was becoming fatigued, forgetting to make some calls and falling behind the aircraft, but nothing jumped out as unsafe. I assumed he was testing me to see if I would notice.
Once training was completed and we were coming in to land at the forward arming and refueling point (FARP), I realized we were making a much steeper and faster descent than what is considered a normal visual flight rules approach. Within 200 feet above ground level, I announced we were coming in too fast and steep, but the PC continued with the approach, stating, “I’ve got it.” As he tried to arrest our descent, the aircraft began settling with power and a falling sensation was present. The situation escalated quickly, and I realized we were in danger of crashing.
Just as I began tensing my body for a crash, I felt the aircraft swiftly jolt forward with enough airspeed to get us out of settling in our own downwash. The fatigued PC, who’d just put us in a dangerous descent, was able to act in a timely manner to save us from a nearly inevitable impact. We conducted a go-around and came back into the FARP with a much safer and slower approach. After refueling, we returned to parking. The crew then talked about our close call during an after-action review. We also brought up the incident with our company standardization pilot.
To prevent similar incidents in the future, the standards and safety department took a number of actions. Our crew underwent additional training on identifying and responding to settling with power, and communication protocols were reinforced to prevent a breakdown in coordination. I put together and taught a class about settling with power and further developed my understanding of the situation. The aviation community also emphasizes the importance of following standard procedures and communicating effectively during flight operations.
This incident served as a powerful reminder of the importance of constant vigilance and adherence to standard procedures in Army aviation. The UH-60 is a powerful and complex machine that requires meticulous attention to detail from every crewmember. The Army aviation community must continue to prioritize safety and training to ensure incidents like this do not occur again.
This was the closest call I’d ever experienced in an aircraft, and I’ve taken these lessons learned to heart. Not only do I keep my aircraft out of this type of situation, I also convey to each pilot I fly with the importance of a safe landing attitude. If at any point I feel the aircraft is in an unsafe situation, I call for a go-around. If left unchallenged, I’ll take swift action to ensure the safety and positive crew coordination for our aircrew.
Going forward, the Army will continue to emphasize the importance of communication, coordination and adherence to standard procedures in aviation. Settling with power is a dangerous phenomenon that requires quick thinking and clear communication between crewmembers. By learning from this incident and implementing the necessary training and protocols, we can minimize the risk of similar incidents and continue to fulfill this aircraft’s critical mission.