14 Seconds: Pilot uses experience, quick thinking during aviation accident
September 5, 2012
Every second counts.
Two AH-64 Apache pilots found that out firsthand during a deployment to Afghanistan last year.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark Foschetti and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike McGann were on their way back to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in the early-morning hours of July 7, 2011, when something unexpected happened -- the tail rotor on their helicopter broke off.
The two pilots from C Company, 1st Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Phoenix, were returning from a mission. McGann, a junior pilot at the time, was flying in the front seat of the Apache while Foschetti, the pilot in command, worked the radios.
"(McGann) was on the controls doing everything he was supposed to and I was on the radio making the calls to the tower, and then all heck broke loose," Foschetti said. "We heard this crunching snap sound, and I jumped on the controls."
McGann ensured Foschetti had the controls as the helicopter began its 14-second descent from 400 feet in the air. The radio call was hauntingly quiet with the only audible phrase being "we're going down" before the aircraft hit the ground.
"It's funny, you say things you don't remember saying until you hear the tape playing back," McGann said. "Initially, I was on the controls and I just remember thinking, 'oh crap, did we just get shot at?'"
Foschetti agreed, adding that with everything going on, he thought he and McGann had a whole conversation that never took place.
As Foschetti tried to regain control of the helicopter, he realized the nose of the aircraft kept going to the right.
"(That's when) I realized we lost our tail rotor," he said. "The aircraft has a natural tendency to turn right because the rotor blades spin to the left, especially with the more torque you pull in.
"The tail rotor system provides anti-thrust to balance the aircraft and keep the nose straight," he continued. "No one ever wants to lose that."
Foschetti scanned the area and saw a two-story qualat, or house, in front of them. He said he was unsure if they had enough elevation to fly over it.
"We happened to have a beautiful open field right in front of us. I made the decision and I told my wingman, 'we're going down,'" Foschetti said.
As the helicopter went down, two things came to Foschetti's mind: keep the nose of the aircraft up to protect McGann and cushion the landing at the bottom the best he could.
"I knew as soon as I pulled in power (to cushion the landing), the aircraft was going to start spinning," he noted.
"There was a portion (of the descent) where I stopped -- it was amazing. For a split second, I saw my wife, my two kids, my brother, my mother and father -- my immediate Family," Foschetti added. "As quick as it popped into my mind, they were gone and it was time to act, because (I thought) 'we're not dying today.'"
Foschetti had another concern as he tried to control the aircraft: prevent the aircraft from tumbling over when it hit the ground.
"Those 14 seconds were the longest autorotation I've ever done," Foschetti said. "We start autorotations (in training) at 1,000 feet. If you keep the aircraft in trim, it takes a while to get to the ground. I was at 400 feet and was trying to keep the aircraft from spinning."
When the helicopter impacted the ground, both pilots confirmed that they were OK.
"It was so surreal -- the whole descent," McGann added. "The whole thing happened so fast, but at the same time, while it was going on, it felt slow. I remember thinking at the bottom, at the very end, I was afraid of the blades hitting the ground and us toppling over. I remember thinking, 'this is going to hurt.'"
As the rotor blades slowed down, the aviators lost radio communication. Foschetti realized that they needed to make sure their "sister ship" that had been flying with them, as well as the Soldiers back at BAF, knew what happened and that they were alive.
When the rotor blades finally stopped, both aviators began using their experience and instincts.
Both Foschetti and McGann served in the Army as enlisted Soldiers for several years before going to Warrant Officer Candidate School and flight school. Foschetti previously served as an Apache armament / electrical systems repairman, while McGann was a military policeman.
"I went into a (communications security) mode: (clearing) my cockpit, getting my goggles, collecting all of my sensitive items," Foschetti said. "When we got out of the aircraft, I ran to the storage bay to grab our flight bags. In case we had to hot tail it, we'd be ready.
"I stop and turn around, and I see Mike on the perimeter with his M-4 doing everything perfectly," he added, laughing.
What Foschetti didn't know was that before McGann grabbed his weapon, he made sure he had one other "sensitive item" -- a stuffed dragon that his now-4-year-old daughter, Hope, sent him.
"It flies with me all the time; it usually sits right on the console," he explained. "Before I grabbed my weapon, and before I did anything else, I grabbed (the dragon) and stuffed it under my armor."
