The Infamous Sucker Hole
June 6, 2013
- This story and more in the June online edition of Knowledge Magazine - the Official Safety Magazine of the U.S. Army
EDGEWOOD, Md. (June 6, 2013) - In early summer of 2011, our flight company was tasked with a two-part service mission. The first part required us to airlift an infantry unit based at Camp Dawson, W. Va., to Fort A. P. Hill, Va., for a three-day field training exercise.
At the end of the FTX, the second part of the mission would commence with the air movement of the requesting unit back to their home station. The lifts required two CH-47Ds based at Weide Army Airfield in Edgewood, Md. The estimated flight time for each lift would be about 3½ hours. The nearly 400-nautical-mile flights had three legs that avoided Baltimore and Washington, with the first moving in a counterclockwise direction and the second in the opposite direction.
The flight crews consisted of the commander, a pilot in command and rated maintenance test pilot; a new flight platoon leader, a first lieutenant who sat in the jump seat to learn and observe; and a new warrant officer performing pilot duties. This crew, along with its nonrated aviators in the back, would fly in the No. 2 aircraft on both lifts. I was the PC of the lead aircraft with another new warrant officer as my PI. In back, I had an experienced standardization instructor and crew chief crewing.
The first lift went as planned in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when we delivered the infantry unit to Fort A.P. Hill at the on-target time of 9 a.m. We then refueled and proceeded back to base. The second lift required us to pick up the infantry unit at 2 p.m. from A.P. Hill and return them to Camp Dawson. Show time was 10 a.m. with a 1 p.m. takeoff time from Weide AAF. The mission proceeded as planned, as we flew the unit to its destination, shut down for refuel and then departed on our third leg for home.
We accomplished good training and mentorship for our new pilots during the missions, but the last 10 minutes of the third leg started to unravel quickly. Initially, we started from Dawson AAF with a climb to 5,000 feet for terrain clearance and to take advantage of smoother air above the mountaintops at 3,000 feet. After approximately 45-50 minutes of flying, we flew out of the Appalachian Mountains and into decreasing elevation to the east. When we passed Fredrick Municipal Airport (50 nm west of Weide), we descended to 3,000 feet. There was a thin, scattered layer of clouds forming at what I estimated was 1,500-2,000 feet altitude. As we continued our track, the cloud layer gradually began to thicken, so I asked the commander if he wanted to descend to 1,000 feet. He replied, "No, let's stay on top."
The gaps in the cloud layer became few and far between, so I advised my crew that when we got closer to home, we might have to do some maneuvering to remain visual flight rules while descending through any potential cloud openings up ahead. Six miles from home, the cloud layer really began to thicken. We pressed on about two miles, passing our destination in an effort to locate a suitable opening, to no avail. The air mission commander then announced a 180-degree turn back to the west, affectively establishing a lead change. I instructed my PI to get out the approach plate and contact Potomac approach to request radar vectors for the localizer 15 approach into Martin State Airport. This is an airport about seven nm southwest of Weide that we often use as a recovery procedure should we encounter inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions in our area.
My PI was focused on contacting approach when I noticed he hadn't pulled out the approach plate. On top of that, he was getting frustrated with approach because he couldn't get his request in due to the late afternoon traffic being recovered into Baltimore/Washington International (a Class B airport) about 15 nm southwest of Martin State Airport.
At that point, I noticed the AMC aircraft maneuvering through a clearing, and my flight engineer announced it over the internal communications system. We were both on the right side of the aircraft when I announced I was going for the second clearing about one-quarter mile from the first. The FE and I visually maintained eye contact with the other aircraft in an effort to minimize the chances of a mid-air collision. It was turning away from our position as it descended through the clearing. I had to react quickly and do some maneuvering to get our aircraft through that second hole. What worried me the most was that I knew of several 300-foot-tall towers in that area. I thank the Lord the ceiling was at 1,000 feet as we descended through the clouds and linked up with Chalk 2 for the short dash to Weide.
This was a classic case of "get-home-itis," in which I failed to go with the conservative plan to fly the localizer approach. I saw my PI was having some issues, but, instead of helping him through the situation, I chose to follow the AMC with an impulsive move to expeditiously get us home as a flight.