Crew Coordination Saved the Day
February 29, 2012
As we came down on final, we lost view of the parked aircraft to our front, which is normal in an AH-64. However, I noticed he was shooting the approach to the parked aircraft instead of to the open spot to the aircraft's rear. I asked him, "Do you have the helicopter?" No response. I asked again, "Do you have the helicopter?" Still, no response. I announced, "I have the controls," and executed a go-around. As we came around the second time, I said, "You have the controls." He didn't say anything. Instead, he held up his hands to indicate I should keep flying.
It was strange that he wouldn't talk to me. I thought that perhaps he was mad. When we landed, I asked if he could hear me. He gave me a thumbs-up. I asked if he could talk. He gave me a thumbs-down. His microphone had failed.
In the span of about five seconds, our routine, 30-second flight had almost become a major accident. We could have destroyed two expensive helicopters, injured or killed ourselves and injured or killed a crew chief who was working on the parked helicopter. Instead, we salvaged the situation.
Crew Coordination Techniques Worked
The crew coordination techniques we had learned in previous training saved the day. Specifically, we used our crew briefing, standard cockpit operating procedures and the two-challenge rule. We also managed to avoid problems with complacency and excessive professional courtesy.
My stick buddy and I had both been flying Apaches for a while. He was an instructor pilot and was the pilot in command on the flight. I believe he's a great pilot and, admittedly, there's a tendency on my part to trust him a lot more than I would a less-experienced or skilled pilot. In other words, it would have been easy for me to be complacent. Fortunately, that didn't happen. I was paying attention and reacted accordingly.
Less-experienced aviators might be reluctant to question an IP or a senior-ranking person. This is the problem with excessive professional courtesy. My stick buddy and I are peers, so it was really not an issue in this case. Additionally, during our crew briefings, he made it clear that we should speak up if anything made us uncomfortable.
Standard cockpit operating procedures were helpful because when his microphone failed, I knew immediately we weren't doing things the way we normally did. The simple fact that we weren't following our normal procedures indicated to me there was something wrong -- although I had no idea what it was until later.
The most beneficial technique we used that day was the two-challenge rule. If you ask the other crewmember about something twice and he or she doesn't respond, you take the controls. This guards against subtle incapacitation of the other crewmember and, more practically, keeps you from hitting things. We briefed the two-challenge rule thoroughly when we started flying together. It's simple, but it worked as advertised. In this case, I asked him twice if he saw the helicopter. When he didn't respond, I took the controls.
Fortunately, we were able to apply some of the things we had learned about crew coordination to help us operate effectively as a crew and prevent a disaster. We also relearned the lesson that there are no routine flights, even for experienced crews.
Author's note: I wrote this article many years ago. Many flight hours later, I realize there was one powerful tool we should have used. The Apache is equipped with night vision systems attached to the nose of the helicopter and available to both crewmembers. The layout allows the crew to see forward and down "through" the structure of the helicopter. The system works quite well during the day. With the limited forward visibility inherent in the helicopter, it is foolish for the crew not to have the NVS ready for immediate use, particularly when going into an area like the one described in the article. In fact, when briefing new aviators, I tell them they can identify from the ground when a less-experienced crew is approaching for a landing -- the NVS is stowed. If my friend and I had used the NVS that day in Germany, we would not have almost landed on top of a crew chief working on a parked helicopter.