By Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kevin HaysSeptember 10, 2013
When I began flying Chinooks, a CW4 told me, "There is no such thing as a perfect flight." I understood what he meant, especially after I got some experience under my belt with multiple deployments. Once in the air, things can change - some for the good and some for the bad. But that's where good planning comes into play. The smallest detail can change the outcome of a flight, which is what happened to me on the ninth month of a deployment in Iraq.
Unlike most close-call stories, my accident was documented as human failure. Trust me, the words human failure hurt when seen on an accident report. It was my fourth deployment, and my company had sliced four Chinooks to support the air assault battalion for our 15-month rotation in Balad, Iraq. I was one of the assigned flight leads.
Overall, we were averaging an assault every four days and developed a solid relationship with our UH-60 and AH-64 crews, which built confidence amongst our team. This particular mission was developed, planned and briefed by the timelines set in our standard operating procedure, but a dust storm set in and delayed us. The mission would not be executed for another 72 hours while we waited for the dust storm to clear the area of operations.
During the delay, we decided to review our tactics, techniques and procedures and request a visit from the Special Operations Air Regiment to see if we were making any unnecessary risks with our Chinooks. After the assistance visit, it was determined that a change should be made in the way we deployed our Chinooks to certain landing zones. This new TTP would affect my assigned landing zone for this mission.
Eventually, the weather lifted. It was a clear night with about 25 percent illumination, and I, like the others, was ready to get on with this mission. I briefed the execution portion of the air mission brief, including my changes for the assigned landing zone, which led to a "go" decision by the command. This mission, due to its multiple aircraft and terrain, called for precise course guidance, timing and spacing.
My LZ was located to the far left with Chalk 2's LZ, which was to my right. Each member of the flight had assigned headings off the release point to their LZ. With the change of the TTP I briefed, my LZ landing point would be moved 350 meters from the original. This change, even though minor in distance, would affect Chalk 2, so I briefed that I would remain on the original heading until deconflicted and then proceed to the new LZ.
After reviewing this mission for three days, I knew the LZ card by heart and understood the repositioned LZ was in an open field less than 400 meters away. Everything was going as planned with regard to time, coordination and communication.
The RP was hit within 45 seconds of the planned time. I had deconflicted with Chalk 2 and was inbound to my LZ with 33 troops and a supply pallet onboard. We identified the area of the old LZ and proceeded to the updated LZ, which was our open field. After our forward wheels made contact with the ground, it happened - we went into a trench deep enough to shear our right-forward landing gear and tear off our belly radio antennas. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the bird maintained level even without a landing gear due to the position of the trench as we rested on it. We off-loaded, assessed the aircraft, made contact, returned to base and landed on a stack of warehouse pallets back at home station.
Then it was investigation time.
Could this have been avoided? Maybe I should have picked a center mass grid for the LZ and requested updated imagery on the field instead of going off the older one. Would the imagery have shown that trench? We will never know, but the point is I had the time to at least try. When it comes to planning, time is critical during combat operations. Sometimes, though, due to repetition, we develop blinders and miss the little things.
We all know there is no such thing as a perfect flight, but take nothing for granted in this world we call aviation. When the grind hits - and it will - reinforce that planning stage and ensure your team has the best product before you walk out that door because the smallest details can have the biggest results.