PAUL G. CARDENAS
It was a Wednesday evening and I was sitting down for dinner while on temporary duty at the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. Everything was going fine until my cellphone rang. We had just had an accident on the flight line. One of our pilots partially degloved his finger as he was stepping down from the cockpit of a UH-60 and the medics were taking him to the hospital.
The injured pilot was a senior aviator with more than 5,000 flight hours and one year away from mandatory retirement at age 60. What went wrong? Apparently, as he was stepping down from the aircraft, he grabbed a support bracket next to the seat. However, when he released his hold and continued to step down, his ring caught on the metal lip of the bracket, causing the finger to be pulled from the joint and degloving the finger. After several hours in surgery to try to save the finger and enduring different treatments to encourage the healing process (I will have to tell you about the leaches in a different story), the aviator still ended up losing the finger almost a month later.
As aviators, one of the first things we’re taught is to not wear any rings when working around aircraft. We’ve seen pictures of what can happen if your ring gets caught on a piece of equipment, and there’s usually one or two posters around the hangar reminding us of the consequences of not following this practice. Despite this, we continue to see accidents due to Soldiers not removing their rings when working around equipment.
In the weeks after the accident, I did some research and realized that nowhere in the regulations or aircraft operator’s manual does it state crewmembers have to remove their rings when working around aircraft. The only reference is in the Dash 23-series maintenance manuals, which states maintainers should remove all rings and jewelry before beginning any maintenance work.
How can this be? Was this an isolated incident or is it more common than it appeared? Only a month before this happened in my state, something similar happened in another National Guard unit. In that incident, the crewmember thought he would be safe by wearing his flight gloves to prevent the ring from catching on anything. He was wrong and the result was again a partially degloved finger. This Soldier was lucky that he didn’t lose his entire finger. According to a flight surgeon, wrapping the ring in tape doesn’t work either. The best way to avoid losing a finger is to take the ring off.
Don’t think this problem is unique to Army aviation. It’s Armywide. In conversations with other pilots, they expressed that one of the first things they did when they got married was explain to their spouse that they loved them very much, but they would not be wearing their wedding ring when flying or maintaining an aircraft. Apparently, this was easier for some spouses to accept than others. If spouses could see some of the gruesome pictures of Soldiers who have had their skin and tendons ripped from the bone by wearing a wedding ring, they might accept the fact and understand.
How to protect yourself and your Soldiers:
- Ensure Soldiers take their rings off before conducting maintenance.
- Establish a standard in your unit standing operating procedure for removing rings when working around equipment and when conducting training.
- Get your first-line leaders involved in making sure the new standard is enforced.
- Train Soldiers on the hazards of wearing rings and make sure they understand all the risks involved.
- Get your unit safety officer/NCO involved and find innovative ways to remind Soldiers when they are not meeting the standard.
- Have Soldiers talk to their spouses and explain why it’s important they do not wear a wedding ring when they are training.