FORT RUCKER, Ala. (February 11, 2019) - It happened at Camp Humphries, Korea, within the last three years. I was an extremely new Readiness Level 1 pilot, flying with a 15-plus-year maintenance test pilot who was known for being either great as a trainer or for creating the most hostile cockpit you can imagine. We had just completed a 3.5-hour flight that included stops all over the country. At the time, it was the longest flight of my short career. That day I had drawn the short straw and hostile is what I got. Everything I did was wrong. I was late on calls, terrible at formation flight and couldn't answer all of his obscure system questions. I was new, I was awful and to say I was overwhelmed was an understatement.
We had just landed and were in need of hot refuel before shutting down for the day. As we were on the ground in the hover area, we called ground and asked for instructions for the forward arming and refueling point. They responded with an instruction that ran counter to what I'd seen other aircraft doing. I had an iPad with me and quickly pulled up the airfield diagram and refuel procedures. The published directions said something to the effect of taxiing from generally south to north, which is exactly what I'd seen other aircraft from our serial doing.
I told the PC I thought the directions we'd received were wrong and that we should clarify. He responded with, "No, we're going to do what we were told," and proceeded to enter the refuel point backward. As we entered, ground called us out and told us that we were entering incorrectly; but since we were so far in, they allowed us to continue. This enraged the PC, who berated ground to the crew over ICS and then yelled at me for not being more forceful with my disagreement.
As we entered the refuel point, two local nationals began attempting to give us hand and arm instructions from approximately the 3 and 9 o'clock positions. The PC, who was furious at this point, completely ignored their instructions and attempted to taxi to where he thought we should be going. We set the aircraft down and began ground taxiing.
At this point, I was given the controls with a comment, "Let's see if you can ground taxi better than you can fly." We were traveling at about a brisk walking pace, with the cyclic positioned just forward enough to push us slightly uphill, when the local fueler at the 9 o'clock decided to sprint from where he was, at a 45-degree angle, to the 12 o'clock directly under the rotor disk. He moved so quickly that our left-side crew chief didn't have time to tell us what he had done. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and at the last second threw the cyclic backward just in time to see the tip-path of the main rotor miss the top of the fueler's head by a half-inch (no exaggeration).
After realizing we'd nearly killed someone, the PC's attitude changed immediately. Seeing how shaken I was, he took the controls from me and started being the trainer and mentor I needed. We finished refuel, taxied to parking and shut down with nary a word spoken between us outside of the checklist. Once outside of the aircraft, we had a heart-to-heart after-action review that included the crew chiefs who were easily as upset as I was. The PC took full responsibility and apologized for the near fatal accident and the hostile cockpit he'd created. We talked about how in our profession, even as a PI, you don't get to just "check out." In addition to the crew, potentially 11 Soldiers are depending on the skills and aptitude of the guys up front. Hostile cockpit or not, quitting is never an option.
The bottom line of this story is crew coordination can literally save lives. Yes, the PC was wrong, but I should have been more vocal about the environment that had been created. The crew chiefs were also part of the crew and had any of us addressed the situation sooner, both the terrible flight and the near-miss could have been avoided.
I didn't realize how much I'd learned from that flight until I became a PC and started flying with new RL-1 pilots. On a flight through Class B airspace, I had a PI who was overwhelmed. He was missing calls on a very busy radio and couldn't stay in the published VFR corridor. He couldn't hold airspeed and was out of his element when I wouldn't let him use the coupled flight director.
I found myself getting furious and as I started to light him up, for some reason I thought back to my flight in Korea. I remembered the feeling of being overwhelmed, timid and frustrated. I remembered how it felt to be on the controls and not wanting to be a pilot anymore. Right there, mid-angry correction, I stopped. I took the flight controls, waited until we were clear of the Class B airspace, looked over at him and saw that he was "checked out." I reassured him of his abilities, told him to stay in the fight and then returned the controls to him.
We returned home and shut down without incident. Once safely on the ground, I told him my story. I told him I'd never wanted to be "that pilot" and in that moment I was becoming what I'd never wanted to be. As I reflected on the flight, the failure wasn't all his; it was mine as well.
I recently called that PC from Korea, who had long since PCS'd, and thanked him for what he taught me. He apologized again but stopped when I told him what I'd learned and applied as a new PC. Through a terrible and, at the same time, very lucky situation, he'd inadvertently made me a better crewmember and pilot.
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