‘We Hit the Mountain!’
June 1, 2011
We arrived for our afternoon briefing and received a direct support mission for an infantry battalion. However, the briefed weather was below brigade minimums for mission support.
After receiving heavy ground fire and suffering multiple casualties, the infantry battalion called in for troops-in-contact support. I updated weather for the urgent mission and received a new weather brief of 800 feet and six miles. I was re-briefed and approved to take off with weather above 700 feet and two miles. I was lead in a flight of two AH-64Ds. The previous day I’d flown to the area where we were headed, so I decided to take the same route instead of the published low weather route.
My CPG was a new first lieutenant just out of flight school. I gave him a standard crew brief as we went through run-up procedures. Once we were ready for takeoff, we called the tactical operations center and departed the airfield to the west. As we left the fence line, we stayed at 100 to 200 feet above ground level and 110 knots true air speed.
We were about 10 miles from the airfield when I saw the canyon we had passed through the previous day en route to the south side of the mountain range. We made the turn to start through the mountain pass and I called my wingman to let him know I’d be slowing to 80 KTAS. We were in the canyon for about a minute when the weather rapidly worsened. As I was making a radio call to my wingman to ask what he thought, visibility suddenly deteriorated and we inadvertently “punched” into the clouds.
I was at the bottom of a 5,000-foot ravine with zero visibility and again called my sister ship to tell him to turn around. I started climbing and told my CPG to back me up on the instruments. I was closer to the left side of the canyon than the right, so I let him know I’d be turning slightly right to avoid contacting the mountainside. About 23 seconds later, the CPG got my attention by yelling, “Pull up!” I looked up to see that we were about to run into very steep terrain. The low-altitude warning simultaneously sounded. I jerked the cyclic to the left trying to keep the rotor blades from striking the ground. At the same time I pulled full aft cyclic all the way to my seat belt.
It was still not enough. We hit the mountain. I can only describe this sensation as the most terrifying moment of my life! We struck terrain and bounced back into the cloud, smashing the underside of the aircraft into the side of the rock face. Somehow, we managed to keep the rotor from striking the ground. My CPG calmly announced our airspeed had dropped to 12 knots. He sounded as if we were having a normal conversation over a cup of coffee. His cool demeanor helped me to stay calm as well.
We managed to get the aircraft under control and, once again, started to climb through the clouds. Using my moving map for situational awareness, I turned the aircraft to parallel the mountain range as we headed back toward base.
While still climbing through the clouds, we received another low-altitude warning. We had crossed the east wall of the canyon at just 54 feet. Again, my airspeed bled off as I pulled back the cyclic, desperately trying to stay away from what I couldn’t see. My CPG continued to keep us on track by announcing airspeed. A few tense minutes later, we punched through the cloud layer. We were now flying under visual flight rules (VFR). I called my wingman to let him know we had hit the mountain, but we were still flying and were VFR over the top.
My wingman made all the radio calls to tower and to the TOC so we could focus on “limping” our aircraft back to base. Anything above 90 knots caused the aircraft to vibrate. We were unaware of the extent of the aircraft damage. However, as we looked out our window, we could see we had knocked the seeker heads off all three of the Hellfire missiles we were carrying. We crossed back over the mountain range and entered the downwind leg of the approach pattern using the moving map. My CPG put up the emergency GPS approach and I flew to it but didn’t execute the published procedure. I descended back through the clouds and landed without further incident.