Grampaw Pettibone: The Blade Connection

Illustrations by Ted Wilbur.


Two CH-53Ds and one CH-46 were to engage in an external lift of hulk vehicles to and from a confined-area pickup zone. The helicopter aircraft commander (HAC) of helo Dash 1 briefed the flight to proceed as three individual units under his control as mission commander. Each HAC then conducted individual crew briefs. Taxi and takeoff sequences were not briefed. Dash 1 HAC was delayed in operations for a last-minute brief and tasked his copilot to brief the crew and preflight the aircraft. The Dash 1 copilot complied. He also instructed the crew chief to re-spot the CH-53 for more rotor blade clearance during the turn-up. When the HAC arrived at the aircraft, he performed a cursory inspection and decided that the re-spot was unnecessary.

After engine start and pre-taxi checks were completed, a mechanic on a nearby helicopter anticipated Dash 1’s need for a taxi director and positioned himself accordingly. After receiving taxi clearance, Dash 1 began rolling forward under control of the taxi line. The taxi director saw he was no longer needed and, in fact, was being forced to run backward to avoid being run over by the aircraft. He rendered an informal salute to indicate termination of his taxi direction. Dash 1 HAC acknowledged the salute.

The direction of taxi placed the sun at the pilot’s 11 o’clock position, 10 to 15 degrees above the horizon. Dash 2 was parked facing in the same direction with rotors turning, in the center of a painted H-2 ramp parking circle located 64 feet right and 150 feet ahead of Dash 1’s taxi line. The Dash 1 HAC taxied to the left of this line as he approached Dash 2, to provide what he considered a margin of safety. No taxi director was present. The crew chief was occupied with preparing the cargo pendant in the aft section of the cargo compartment. The first mechanic was looking out the left gunner’s window. The copilot noted that the blade tip clearance was going to be close, but made no comment to the HAC who was talking on the radio. As Dash 1 passed abeam Dash 2, the main rotors of the two helos suddenly intermeshed. Both aircraft immediately began to oscillate violently, knocking the crew about, as flying blade fragments sprayed the area. All aircraft were immediately shut down and the aircrews egressed without serious injury.


GramPaw Pettibone saysGrampaw Pettibone said:

Holy rotatin’ razors. This close a shave gives old Singed Whiskers a real rash!

In addition to plain old pilot error, Gramps smells a little contributory negligence in this, along with some supervisory error thrown in just for luck (all bad).

The fact that the copilot did not issue a warning, the crew chief was busy in the cabin, the taxi director released the aircraft while in a congested area, and the pilot’s primary concern was with a radio transmission instead of his aircraft, indicates not only poor crew coordination but general incompetence.

Facts concerning the marginal performance of this pilot as an HAC were well known to squadron supervisory personnel for some time but, due to a shortage of aircraft commanders, he was kept on the job. Gramps totally agrees with one endorser who stated: “When your HAC cannot hack it, it’s high time his qualification be reevaluated!” In addition, a copilot who sits idly by and allows his pilot to taxi into a parked helo without speaking up—even though he had just been reproved for antagonistically challenging the pilot over alterations to the pre-start checklist—is more kindergarten than professional.

This deviation from NATOPS and good sense directives, to engage in a childish act of kiddie bumper cars, resulted in needless, but significant, damage to two CH-53Ds, four CH-46Fs, and minor injury to two crew members.

You can rest assured that this “Blade Connection” is not a novel by Robin Moore. It ain’t novel at all!

(Originally published in March 1981 Naval Aviation News)

Right and Wrong

Following a thorough briefing, the pilot, copilot, and crew manned their E-2B Hawkeye for a night training mission. The entire prelaunch and launch cycle was uneventful and, after approximately three hours, the E-2 returned to the carrier.

A standard carrier controlled approach was flown. At three-quarter mile, with the aircraft established on the centerline and on glide slope, the pilot called the ball. The LSO rogered the ball and called for “little power and attitude.” The Hawkeye drifted a little left in the middle and the LSO called “right for line-up.” The pilot answered all calls correctly and crossed the ramp in good position; however, the plane was in a slight left-to-right drift.

The aircraft went flat across all four cross-deck pendants in a steady right drift, touching down beyond the wires at a point six to eight feet forward of the number four cable. The touchdown point was six to eight feet right of centerline with the aircraft still drifting right. Maximum power was added for the bolter and the aircraft stopped drifting and continued down the angled deck, 15 feet right of centerline. Prior to becoming airborne, the E-2B’s starboard wingtip made contact with the upper rudder sections of four A-7s parked clear of the foul line.

The pilot or crew was not aware of hitting the A-7s until notified by approach control. The crew then flew the aircraft to altitude where they performed a successful slow flight check. The only discrepancies noted by the crew were a missing wingtip cap and the fact that the flaps would not come up past the 1/3 position. The pilot reported a slightly mushy feeling in the controls. A foreign object damage walkdown was performed on the flight deck to clear debris. The pilot flew another controlled approach, resulting in a hook skip. The third approach terminated in an uneventful arrestment. The aircrew exited the aircraft in a normal manner.

The investigation revealed that, on the first approach, the waving LSO stated the pilot overcontrolled a low start, drifted left in the middle but corrected nicely and, from an in-close position, was on centerline and on glide slope. The LSO further stated that the pilot decreased his rate of descent approaching the wires but was on centerline and appeared to have the wires made. The right-drift during the final phase of the bolter was confirmed by the Pilot Landing Aid Television System tape.

The pilot, copilot, and air boss all stated that they observed the aircraft landing right of centerline four to eight feet. Evidence of the off-center landing was a line of tailhook trail marks clearly visible at 15 feet right of centerline. The impact was discovered by a taxi director who noticed debris. Damage to all the A-7s was limited. The E-2 damage was, fortunately, minor.


GramPaw Pettibone saysGrampaw Pettibone says:

Great balls of fire! What the heck goes on in this squadron’s operations office? This pilot was scheduled for this night flight in violation of the LSO NATOPS. The pilot was not current for the night flight. I believe I would have a piece of one operations officer and one so-called “scheduler”!

On the other hand, this was no excuse for the pilot to goof the approach. Besides, the driver is most certainly responsible for bringing his “non-currency” status to the attention of scheduling personnel. Lotsa people had their hands in this mess! ’Nuff sed!

(Originally published in August 1975 Naval Aviation News)