Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

May-June 2008

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Cobra Crunch!

All aircrew involved in a two-ship AH-1W Cobra mission had flown a similar event in the same working area at least once in the previous two days. On this day, the mission commander did not use a briefing guide for the brief. They did not discuss operational risk management during the brief nor did any of the aircrew sign an operational risk management (ORM) assessment. The mission commander did not brief instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) procedures, lost aircraft procedures, or how the aircraft were to rendezvous in flight if one aircraft was delayed. At the conclusion of the brief there were no questions regarding the brief from the aircrew in attendance.

Local authorities familiar with the area briefed the crew concerning hazards, noise sensitive areas and airfield operations. Just over an hour later, the lead Cobra launched to conduct night reconnaissance operations in its assigned area. The second aircraft had maintenance issues during start up and launched 20 minutes later after corrective maintenance.

Upon checking in, local control transferred the division lead to a second facility. When Dash 2 checked in, the division lead asked the second aircraft to state their position. Dash 2 replied, “we are 14 miles northeast.” Local control attempted to contact Dash 1 but received no response. Dash 2 offered to relay. The ground controller passed to Dash 2 where he wanted the second section to conduct flight reconnaissance. Dash 2 relayed this information incorrectly. Dash 1’s response was “roger, we are looking at something, standby.”

Dash 2 then entered the working area and descended to approximately 300 feet. Eager to begin the reconnaissance mission and knowing that possible targets had been located, Dash 2 did so without determining the position of Dash 1.

Less than two minutes later, the flight paths of Dash 1and Dash 2 merged in a co-altitude, right-to-right pass, at a separation of approximately 41 feet. Neither aircraft made an evasive maneuver prior to the collision. The two Cobras’ blades struck approximately 3 feet from the blade tip, tearing the rotor head and transmission assemblies from both aircraft. Both aircraft crashed and burned with all four aviators killed.

The subsequent investigation revealed that two of the mishap aviators had flown as a crew a few nights before the fatal flight. During that flight, the crew made numerous procedural errors and examples of poor airmanship, including airspace encroachment without permission. But following that flight, the section did not conduct a debrief.

grampa_pettibone_says_leftMishaps like this one get Gramps to wondering if anybody out there listens to him at all. If “brief the flight, fly the brief” ain’t the oldest saw known to them what sport shoes o’ brown then I don’t know what is. I don’t care how many times you done flown in an op area or how repetitive hops seem.

BRIEF THE FLIGHT. FLY THE BRIEF. Oh, and another thing: debrief the flight.

We may not have had a fancy ORM set up when I was flyin’ missions, but we knew better than to ignore obvious risks. Not only did these folks ignore briefing procedures, but then they ignored another tool ’ol Gramps thinks is pretty good. ORM is that new fangled tool to find all the risks you might not’a seen before they become trouble. Just one more step that might have saved some lives.

Oh, you can—as Nipper Pettibone says—“blow me off” if you want. But before you do, think of these four dead aviators and this midair that was oh-so-preventable.

’Nuff said… again.