Illustrations by Ted Wilbur
A helicopter crew experienced an auto blade track caution light with the onset of vibrations during a training mission. The pilot in command reset the auto blade track system, completed the mission, and landed to debrief and refuel prior to returning to base. The crew did not conduct the NATOPS-required postflight or preflight inspection during the stopover. During the subsequent startup, the air crewman noticed an unusual object hanging from the main rotor head and alerted the helicopter aircraft commander (HAC). Instead of inspecting the discrepancy, the HAC elected to launch from the ship for a return to base.
Immediately after takeoff, the crew noticed a substantial one-per-revolution vibration. The pilot in command tried to manually track the blades, which only increased the vibrations. In response to the increased vibrations, he returned the blade track system to automatic and increased power to hasten the return to base. Shortly thereafter, a loud bang was heard in the vicinity of the main rotor accompanied by the onset of severe vibrations and nose up pitch. The co-pilot (pilot flying) entered an autorotation while the pilot in command secured the engine control levers. The aircraft ditched, rolled right, and sank. All three crewmembers utilized the helicopter emergency egress device (HEED) bottles and escaped safely. The subsequent safety investigation revealed no personal or physiological factors and faulted the crew for disregarding NATOPS pre- and postflight requirements, poor decision making, and poor crew resource management.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Boys and girls, this is one of those dag’ gum no-brainers! Gramps wants to get back to home base to see Miss Ellie as much as the next guy, but I ain’t gonna risk my hide to do it when I know there’s something sketchy going on in my flying machine! Back when I was a youngster in Pensacola, Lt. “Spuds” Ellyson taught me that a thorough postflight and preflight are the best insurance policies around. Best of all was they didn’t cost a cent. I still do it with my pickup, my shotgun, and my dentures to this day! These boys just didn’t take the few extra seconds to look that whirlybird over and cover their hides.
What’s even more important than that insurance policy is a good crew, and these hard chargers had one. If you got a kid in the back who tells you something is danglin’ at the wrong angle, you gotta stop and listen! That young ’un is along for the ride in the back, and has a vested interest in the health of the steed he’s riding. I’ll bet my britches that he wasn’t looking for a swim in the big salt pond.
Now ol’ Gramps is a pretty smart guy, but I know full well that I ain’t smarter than NATOPS. When something’s amiss, I’m gonna do what it tells me. This pilot had a serious case of “Get Home-itis” and decided to ignore both NATOPS and his air crewman. NATOPS says plain and simple to do a postflight and preflight—including visually inspecting the rotor head—on every leg. What’s even more confounding is that he ignored NATOPS again when he experienced those stinkin’ vibrations on the second leg and they got worse when he tried to manually track the rotors. Then for some durned reason, he INCREASED power, which was the straw that broke this camel’s back.
They didn’t have a whole bunch of them helio-copters around when Gramps was a kid, but even the dumb kid in the back of the class knows that vibrations in a whirlybird are bad. Now, huddle up ’round ol’ Gramps and listen here for just a second—this goes for you boys and girls with wings on your flyin’ machines too: If you’re out flyin’ and you feel something out of whack, stop thinkin’ about gettin’ home and start thinkin’ about gettin’ somewhere safe, like on land. Use the experience from the boys and girls that were smart enough to put it in NATOPS: When all you’re thinking about is getting her back to the barn, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.
Now you kids go get some flyin’ in; Gramps is gonna cool off out on the front porch and see if I can talk Miss Ellie into coming over for a visit.
Gramps from Yesteryear
Bird to Paradise
The P-3 crew was to fly from NAS East Coast to NAS West Islands for a professional conference. They planned the journey thoroughly. A week prior to departure, the maintenance officer told the pilot he would be flying an Orion fresh from a scheduled depot-level maintenance. The maintenance officer wanted the crew, which included three patrol plane commanders, to wring out all the systems. “Bring back a stack of gripes on this aircraft,” the pilot was told.
Just before takeoff, the number three engine disconnect pressure low light came on. The P-3 returned to the line. Repairs were made and the Orion launched.
The P-3 landed at NAS West Coast. Prior to shutdown the pilot directed a recheck of high-frequency (HF) radios, radar, inertials, etc.—systems that would be essential for the next day’s over-ocean leg. All checked 4.0.
Next morning the airfield was shrouded in fog. On preflight, none of the gear that checked OK the previous day was operative. Both HF radios and the radar were hard down. The local NAS had depot-level maintenance available, and several hours later the aircraft was mission-capable once again. The fog had lifted and the Orion took off for the islands.
During the descent into the destination field, the starboard aft observer cautioned the pilots that the HF wire antenna on his side had separated from the vertical stabilizer and was slapping against the side of the aircraft.
Although there was no structural damage observed after shutdown at NAS West Islands, the P-3’s brand-new paint job was scarred.
After the conference, the P-3 crew was about to take off for the return trip east. The auxiliary power unit door would not close, however, and the Orion taxied back for repairs.
The exhaust door actuator had failed in the fully-open position and a supply system check revealed none available on station. The pilot decided the best alternative was to bolt the door closed. It took a search of several squadrons to obtain the correct part.
Those repairs made, the P-3 finally launched. But on climbing out, both HF radios and the radar quit. The pilot decided to hold 100 miles east of the departure point and burn down to landing weight. It was about midnight and the P-3 was in a solid overcast at 15,000 feet. Icing was so severe that constant wing de-icers were required to keep the wings clean.
The crew descended below the overcast, dumped fuel, and returned to the base for more repairs.
Taxiing in to the line, both HFs and the radar mysteriously fixed themselves and began working. The crew reevaluated the situation, checked the time remaining with respect to crew rest requirements, and decided to continue the nonstop flight to NAS East Coast. They topped off with fuel and took off.
For the first two hours of the hop, the equipment worked. Then the P-3 lost HF communications with the air traffic control center. The crew raised an overhead Pan Am airliner and passed position reports through it until reaching the mainland. Ultimately, they landed at NAS East Coast, just under the maximum “crew day” with just over minimum “on top” fuel.
Ol’ Gramps ain’t so sure it’s positive thinkin’ tellin’ the aviators to “bring back a stack of gripes” on the aircraft. And I can’t tell what they did with that antenna wire, from the report I got. Sometimes those HF radios worked and sometimes they didn’t.
But I do know this: It’s best to have a dress rehearsal before opening night. A thorough, local test hop woulda saved a lotta grief for this crew. And for the metalsmiths: I wouldn’t want to be around when they saw the scraped paint and that bolt in the exhaust door!
Originally published in September-October 1990.