Snow White Flight
November 9, 2011
The flight was one of many we took to Bosnia, but this time it was a little different. It was snowing. The normal day began by going through the checklist to make sure we had everything. The brief was standard, and the pilot in command (PC) briefed about the snow in the weather forecast. The flight normally took 15 minutes when it was clear, blue and 22; for non-aviators, that's basically a nice, sunny day.
I preflighted the helicopter, loaded the equipment and made sure everything was in place. The pilots and I geared up and started our normal before-takeoff routine. Once we were in the air, the snow wasn't too bad. Although we could've taken many different routes, the one that is most important in weather is the "bad weather" route. We went the normal route.
During the flight, we were lighthearted, joking and talking about how we needed to beat the weather coming back. Once we landed in Bosnia, the pilots left for their briefing and I started maintenance on my helicopter. Our crew had a plan that when they were done with their brief, I'd be done with maintenance.
While conducting maintenance, I noticed the snow was coming down hard. I looked toward the bad weather route and it didn't look good at all. I checked my watch periodically and looked at the sky to see if the weather was going to cooperate with us. Sometimes it would get bad and then it would let up. I thought it was going to be the luck of the draw when we could take off.
After I was done with maintenance, I got off the helicopter as one of my pilots met me to discuss an issue. He told me our PC was checking weather and a Soldier needed her bags loaded onto the helicopter because she was returning from emergency leave and had to get back to base.
I loaded the Soldier's bags and briefed her. My pilots then came out and said the weather wasn't good; however, as a team, we decided we could fly the low weather route and be fine. My pilots briefed the return flight. It was a standard brief, just with snow added to it. We took off and started flying toward the bad weather route when a big gush of snow plowed into us. We slowed down and discussed our options of either returning to our home station or staying in Bosnia. We decided we didn't want to stay in Bosnia; we wanted to go home.
For the past six months, we had the same crew. We had about 250 accident-free flight hours. We all knew each other well and worked well together. For that reason, we started down the low weather route. We quickly realized this wasn't going to be the normal 15-minute flight. As we chugged along, the weather got worse. One of the pilots upfront said he couldn't see the ground. The other pilot and I quickly picked up our scan and replied we could see the ground. About 45 minutes went by flying like this. We finally got a little bit of a break with the snow letting up, but that only lasted about 20 minutes.
We were back in the thick of the falling snow. During this entire time, the crew talked about what to do if there was an emergency, whiteout or other various problems that could happen. As I scanned my area, I could see houses about 50 feet below us -- backyards, parked cars and animals. I suddenly heard both pilots say they couldn't see the ground. My heart pounded and I quickly replied with, "I've got the ground -- I can see the ground." Now I knew we were in for a long flight.
As we chugged along, one of my pilots navigated and kept us on track so we knew our location on the map. For the next hour and a half, every 10 minutes one of us -- or two, at times -- would say we couldn't see the ground. To say the least, it was very tiring and stressful.
We were about 10 miles out from our base in Croatia. A little relieved, we thought we were home at last. Unfortunately, we were "counting our chickens before they hatched" because right in front of us stood 100-foot-tall power lines. The PC's plan was to hover up and see if we could cross the power lines. However, as we ascended, we quickly realized that was not going to happen, so we descended and settled on the ground. This was the first time we were able to land because there were landmine threats in the Balkans and we were briefed to only land in plowed fields.
We pondered for a while on how we were getting across the power lines until one of the pilots suggested landing in someone's backyard and taxiing under the power lines. Again, we briefed our plan and moved into action. As we were taxiing under the power lines, a family came out and watched us from their back porch.
Once we made it under the power lines, we picked up and flew back to base. A normal flight of 15 minutes took us 2½ hours. I was glad to be back. Once we shut down the helicopter and took off our flight gear, we conducted an after-action review. We all knew we hadn't done what was best for the crew. Our wanting to get home overcame our thinking rationally and being safe.
We should have done many things differently. I truly believe the most important thing we did right was we kept talking and monitoring each other. We discussed and analyzed all actions as a crew as we planned and executed this mission. Crew coordination saved our lives that day.
We had a lot of faith in our pilots to get us home safely. Both were experienced, and one was the forward support team lead for our area. Looking back, however, it was clear we had gone from having faith in our pilots and ourselves to becoming overconfident. As many crews have found out the hard way, being overconfident in a helicopter can put you underground in a casket. We were fortunate to live to tell our tale.