While conducting a night familiarization gunnery, the AH-64 instructor pilot (IP) on the controls in the pilot’s (back) crew station successfully recovered from a diving rocket fire engagement at 750 feet above ground level (AGL). During the subsequent left 180-degree turn the aircraft developed an unusual attitude and rapid descent rate and impacted the ground at greater than 120 knots in a nose-low attitude with an 11 degree left bank at nearly 4,000 feet per minute rate of descent. The crew suffered fatal injuries and the aircraft was destroyed.
“Crawl, walk, run” has been a constant mantra in the development of training strategies for units to attain proficiency in their unit’s mission. It is also the building blocks used in aviation for individual and crew proficiency. Deviations from this strategy can lead to increased risk in the training cycle. As with all risk management, commanders must weigh the risks with the potential benefits in determining a course of action.
In reference to this mishap, the unit had recently been assigned more than a dozen new aviators of which half were first assignment flight school graduates. Designed to bring the unit up to adequate manning levels for an upcoming deployment, the influx of new personnel required the unit to devote additional time to readiness level (RL) progression training for the new pilots (PI). In addition, many of the new aviators arrived after most of the major training events had been completed, including aircraft gunnery. In order to ensure the new aviators had the opportunity to fire the aircraft weapon systems before deployment, additional aircraft gunnery was scheduled and a waiver was processed to train RL3 aviators on gunnery skills, day and night, prior to the deployment.
The mishap IP had more than 1,800 hours of flight time. The PI had 162 hours. This was the third flight for the PI since graduating flight school. The gunnery familiarization, day and night, was briefed as low risk.
The weather forecast called for visual flight rules (VFR) conditions throughout the mishap crew’s flight period. Winds were forecast from the north (360 degrees) at 12 knots, gusting to 18 knots, 6 statute miles visibility with light rain showers and ceilings overcast at 3,500 feet. There was no turbulence or icing forecast during the period. Pilot reports (PIREPS) indicated that the ceilings in some areas were approximately 700 feet AGL with 2 miles visibility. The winds were actually gusting to approximately 25 knots, which was corroborated by other aircrews and the range personnel. The illumination was 0 percent as the moon was not scheduled to rise during the range period.
The mishap IP failed to maintain control of the aircraft during the left turn following the engagement and failed to detect the unusual attitude and rapid descent rate that had developed during the mishap sequence. The same left turn was executed several times with the first period PI and subsequently with the mishap PI, without incident. The mishap PI’s responsibilities would have been focused inside the aircraft during the left turn to annotate the target handover, enter the target into the tactical situation display and then relay target information to the PI.
Several factors, when collectively presented, should be considered when a risk assessment is being developed or as conditions change during the conduct of a mission. Waivers to a standard operating procedure would warrant consideration for increased risk and appropriate mitigation. With the cited mishap, the use of an IP with an RL3 PI was required and appropriate. But it also highlighted the mishap PI’s inexperience in the aircraft, especially at night. Generally, night operations entail increased risk. This lack of experience coupled with increased workloads associated with gunnery tasks may have hindered the PI’s ability to assist the IP in airspace surveillance. Even crew coordination factors such as professional courtesy and overconfidence in the IP’s ability could delay a PI’s response when confronted with a deviation in the flight path. Additionally, operating at night with low illumination, lack of a visible horizon and minimal cultural lighting associated with impact areas required the crews to increase focus on flying the aircraft.
In the conduct of developing the mission risk, all personnel associated with the mission briefing/approval process must ensure the appropriate risk elements are addressed and mitigation is applied in the risk reduction effort. Utilizing the Army Aviation (Standardized) Risk-Common Operational Picture (R-COP) and assessments address key areas to evaluate. Further evaluation of the interaction between the key areas can yield additional areas of attention to be addressed. Taking an active role and identifying how the interactions may increase risk and instituting controls can prevent mishaps from occurring.