August 23, 2011
If a warning light comes on, a chip light flashes or a system fails completely, most of us can recognize the problem and execute the corrective emergency procedure. However, what about emergencies not covered in the checklist? Training Circular 3-04.11, Commander's Aircrew Training Program for Individual, Crew, and Collective Training, states, "A PC [pilot in command] is an aviator that has demonstrated the judgment and ability to perform all of the mission requirements for the assigned aircraft, uses proper procedures and operates the aircraft safely and maturely." This means being ready for anything that comes along and quickly understanding the effects. Here's my story.
I was returning from a night mission flying an AH-64D in eastern Afghanistan, and the sun had just come up as we taxied into parking at Forward Operating Base Salerno. As I turned to line up in the drive-through parking setup, my canopy cover flew into the air. These canopy covers are 8- by 12-foot heavy-duty pieces of canvas with straps hanging off them in all directions. It was supposed to have been locked away in the flyaway box located on the parking pad.
My mind started spinning with options and possible consequences. Do I continue forward and hope the cover passes behind me or do I pull the engines off and bring the rotor brake to lock? I thought if I could reduce the induced flow, I could stop the canopy from being sucked in or whipped back through the tail rotor. I didn't even want to imagine what could happen to the crew chief (CE) on the wing cord on the opposite side of the parking pad if the straps came toward him.
Nothing in the checklist even remotely covered this type event. The pilot in the front seat was also fixated on the cover flying over us, wondering why the locked box where the cover was stored was even open. I knew this was a dangerous situation and time was not on our side. I reduced the collective and applied the brakes, as the cover was about 20 feet above and five feet in front of my rotor. The cover stayed aloft in the upward flow of air created by the ground effect and floated over to the next parking pad. We landed safely and I was more than relieved nobody was hurt.
The CE that launched the aircraft had gone back to the flyaway gearbox and left the cover out for unknown reasons. Whether the CE had been sidetracked, re-tasked or an emergency came up, he forgot to close or lock the box, which definitely caused an eye-opening experience for the crew that morning. We saw how easily a dangerous situation materializes by someone's distraction. This could've been a catastrophic accident, damaging the main and tail rotors, requiring the whole driveline to be replaced and, most importantly, injuring or killing all personnel within 50 feet of the aircraft.
Remaining alert while on a long deployment can be stressful, and that is why supervision and teamwork are so crucial to the Army's mission. Not every accident can be predicted, and simply avoiding risks is not safe. That's why we rely on inherent training to know what to do when we have an emergency.
The training PC candidates go through plays a major part in the thought process and actions taken during non-standard emergencies. My unit instructor pilots focused on airworthiness and how to keep the aircraft flying. Challenge pilots. Use "what-if" questions to lead pilots into unfamiliar territory, bringing them outside their comfort zone and into discovery mode. In the long term, challenging pilots increases the safety success of your organization.