By NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST August 23, 2011
Our flight departed just after sunset and headed north toward Afghanistan. We always flew at altitude while in Pakistan to avoid small-arms fire, but when we crossed the Afghanistan border, we descended to terrain flight altitude. Once inside Afghanistan, the weather began to deteriorate and visibility steadily decreased due to blowing sand. The zero-illumination conditions and blowing sand made artificial lighting useless and a hindrance.
Despite the conditions, we picked our way through the sand dunes to Kandahar. After landing, I went to talk with the other crews about the return trip. After having a conversation with a friend who suggested we make the flight at 500 feet above ground level (AGL), I returned to tell the other pilots the change in plans.
During our run-up procedures, the briefed PC determined it would be too risky to fly at an altitude of 500 feet in Afghanistan. Instead of arguing, I decided we had made it in and we would make it back out the same way. I briefed the rest of the flight on the most current change. We departed Kandahar with no problems for the return trip.
We had been flying for about 15 minutes at 125 feet AGL when the lack of illumination and blowing sand made it impossible to see the desert floor. I was on the controls, and the other pilot was calling out altitude using the radar altimeter. I looked at the radar altimeter and saw our altitude had dropped to 100 feet. I put in a small amount of power to start a climb and noticed the radar altimeter read 80 feet. The next thing I saw was the radar altimeter reading eight feet.
At that point, a crewmember began yelling that he had terrain out the cabin door. I immediately applied maximum power and aft cyclic, but there was a huge impact " much like a car accident. The rotors lit up as the sand flew into the air from the impact. We both struggled to maintain control of the aircraft after striking the ground. No one saw it coming and we weren't sure if it was over, but within seconds, I regained control of the aircraft and returned to level flight.
We suddenly received a call over the intercom from our crew chief (CE) in the back that the ramp was missing. With our hands full flying the aircraft " to include eight caution capsules and inter-flight communications, among others " losing a ramp didn't seem like much of a problem. Hearing fear in the CE's voice, I tried to calm him down by telling him not to worry about the ramp. However, I was not expecting his next transmission: "Clay was on the ramp." Clay was our flight engineer (FE), and I knew there was no way he could survive what had just happened.
As hard as it was, we had to make a quick decision. We now had the task of saving the remaining five lives onboard the aircraft. We made a radio call to the rest of the flight to inform them we had lost our FE. The other aircraft volunteered to remain in the impact area to search for Clay. The weather continued to deteriorate and, while conducting a brief search, two more aircraft in the flight almost slammed into the ground.
We decided to make our way back to Kandahar. While en route, we performed a damage assessment. All four landing gear were ripped off, as was the ramp; both main fuel tanks were cracked; and the aircraft structure was bent in two places. We also had multiple fuel leaks and no utility hydraulic system.
Thankfully, there was good news. On our way back, the CE began yelling that we still had Clay. I thought, "What?" The CE spotted him hanging in his harness underneath the aircraft. He had done what was briefed and hooked his tail to the aircraft floor, not the ramp. The remaining three people in the back were unable to pull Clay into the aircraft. I knew that with the blowing sand, we never would be able to get him if we put him down.
We made an emergency call to tower, explained our position, and told them to have an ambulance waiting for us at the end of the runway. As we approached the runway, we had to be extremely careful. We couldn't land because we didn't have any gear, and we didn't want to cause any additional injuries to Clay. We lowered him to the runway, and the CE cut Clay's restraint.
After rescuing Clay, we continued down the runway and were instructed to hover until a landing pad could be constructed. Ground support personnel and fellow pilots built a landing pad out of Air Force pallets. I was able to get the aircraft on the pallets and shut it down without further incident. As it turned out, we'd hit a 150-foot wall of sand on the backside of a river valley. We didn't descend; rather, the ground came up and we never saw it.
When I think back on that night, there were many things we could have done that might have helped us avoid this situation. I want people to learn from what we went through because no one died. This was not a training mission, so the rest of the crew and I wanted to make sure we accomplished this mission.
This incident could have ended tragically, and I would venture to say we were about four feet from that happening. Zero-illumination operations are what we train to fly in and learn to love due to the concealment darkness provides. Nevertheless, when flying over very low-contrast terrain with blowing dust and sand, special considerations must be taken, including possible adjustments to altitude and airspeed. When I left Afghanistan, no NVG flights were allowed if illumination was below 23 percent. I'm not sure this restriction is the answer, but it has helped.
We all, as Army aviators, want to complete our missions successfully and safely. We must do whatever it takes to complete the mission, but we can't let things stack up against us to the point an accident happens. Remember that the mission can be changed without canceling it. If you have the luxury of flying with a crew in the back of the aircraft, listen to them. Without our crew's quick thinking and decision-making abilities, this would have been a fatal accident.
The final point I would like to mention is Clay hooked his tail to the aircraft floor and not to the ramp, just the way he had been taught. If he would have done otherwise, well, I don't want to think about that. All things considered, we were very lucky. I hope my experience will help others recognize when conditions warrant a change of mission.