Think Outside the FOD Box
July 30, 2012
As a troop FOD officer deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom last year, I learned many things are different in a combat environment. At home, aircraft were always in a hangar and roads were paved. Not so in Afghanistan. In garrison, arming was done in a controlled area where dunnage could be closely monitored. In Afghanistan, it is done in parking or while refueling by pilots in a hurry to launch for a mission (or to make it back for chow). At home, no trooper could go home until he or she conducted a FOD walk. During deployments, troopers worked multiple shifts with sparse crews. The list goes on and on.
So what happens when you're thrown a curveball? One such curveball was the enterprising bird population on our forward operating base. If there wasn't a door or exhaust pillow in the way, the birds assumed it was fair game. They nested in cockpits, avionics compartments and even engine exhaust cowlings. As a result, unit standing operating procedures evolved and controls minimized the occurrences, but nothing was perfect.
One summer day, after flying about two hours at the beginning of our mission window, I made the decision to not install an exhaust pillow. I wasn't being defiant to troop SOPs; I made the call in hopes of the engine cooling down quicker. We were on quick-reaction force status and scheduled to fly later in the shift. The birds never crossed my mind. Unfortunately, they didn't cross my mind an hour later either when we were rushing to launch in support of ground troops in contact.
While doing my thorough flight checks, I visually verified the pillow had not been installed. However, I haphazardly inspected the exhaust, which is where the bird's nest was located! It was an interesting sight for the attending crew chief on that start. Flames and sparks shot out of the exhaust and caused the crew chief to signal me to abort the start. Guys came running from all over the flight line. Thankfully, the aircraft wasn't damaged, and we quickly continued the mission. Unfortunately, the bird didn't fare so well.
A close call, but no damage. It was a great way to learn a lesson. A little scare went a long way to teach us a good FOD program is as flexible and adaptive as it is rooted to Army regulation. This trooper went on to respond to the hazard that presented itself, and I never again started an aircraft without a thorough inspection of the exhaust.