Fly Prepared, Not Scared
June 1, 2011
“If something isn’t wrong with a helicopter, it’s about to be!” My primary flight instructor said that to me nearly 19 years ago while attending flight school. I couldn’t help but wonder what I had gotten myself into. I later learned my instructor didn’t come up with the saying that made me believe he was an extreme pessimist. I soon realized he was actually a realist. There are many clichés in aviation based, to some degree, on actual events. Some have been embellished over the years. That particular saying has stayed in my head every flight I’ve ever been on and has kept me safe so far. It hasn’t made me fly scared " just prepared. Here’s my story.
The weather was great, the aircraft was ready to fly and our mission planning and preflight duties were complete. All that remained was our administering a simple night vision goggle proficiency flight evaluation. We executed the PFE to standard and without incident. My co-pilot/student (company commander) for the flight was motivated and wanted to conduct another autorotation on the return trip to the “house.” I didn’t mind the request because he had an excellent control touch and hadn’t scared me the entire flight.
We were on our way to conduct the autorotation. Fortunately, we were 1,500 feet above ground level (AGL) instead of descending to the normal NVG pattern altitude of 600 feet AGL. That’s when our OH-58C aircraft decided it was finished " right then and there "nine nautical miles north of the airfield.
My pilot was on the controls, flying straight and level at 90 knots indicated airspeed when the LOW ROTOR light illuminated. I wasn’t initially concerned about this since we had already conducted numerous simulated engine failures. I just assumed my PI had inadvertently reduced the throttle or GOV INCR/DECR switch. I verified the throttle was full open, double-checking/second guessing the PI and myself.
The throttle was full open, which made the hairs on my neck stand up, but I couldn’t verify the GOV RPM trim switch since I was in the left seat and didn’t have one on my side. What I expected to see was the PI’s hand resting on the switch, causing the rotor RPM to decrease. His hand was not on the switch, and it was at this point I realized we were in a serious situation.
Then, the audio warning sounded.
The engine hadn’t failed. It did, however, go to idle, which isn’t technically an engine failure, but it certainly wasn’t an “engine success.” Remember the “something is about to be wrong” cliché? Just before the incident, I had honestly just said to myself, “If it quits here, there’s nowhere to go except behind us.” That, combined with the extra altitude at the time of the incident, and luck, is the reason we made it without crashing.
We didn’t have a forced landing area in front of the aircraft. I took the flight controls and made a Mayday call while turning 180 degrees left (because I was on the left side) to the last forced landing area I could recall. I had never made a Mayday call before, and I wasn’t happy about making it then.
My PI remained extremely calm and was a model of crew coordination. He tried for the remainder of the flight to increase the GOV RPM and assisted with obstacle avoidance. I remember him mentioning there might be wires in the intended landing area, to which I asked him if he’d like me to go around. I sometimes joke to stay calm, along with implementing my “cool guy pilot voice.”
Whatever keeps you calm, right? It actually seemed like we had a lot of time after turning to the intended touchdown point. The aircraft’s circle of action (where the aircraft will go without manipulating the controls) was short by about 150 feet and I was already at optimal glide profile. I accepted the fact we were going to land in the trees. However, while decelerating, I was surprised to clear the trees into the open area. Because of the size and suitability of the touchdown area, I conducted a zero ground-run touchdown.
The lesson learned is this: Stay proficient in your aircraft. Plan for the worst, hope for the best and never stop flying the aircraft until shutdown.