As the SDO was reaching for the mishap binder, he received another call from the wing command duty officer (CDO). He reported that a local resident identified a smoking HSL-49 helicopter descending low over San Diego Bay close to Turner Field. The phone rang again. This time, the duty petty officer picked up the extension. “Sir, it’s the Coronado Fire Department. They are saying there was a helicopter crash with fuel spilled everywhere. They want us to confirm that we don’t have ordnance on the bird.” According to the flight schedule, however, the aircraft had launched for a defensive maneuvering training flight with flares onboard. The drill scenario was building.
The base CDO called in. He needed more information regarding the crew and mission. He asked for confirmation. Just then, another call came in " more confusion. The SDO passed the phone to a fellow pilot. He raced in to brief the basic facts to the commanding officer (CO). The CO asked some pointed questions and then picked up the phone to call the commodore.
In this drill, as in a real mishap case, the duty office phone may be constantly ringing with information all over the veracity scale. The SDO, feeling task saturated, paused in his checklist and reset. Opening page 1 of the HSL-49 pre-mishap plan, he read the first words in front of him, “Don’t panic.” Taking a breath, he looked up from the binder, grabbed the first available person and doled out sections of the pre-mishap plan. The once chaotic duty office started to take shape as an orderly command center, the frantic SDO now managing information flow and directing traffic.
At Turner Field, there was a different sense of chaos. Red Stinger 104, our flyer and static display for the drill, rested comfortably on the helicopter pad. The crew sat idly at their stations, awaiting rescue. The SDO at HSL-49 was not the only person to receive the report of a downed helicopter. As North Island Tower received the report of a simulated downed helicopter, the emergency command net for NBC was alive with chatter. Within minutes, the federal fire department, NBC security forces and the Coronado City fire department raced to the scene, unsure of the extent of the damage. On North Island, the base executive officer (XO) established his emergency operations center (EOC) and assumed command of the effort.
This mishap drill was not limited to one SDO and one squadron pre-mishap plan. Two weeks earlier, I sat in a conference room as a member of a training team consisting of representatives from eight emergency responder agencies and NBC officials. The goals of the mishap drill were to exercise the base emergency response plan and evaluate the effectiveness of the first responder organizations. NBC officials also did not pre-brief their organizations.
We conducted helicopter familiarization training 101 with local federal firefighters three days before the drill. We reviewed basic aircraft configuration, armament and egress procedures. This training proved invaluable. Many of the new firefighters were not familiar with the location or hazard distances of the many cartridge aided devices (CADs) on the SH-60B Seahawk. I learned that most firefighters did not receive training to rescue an aircrew unless they were part of an airfield crash crew. We also discussed pressurized sonobuoy launchers, flares and forward-firing ordnance. I also learned that the first step in any injury case is to slice open the item of clothing that covers the injury. Since our drill scenario simulated a broken leg and the survivor was my XO, I requested that the crash crew to simulate shredding his flight clothing.
Meanwhile, at the squadron, I ran to maintenance control to see how the effort was going. I stepped to the counter and the aviation administration specialist handed me the logs, records and aircraft discrepancy book (ADB) for RS 104. The maintenance chief handed me the Naval Aviation Logistics Command/Management Information System data tape after locking down the system. So far, their response was exactly by the book. I returned topside with the aircraft histories and secured them in the safe. In an adjacent work center, the maintenance officer (MO) assembled the emergency reclamation team (ERT) for training. Each member left with instructions to prepare for overnight aircraft security and care. Two ERT members grabbed the mishap kit and extra supplies necessary for initial security.
Topside, I convened the aircraft mishap board (AMB) primary and secondary members. Since the XO was a member of the mishap crew, I, as the aviation safety officer (ASO), became the senior member. As a detachment officer-in-charge (OIC), you will likely be the senior member in the event of a mishap. This statement holds true for the young helicopter second pilot as well. It is vital that all members of the squadron or detachment are intimately familiar with the pre-mishap plan. No two accidents are the same and you may be required to serve a pivotal role during the first 24 hours of a mishap.
I began the AMB training with the question, “Now what?” It was clear this training would be free play " less lecture and more practicum relying on board members to enact their role. Murphy’s Law states mishaps are likely to occur at the most inconvenient time when no one is around. Due to deployed commitments, we had only 12 pilots at home guard. Everyone participated in training that day.
At the aircraft, first responders rescued the flight crew and secured the simulated crash scene. The drill scenario entered its third phase and the fire chief announced there was significant fuel spilled in the area and the potential for pyrotechnic flares to ignite. Because of that, people needed to evacuate the area. The NBC emergency team staked out the base gym facilities and initiated their disaster relief plan. Coronado residents and local military families needed care. Post-disaster relief and stability operations often fall to an afterthought, but it was at the forefront now and an important pillar in the base mishap plan.
Our mishap drill tested the response of the NBC and Coronado Emergency Services and the effectiveness of our squadron pre-mishap plan. Following the drill, the training team assembled to debrief. We shared lessons learned and addressed shortfalls. We were able to eliminate redundancy and streamline the interagency communication process. Conducting an unannounced drill provided us deeper insight into our planned mishap responses and showed us better ways to improve the process. The SDO learned an important lesson that day. As aviators and aircraft commanders, we take charge.
As part of my turnover as safety officer, I remembered to update the recall roster with my name and phone number in the event of a mishap. I neglected, however, to review the roster for our ERT in the monthly maintenance plan. While the roster was current with non-deployed personnel, our maintenance team discovered that a majority of the personnel were dayshift workers on our primary and secondary teams. We looked hard at the balance of qualifications within our shops and considered a more equal weighting based on shift schedule. As it was, if a mishap occurred at night, there was a good possibility we’d be sending out a fatigued and less-focused team to secure the scene.
The NBC EOC was an excellent command and control facility with an extensive communication suite. Previously, I was not fully aware of its capabilities or benefits to the command and control environment. We learned a mishap requires the coordination of multiple local and military agencies. The EOC is an ideal location with trained personnel to fulfill the command role.
The squadron’s safety culture is pivotal to the success of your mishap drills. From the beginning, we insisted that the drill be integrated into our normal daily operations. It was equally important all other operations were stopped during the mishap drill. We knew we would lose scheduled events and disrupt the entire command, but a focused squadron effort is required for the success of a mishap drill.
The mishap drill satisfied a number of training requirements, but wickets are not the driving force behind these events. You can simplify mishap drills, send a message to the SDO and gauge his ability to activate the mishap plan. You can make a drill transparent to the daily operations of your command, but we did not that day. Everyone at HSL-49 leapt into action. The flightline shut down. The familiar chattering of computer keyboards ceased. This effect was heightened because it was an unannounced drill. We always train as we expect to fight. Mishap training should be no different. Realism, especially for the new SDO or young airman in the shop, is the most important factor in a successful mishap drill.