Illustrations by Teb Wilbur
The Dangling Crew Chief
During a familiarization training flight, a senior H-53 helicopter air crew member, flying as crew chief, attempted to perform an unauthorized and unbriefed stunt. With only a quick discussion with one of the two other enlisted air crew members on the flight, the crew chief strapped into a gunner’s belt and eased himself backwards off the aircraft’s ramp into the windstream, while holding on to the back of the ramp. After taking a few pictures with her cell phone, one of the crew members walked forward, looked at the pictures, and placed the phone in her helmet bag. Upon returning, she noted that the crew chief appeared to be struggling, so she went aft to help.
Still unaware of what the crew chief was doing, the co-pilot noticed legs hanging below the aircraft in his mine countermeasures mirror. The co-pilot pointed this out to the helicopter aircraft commander (HAC), who asked the crew if all was well. The reply was that everything was fine. By this point, both of the other two air crew members were working frantically to help the crew chief back into the helicopter.
Realizing the situation was rapidly getting out of hand, one of the air crew members made a frantic call on the intercom system (ICS) for the pilots to slow down and descend. The co-pilot, who was at the controls, immediately began to slow and started a rapid descent with the intention of leveling in a hover at 20 feet above the water, a plan he failed to verbalize. With the aircraft passing through 175 feet with a rate of descent of 1,000 feet per minute, the HAC made a verbal power call and instructed the co-pilot to arrest his rate of descent. As the aircraft slowed, the crew chief turned blue, lost his grip on the ramp, and subsequently appeared to lose consciousness. With the aircraft moving forward slowly at approximately 130 feet, the crew chief slipped completely from the gunner’s belt and fell to the water. The crew chief’s body was recovered several hours later.
Post-flight investigation revealed the crew chief and several other squadron air crew members had discussed the stunt prior to the flight with no one voicing concern. The pilots were not aware of what the crew chief was attempting.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Jumpin’ Jehosephat! This kind of thing just steams my shorts! There ain’t no place in our brand of aviation whatsoever for that kind of tomfoolery. The only thing worse than that crew chief senselessly putting himself in harm’s way was the fact that his shipmates let him do it! The amount of crew coordination breakdowns on this one are enough to make ol’ Gramp’s head spin. No one told the pilots what was going on, and when the pilots first realized something fishy was afoot and asked, they were told all was well. Then the crew member trying to help the crew chief made an ICS call to the pilots to get that machine on the deck—the first sensible thing anyone did—but still didn’t communicate what was going on. The copilot who was drivin’ the beast had a plan to get down, but didn’t say anything to the HAC, and spooked him with his rate of descent.
So here are my questions, kids, and I hope you are already formulatin’ the same ones in your noggins. Why didn’t anyone tell the crew chief he was settin’ himself up for some problems? And when things started goin’ south, why didn’t that crew member say something to the pilots right away? And how about the biggest question of all—where was the dang-blasted leadership? Senseless waste, kids, that’s all it is. Senseless!
So let me settle myself down and let’s learn from this one, ’cause that is the ONLY good thing to come out of this tragedy. If you think someone is fixing to do something that needlessly puts themselves or others in a bad place, you HAVE to do something to stop it. Have the moral courage to say “This is wrong.” That’s what Uncle Sam expects from all his Sailors and Marines, and durnit, that’s the right thing to do!
Now you kids get back to work. Gramps is gonna meander down to the south 40 and see if my winter wheat is coming up yet.
Gramps from Yesteryear…
Three F/A-18 Hornets launched from the NAS on an air combat maneuvering training flight with an “opponent” section consisting of an F-14 Tomcat and an F-4 Phantom. The Hornets proceeded separately to the working area.
The Hornet flight leader began a left turn to establish a southerly intercept heading, with number two on his left wing and number three on the right. A moment later, number two (the section leader) called. “Let’s come right,” to reverse the section to the right, accomplish a 270-degree turn, and establish an eight- to 10-mile trail position on the division leader. Number three said, “OK,” and maneuvered his aircraft from a right-wing position to cross above and to the left of number two in the turn.
Passing through a southeasterly heading, the section leader called, “Three not visual.” (The last time the section leader had visually sighted number three was at commencement of the division leader’s left turn.)
The section leader next said, “Two’s at 22,000.”
“Roger,” acknowledged the unseen number three.
The section leader reported his position “on the western side of the ridge.”
“Looking,” said number three.
The section leader said he was “nine miles in trail [of the flight leader].”
Number three transmitted, “Roger.” At this point, three left his position 2,000 feet above and to the left of the section leader in a descent, southward.
After a few more seconds, number three collided with the section leader, nose section to tail section. There was heavy damage to number three’s nose section and to the aft underside and nozzle area of the section leader. Altitude was about 22,000 feet at impact. The pilot of number three was subjected to direct exhaust blast from the section leader’s engine and sustained fatal injuries when cockpit integrity was breached. The aircraft crashed one minute after the midair collision.
The section leader’s Hornet was marginally controllable, the aft portion of the engines and airframe damaged. He headed for a divert airfield. The situation worsened as other systems failed to operate properly. The flight leader joined on him and saw flames, approximately the length of the F/A-18, emanating from the left engine area, and reported the same to the pilot. Shortly, the section leader was unable to maintain altitude or airspeed. He realized he could not reach the divert field and prepared for ejection. He radioed the divert field about his intentions but received no response. He successfully ejected just above 4,000 feet.
Parachute descent was normal and the pilot was ambulatory after landing. Search-and-rescue procedures were initiated and the pilot communicated with the flight leader circling overhead, using the PRC-90 emergency radio. Ground parties arrived as helicopter assistance was en route. The pilot was taken to a nearby hospital. He suffered minor injuries.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Gol dang it, this is a heartbreaker! Troops, you just gotta maintain safe separation distance, ’specially when you’re movin’ those high-tech machines around out there. Havin’ the best equipment in the universe won’t help if you drop your guard even for an instant. The basic rules of safety don’t change.
We don’t know why the pilot descended through the section leader’s altitude. Maybe he misunderstood the geographic position call. Whatever, ’pears he got a couple of thousand feet above and maybe even ahead of the other Hornet in the turn and couldn’t see him. He made some adjustments, came down at a good clip, and then slammed into the section leader’s tail—with tragic results. The decision to descend, without seeing the other aircraft, was critical. Remember that…and keep your distance…PLEASE!
(Originally published in September-October 1991)