By Col. Christopher W. Waters, USACRC deputy commanding officerNovember 14, 2018
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Nov. 14, 2018) - Army Aviation has achieved historically low mishap rates in the last three years. However, during the last two fiscal years the Army has experienced an increase in ground taxi mishaps that, while fortunately resulting in no loss of life, have caused significant damage to aircraft and aviation support structures. During FY18, we demonstrated the mind-numbing propensity to drive our otherwise perfectly good aircraft into static obstacles after landing. At year-end count, we recorded four Class A ground taxi mishaps that seriously damaged or destroyed five aircraft and other support structures, to the tune of over $50 million in lost resources and reduced readiness. Three of these aircraft - two CH-47s and one AH-64 - were damaged extensively in combat locations, directly affecting our ability to fight and win.
In one instance at night at an uncontrolled municipal airport, we drove a UH-60 into the lone static control tower on an otherwise empty 20-acre parking ramp. In another, during recovery operations at an uncontrolled municipal airport, we deviated off the yellow taxi line and turned into a static hangar in broad daylight despite a crew chief's verbal concern for clearance with the structure. In yet another, we seriously diminished combat readiness in theater when a CH-47 crew taxied at night into the CH-47 to their front during FARP operations. Most of these mishaps involved poor planning or poor risk management, an absence of effective command and control, and disturbingly, direct leader failures. In each case, the crews exhibited an urgency to get home or otherwise hastily execute ground operations in order to carry on and complete the mission. Likewise, in each mishap the crews demonstrated they had figuratively 'exhaled' and let their collective guard down after completing that portion of the flight and landing safely.
Not surprisingly, safety investigations determined human error was the root causal factor in each of these ground taxi mishaps, and they all share some common leading and underlying causal characteristics. The following were causal factors in one or more instances:
• Mission command failure
o Failure to issue an order
o Failure to rehearse airfield reception or FARP operations
o Failure to integrate risk management into the planning process
• Direct leader failure
o Failure to take actions to mitigate risk or remedy known hazards during execution
o Failure to utilize ground guides or other external command and control measures to avoid obstacles
• Poor crew coordination
o Pilot-in-command established or enabled an undisciplined climate in the cockpit and cabin, leading to distraction or improper clearance coordination
o Pilot-in-command failed to prioritize tasks to ensure aircraft clearance above other less critical tasks
• Poor crew coordination - improper or ineffective solicitation and response during clearance and obstacle avoidance coordination
o Failure to acknowledge clearance response before continuing movement
o Failure to actually clear the aircraft before verbally responding that the aircraft was clear
o Failure to provide additive detail or distance estimation to paint an accurate or confident picture for the rest of the crew
o Failure to pause aircraft movement and determine the best course of action before proceeding
o Crewmembers in a non-effected crew station carrying on non-mission essential banter, thereby interrupting and distracting essential clearance communications between other crewmembers
• Poor crew coordination
o A junior pilot or crew chief demonstrated excessive professional courtesy to a senior crewmember, or excessive deference to and trust in that senior crewmember's experience and judgment
o Failure to be assertive
• Individual failure - poor judgment, or failure to execute primary crew duties to clear the aircraft
The direct leader failures are of note; in multiple instances, one or more company grade leaders - who own the aircraft, the mission, and the risk - were present and/or directly involved but took no part in proactively mitigating hazards to avert the mishap. Those leaders sat idly by, distracted by flight duties or an otherwise inexplicable lethargy to act, as the mishap occurred literally right under their proverbial noses. In one instance, an RL2 platoon leader was in the right seat, on the obstacle side of the aircraft, during the mishap collision, but was not heard at all on audio during the mishap sequence. In that same mishap, the company commander passively observed from the ramp the entire mishap sequence from landing until shutdown, but took no action to influence the situation. Either leader had multiple opportunities to halt operations and take some mitigation measures or implement an alternate course of action. The mission approval process, risk assessment worksheet, and mission briefing officers all are tools to aid in risk management, but our leaders own the process, and there is no substitute for active leader involvement throughout.
Also noteworthy is our tendency to relax our attention after landing. Pilots-in-command must demand a sterile cockpit and cabin, dictate effective communications, and prioritize tasks accordingly after landing. Likewise, individual crewmembers must maintain vigilance in crew duties and recognize their principal responsibility to maneuver the aircraft with appropriate clearance during ground operations. Effective crew coordination is every bit as critical to safe operations during ground taxi as it is during flight.
As the current commanding general of 10th Mountain Division, Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, once noted years ago, every single time we crank an APU or push the starter button on an Army aircraft, it is a live-fire event. While we should strive to eliminate all Class A mishaps - and most are overwhelmingly preventable - it is not too much to expect that our aircrews refrain from driving our aircraft into static obstacles on the ground. So let us make that a goal in FY19: zero mishaps during ground taxi operations. This is a perfectly reasonable and attainable goal that will pay off in combat readiness.