January 31, 2012
Professional courtesy can be defined as the courtesy given to senior ranking officers or more experienced Soldiers. Unfortunately, it can also become a hazard to a flight crew when inexperienced Soldiers are reluctant to announce hazards or lack the willingness to speak up and do what they know is right.
Being the junior pilot, I never wanted to displease or upset any of the seasoned pilots in my unit. Fresh out of flight school and naïve when compared to the other pilots, I assumed they were all "squared away" and I should never question them on their aviation/cockpit decisions. I assumed the pilot in command next to me knew it all and that I could always depend on him or her in those sticky situations. Being a newbie, I looked up to my PCs like Homer Simpson gawks at a glazed donut. I thought to myself, "Wow! Will I ever be as great a pilot as they are?"
I always felt this way until one bad flight. You know, "the flight" -- the one that makes you clearly see out of your aviation Coke-bottle glasses forever. My unconditional trust toward others was out the window, along with the preconceived notion that every pilot around me knew what they were doing.
The day started out like any other in Iraq. Our crew was pretty much a company internal crew, except for the PC of my aircraft (whom we will call Capt. X to protect his identity). Capt. X was supplementing our company because our mission load was too heavy for the small number of PCs we had. Having supplemental PCs was standard, so I thought nothing of it.
The mission was to take us from Balad to a small forward operating base in northern Iraq with a refuel stop in Kirkuk. Sounds simple enough, right?
The crews took a little extra time in preparing for the mission, considering flying north of Balad was not our usual area of operations. I had been to Kirkuk once prior to this mission, so I was somewhat familiar with the airfield operations; however, I still wanted to check out the landing directions and forward arming and refueling point procedures into Kirkuk for good measure. Again, this was no big deal.
The morning briefings and preflight went well. It seemed as if this was going to be a great day. Our passengers were on the aircraft and we were ready to go. The usual "I-have-never-flown-with-you" conversation occurred on the first leg of the flight. Where are you from? How many kids do you have? What are your hobbies? Blah, blah, blah. Becoming more comfortable with Capt. X, I began to relax ... you know, settle into my usual pilot role.
The trouble started when we flew into Kirkuk for refuel. After realizing Capt. X was oblivious to the airfield layout, I took the reins and guided us into the FARP. Capt. X had obviously not looked over the airfield procedures for Kirkuk or even the airfield diagram for that matter. One small hiccup! That's OK; brush it off and move on with our day.
"You are clear to back up out of the FARP," came over the radios from my standardization pilot/air mission commander in the trail aircraft.
"Great," I thought to myself. I could hover backward over the taxiway without having to do a ton of maneuvering. Suddenly, Capt. X announced, "All right, what I want you to do is fly over this cement barrier and land on the taxiway," pointing at the airfield diagram provided by the night shift, who prepared our kneeboard packets the night before.
"ALERT … ALERT … ALERT!" Red lights started flashing and alarms began screaming in my head. What is this guy thinking? One, the airfield procedures stated that we were not to overfly the cement barrier for any reason. And two, that was not a taxiway he is telling me to land on.
I explained to him in a tactful manner, "Sir, we are not supposed to overfly the barrier and I am pretty sure that is not a taxiway."
"No, we are going to fly over the barrier and land on the taxiway, just as I briefed," he said.
What could I do? I had just explained to Capt. X my interpretation of the procedures. And he wasn't taking any of my advice into consideration. Should I step on my PC's toes and request clarification from the AMC? Or should I give him professional courtesy and the benefit of the doubt?
I succumbed to the pressure and did what most other new PIs would do. I lifted up the aircraft, flew over the barrier and landed on the so-called "taxiway." Did I mention the porta-potty on the other side of the barrier flipped over, sending the dry toilet paper rolls into our rotor system? It looked like New Year's Eve, with tiny little flakes of toilet paper confetti streaming down in our rotor wash! Oh, and what else was on the other side of the barrier? A fuel bladder, which was now coated in fresh liquid "goodness" from the porta-potty!
Mortified and embarrassed, I knew my SP was sitting in the trail aircraft watching the entire situation unfold. I sunk deeper into my seat. All I could do was play out the reprimand that would follow the flight.
After a long, convoluted flight and a two-hour after-action report, I learned a few lifelong lessons. Always do what you know is right. And do whatever you need to do to maintain the safety of your crew and passengers … even if you have to throw the professional courtesy out the window.