By BOB VAN ELSBERG, Strategic Communication Directorate, U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center, Fort Rucker, Ala. December 9, 2011
That these accidents happened wasn't merely happenstance, said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dennis Seymour. As chief of the Aviation Safety Officer Course, he explained there are normally a series of events -- typically referred to as links in an accident chain -- that result in a crash. Seymour said the goal for students in the ASO, Ground Safety Office Course and Career Program-12 intern program is to learn to spot those links in time to prevent future accidents.
Although the Black Hawk is a relatively new "resident" of the crash lab, there are other modern aircraft, including the AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook and a pair of Hunter unmanned aircraft systems. Although dated, even a UH-1, known to generations of Soldiers as the "Huey," sits damaged from an accident during a Flat Iron mission. When things go wrong in the sky, gravity is most often the victor.
However, not all fatal crashes happen in the air; many more occur on the ground. Modern armored vehicles, designed to protect Soldiers from improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades, sometimes fall victim to rollover accidents. Reflecting that threat, an MRAP Raptor rests on its side, replicating an accident where a turret came off. Seymour said it's a type of accident that sometimes leaves Soldiers crushed or even cut in half.
As sobering as those thoughts are, combat is not where Soldiers are at greatest risk for fatal accidents. It's when the sounds of battle are far away and Soldiers are home driving their car or truck or riding their motorcycle or all-terrain vehicle that they most often let down their guard. Capturing that reality is a short section of curved, two-lane country road with the guardrail peeled back to the fifth pole. The wreckage of a car bears testimony to how a young Soldier lost control, slammed into the guardrail and died. Elsewhere, a crashed motocross bike recalls the death of an NCO on an installation off-road riding range. A damaged all-terrain vehicle depicts the night an intoxicated Soldier lost his way on an unlit gravel road, went into the trees and was killed. None of these accidents are fictional. Each one, Seymour said, was developed from an actual investigation.
Students in the aviation, ground and civilian intern safety classes are introduced to these accident scenes only after having completed weeks of classroom training. When it's time for them to go face-to-face with the facts, instructors have them assemble a team, selecting a board president, recorder, physician, maintenance officer and other advisers. They are given what is called a "redacted" (victims' personal information removed) red book containing certain facts about the actual accident. These may include the aircraft's heading, airspeed, where the crash occurred and information on survivors, if any.
Upon arriving at the lab, students tape off the crash site and begin collecting and analyzing the evidence as the board recorder photographs the accident site. Scouring the landscape for ground scars and examining pieces of wreckage for other clues, students unwind the events leading to the crash as they search for the contributing factors. Classes they have received in metallurgy equip them to spot things such as metal fatigue on tail rotors.
Their time at the lab is relatively brief, typically about four hours. After gathering the evidence, the students will return to their classrooms to deliberate the facts. However, that may change in the future, Seymour said. Plans are in place for an onsite industrial hygiene lab that will serve as a classroom, allowing students to easily return to crash sites and gather additional information.
Just as in an actual investigation, once the findings and recommendations have been determined, the students outbrief the unit's chain of command -- in this case, their instructors. But when they do, it will be after having gathered information at the most up-to-date and diverse crash dynamics lab within the Department of Defense. Nothing in the sister services or in the civilian community can compare, Seymour said.
That the new lab exists can be credited to Brig. Gen. William T. Wolf, director of Army Safety and commanding general of the USACR/Safety Center, who obtained $800,000 to expand and improve what had been a sorely out-of-date facility. He did so pursuing a specific goal.
"He wanted to make it more relevant to what we're doing today," Seymour said. "That's hard to do when you're using aircraft that are 40 years old. Most of the aviators flying today have never even strapped on a Huey before."
For Seymour, who has served as an accident investigator and is nearing the end of his career, seeing this come together has special significance.
"It's a kind of legacy that we can leave for the younger men and women who will use their training to help prevent accidents in the future," he said. "We've started something here that is going to continue for the Army from here on out."