Foschetti and McGann suffered only minor injuries. Foschetti had a cut on his palm, and McGann bit his lip hard and was bleeding. Within 14 minutes, an Air Force emergency helicopter had arrived to transport them to receive medical treatment.
After they arrived at the hospital and saw their commander and first sergeant, Foschetti and McGann were instructed to call home.
"I have an unbelievable wife; she's such a strong woman," Foschetti said. "There were no tears, she was just happy we were OK. I love that woman."
Foschetti had actually told his wife, Olivia, that he would be unable to call for a while due to his busy schedule. The couple met while they were both stationed in Korea. She separated from active duty when they got married in 2002.
"It's kind of funny because I've been there, done that. I understand they're busy (when they're deployed), so I really don't get too hung up on whether or not he calls me," Olivia Foschetti said. "(Before) this particular incident, he specifically told me he was going on a mission and I wouldn't hear from him. I didn't have to worry if I turned my phone off and didn't turn it back on."
That day, her ringer was off. Olivia Foschetti was relaxing that evening and had a thought that she might want to look at her phone.
"When I looked at my phone, I had all these missed phone calls," she explained. "He finally called me back and we had this little banter on the phone because I didn't have my phone on. So, then he says, 'I got into a little bit of an accident' and my heart dropped."
After she realized that he was OK, she relaxed until he told her what had happened.
"He mentioned something about having 14 seconds until he hit the ground and I was like, 'hold on a minute! Let's talk about this little accident,'" Olivia Foschetti said. "When he said he lost the tail rotor (the gravity of what could have happened hit me).
"I caught my breath and realized there was no sense in freaking out because obviously he's able to call me and tell me he's OK," she continued. "If he wasn't OK, I'd be getting a phone call from someone else or would be getting a knock on the door."
Once she was certain that her husband was physically unharmed, Olivia Foschetti wanted to ensure he was doing OK psychologically. After confirming that he was fine, she felt better.
"I felt sick when we hung up," Olivia Foschetti added. "It wasn't very long after we had lost (Chief Warrant Officer 2) Terry Varnadore (in April), so the feeling of loss was still very fresh; everybody was a little more jumpy."
After her husband returned home, she was able to see the video re-creation of the accident with the actual radio communication.
"I heard his voice (on the recording) and I could almost hear a calmness in his voice," Olivia Foschetti said. "I was really kind of proud of him to hear that he was calm, collected … and how he just went to work and did his job. I was really impressed with that.
"I'm a super proud wife," she added. "I'm so impressed with him and how far he's come and what he's learned. He's the best that he can be all the time. He's the epitome of a guy who has the greatest work ethic and is a great example for our kids."
Foschetti was recognized this year by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness / Safety Center for his actions. Recently retired Brig. Gen. William T. Wolf, former USACRSC commander and director of Army Safety presented Foschetti with the Broken Wing Award during Safety Stand Down Day in May.
The award is presented to aviators who present outstanding airmanship and extraordinary skill and who minimize or prevent aircraft damage or personnel injury during an emergency, according to the Army Aviation Broken Wing Award requirements.
Foschetti, who serves as his company's safety officer, said that the experience caused him to change how he briefs his emergency procedures before flights.
"If something happens, have one person watch the perimeter while the other one collects sensitive items and sterilize the cockpit; then switch it up," he said. "I've never been taught that methodand, but it was unbelievable. It was comical -- we have two different mentalities. It worked out well.
"Needless to say, my inspection of the tail rotor since then has been even more in depth (even though) there was nothing we could've done to see that coming," he said, laughing.
Foschetti recently found out that he was selected for promotion to chief warrant officer 3, and he hopes to pin on his new rank in the spring. Like his instructors before him, Foschetti hopes to pass knowledge down to younger pilots.
"During the deployment, our experience in that company definitely showed beyond the flight hours we had," he said. "Not high in flight hours, but great decision-making skills. We had some great (instructor pilots)."
Foschetti attributes his ability to react properly and save the lives of both McGann and himself to the training he received from his instructor pilots.
"(Chief Warrant Officer 4) Sean Richards was my IP (in Afghanistan), and my first IP, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Daxton Barkley, was with me in (my previous unit) and progressed me … right out of flight school," Foschetti noted. "Between (the two of them), they had the same mentality. They were very diligent about the way they taught.
"I have no doubt in my mind that if it wasn't for those two and the way that they taught me how to fly, there's no way I would've been able to perform an autorotation like that," he added. "I owe my life to those two."