FORT RUCKER, Ala. (March 20, 2019) - Common sense. Sometimes it isn't as common as we'd like to think. Failure to follow established standing operating procedures - or to just review and update them regularly, especially after an accident - can result in avoidable tragedy.
Washing a helicopter is not an inherently dangerous task; however, moving one can be. It isn't every day you hear about someone being run over by a helicopter, but several years ago on a typical September day, a Soldier in Kuwait was run over by a towed Black Hawk. We might be tempted to call this event a fluke, but just six weeks earlier, in July, another Soldier from a different unit was run over on the same airfield in an eerily similar incident. In that case, the Soldier decided to approach the aircraft from the left to speak with someone riding in the cabin while it was being towed. The Soldier lost situational awareness of his proximity to the rotating wheel and his trouser leg got caught by it, pulling his left leg inboard of the turning wheel. The aircraft then ran over his ankle, causing a 90-degree break and dislocating his kneecap.
Members of the unit responsible for the injured Soldier in the September mishap were aware of the earlier incident. How did it happen again so soon?
Details of the accident
In the September incident, a Soldier was riding in the cabin of the UH-60 while it was being towed down the flight line from the wash rack to the maintenance hangar. He was not an official member of the towing crew; nevertheless, he decided to hitch a ride to avoid the long walk down the ramp from the tower to the maintenance hangar.
The tug driver conducted the towing brief, but stated he did not see the Soldier board the aircraft. That's understandable since the towing bar is hooked to the tail wheel to pull the aircraft backward, hence the helicopter stabilator completely blocks the tug driver's view of the cabin when he's looking toward the aircraft. Furthermore, the tug driver was looking backward to ensure clearance while moving the aircraft.
The Soldier was sitting on the cabin floor with his legs dangling out the right side of the aircraft. The cabin floor was wet from the aircraft wash so he shifted his position forward to a drier part of the floor. The turning wheel caught his trouser leg, pulling him from the aircraft and under the main landing gear, which rolled over his lower left leg, crushing it, and separating the sole from the bone of his right foot.
Why did this accident happen?
The real question is why this Soldier was in the helicopter in the first place. The SOP dictates only the individual controlling the brakes should be in a towed aircraft. Was there appropriate supervision? Should appropriate procedures have been updated or more strongly reinforced after the previous mishap?
As leaders, we are responsible for identifying hazards and implementing control measures to mitigate risks. After the July incident, leadership directed that wing walkers remain at their stations outside the rotor tip caps. If anyone needed to speak with an individual inside the aircraft, they would need to get the attention of the tug operator to bring the aircraft to a complete stop before proceeding inboard. The Naval Air Ambulance Detachment, co-located in Kuwait, was directed by its SOPs to have wing walkers equipped with whistles to alert the tug driver since he is facing away from the aircraft during towing operations.
Studies show it takes a person four to eight seconds to react to an emergency - two to four seconds to recognize something is wrong and two to four seconds to do something about it. No one can react fast enough to yell, "Stop!" to the tractor driver until it's too late. The main landing gear is at the forward edge of the cabin area and in two seconds, even at a slow walking speed, it will roll half to a full cabin length.
It is important to note that when an aircraft is being towed backward, the entire cabin area is a danger zone because the wheel is turning toward the cabin instead of away from it. This is counterintuitive and doesn't register with those who don't have much experience with aircraft beyond riding in the back as a passenger.
The September incident boils down to indiscipline. The wing walkers were trying to help out a buddy by giving him a ride and disregarded the pre-towing brief administered by the tug driver, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the towing crew. This accident occurred on the day the Soldier was to fly home on leave. Consequently, this was the end of his deployment, taking him out of the fight for months. The Soldier had emergency surgery and endured a long rehabilitation. The good news is he did fully recover.
Incidents like this are painful reminders why safety discipline is such an important part of our daily lives as Soldiers. We should be proactive in identifying hazards and always learn something from the mistakes of others. When we fail to learn from others, we frequently end up learning those hard lessons for ourselves. Evidently, lessons were not learned because two weeks later, a third towing accident occurred at the same airfield at night by a transient unit heading to Iraq.
- A 2028 should be submitted for all airframe operators' manuals with a warning to mandate that no one is to ride in a towed aircraft except the individual on the towing team appointed to ride brakes.
- Unit SOPs should dictate that wing walkers should be equipped with whistles to alert the tug driver because he cannot hear vocal commands above the engine noise of the tug and aircraft running up on the ramp.
- Unit SOPs should dictate that wing walkers are to prohibit pedestrians from approaching the aircraft while it is in motion.
- The NCOIC should conduct a towing safety briefing before towing the aircraft and reiterate the warning about no passengers during towing operations.
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