A helicopter det. had been deployed for one week aboard a frigate engaged in counter-narcotics operations. Because of several factors, including weather and mechanical issues, det. pilots had not completed night vision device (NVD) landing qualifications. On the day of the mishap, the det. planned to perform their qualifications, but higher authority directed the frigate to slide the flight schedule four hours to pursue a contact of interest. At 1400 local time, the det. officer in charge (OIC) held an all air crew meeting to discuss the delay and to cancel the planned NVD qualifications for the evening. He directed all pilots to get some rest.
At 1800, higher authority canceled the helo ops to allow the frigate to maintain a covert posture. The det. OIC discussed this with the ship’s commanding officer. Together they contacted the controlling agency and convinced them to allow helo participation. The flight schedule was reinstated with event one scheduled to launch at 2200. The crew on event two reported 600-800-foot ceilings, three miles visibility, overcast skies, light drizzle, and “quite dark.”
By the time event three launched, it was 0530 local. On takeoff, the helicopter aircraft commander (HAC), who was also the pilot at the controls, lifted to a hover and transitioned aft. The HAC then turned left in the direction of the relative wind and started to transition to forward flight without the pausing required by NATOPS. Observers reported the aircraft exhibited a nose-down attitude almost immediately after transitioning to forward flight. The helo appeared low and descended slowly during the departure, and it struck the water shortly after takeoff. None of the crew members was recovered.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Gol-darnit! Challenging conditions plus crews that ain’t fully qualified to use their equipment, plus an overly aggressive posture, is a recipe for a whole lot of badness. Gramps has some thoughts about leadership in this case, but first let’s look at the crew. What were them whirlybird boys thinking? Twenty hours without sleep may work when you are getting ready for yer animal husbandry final in college, but it ain’t no way to prep for some seriously difficult flying over the great briny at night. Gramps wants our corps of aviators to be hard-charging go-getters, but nothin’ whitens my whiskers like bearing yer fangs when they ain’t sharp enough to do the job. By all accounts the pilot was a crackerjack aviator yet he failed to follow NATOPS procedures on the takeoff—and that just don’t make sense until you find out he was just plain dog tired. Unless the bubble is up and we are in a gut-bustin’, mother-loving naval war, someone has to have the sense to say “ENOUGH!”
These guys weren’t ready for this mission, they were tired and didn’t have the ability to use them marvelous night vision thingies we have these days. While Gramps would like to hope them boys would feel comfortable to say “uncle,” I also know that really ain’t in our nature—and that brings us back to that leadership point.
Gramps ain’t fond of drugs, druggies, or drug runners, but I gotta question the decision by the OIC and the frigate’s Old Man to allow these kids to fly that night. Shoot, even the boss on the beach said they weren’t really needed. Taking risk is what we promise to do when we put on the coveted wings of gold, but ain’t nowhere it says to take an unnecessary risk. While the captain is always the ultimate decider on his or her ship, that aviator OIC has got to give the skipper wise counsel. In this case it seems to me the wisest course of action was to call it a day and concentrate on getting them kids qualled on them goggles as soon as possible.
So let’s make a quick school circle and learn a lesson from this tragedy—it’s the only good that comes out of these things. For you JOs, you got to know when you are at your limit and let someone know about it. And if you are ever placed in a position where you are responsible for the lives of others, make good decisions by weighing the importance of the mission against the risks you are taking. Now you kids go skedaddle and get back to work, Gramps is gonna go clean my shotgun for tomorrow’s dove hunt.
Gramps from Yesteryear…
“Perform condition four checks,” the pilot in command of the P-3A aircraft instructed his crew following an uneventful preflight and takeoff on a routine training mission. While the crew was checking to ensure there were no fumes in the aircraft, a large domestic cat emerged from the galley and dashed forward toward the cockpit. An alert crewman, seated aft of the copilot, spotted the cat and made two valiant attempts to block the cat from entering the cockpit.
The frenzied feline, undaunted by the two frantic forearm swats, made a third and this time successful attempt to claw its way into the cockpit. On this pass, the cat pounced upon the crewman’s Nomex-covered right forearm and immediately commenced to rearrange the order of his epidermis.
The pilot became aware of the ensuing struggle when the observer emitted a bloody scream as he pried the clawing cat loose and flung it to the deck. Landing feet first, as always, the tenacious kitty quickly sidestepped the crewman, ducked under the copilot’s seat, and then disappeared under the decking forward of the copilot’s rudder pedals. The pilot, taking stock of the situation, aborted the mission, returned to home base, and obtained medical attention for his clawed crewman.
After an exhaustive internal postflight search, the aircraft was sealed and bait set out to entice the cat out of hiding. After a short wait, the ground crew dismantled several sections of the aircraft flooring. The cat, along with two kittens, seven to 10 days old, discovered nesting beneath the cockpit deck area, were corralled and placed in precautionary rabies quarantine.
Grampaw Pettibone says:
Holy flying feline ferocities! This aerial Clyde Beatty act sounds more like a “Nine-Lives Eveready Battery” commercial than a normal air crew training mission.
Old Sagebrushface here was intrigued and amused with this event, but had some difficulty sorting out all the lessons learned. Some of the more apparent ones seem to be:
1. A thorough preflight doesn’t guarantee that all is bliss. One should be prepared for the unexpected, even a meow or a hiss.
2. “Purring” can emanate from sources other than finely tuned engines.
3. The galley cat’s entry into the aircraft is a bit of a mystery. However, the cat’s reaction and attack on the crewman is no mystery. It’s not wise to fool with Mother Nature or Momma Cats, either.
4. Nomex is fire retardant but not feline resistant, and is a poor substitute for armor plating during aerial cat attacks.
5. Last, but not least, I suppose we should add to the age-old saying that the flight is not over ’til the paperwork is complete, “and you put the cat out!”
In summary, the crew’s reaction to the unexpected in-flight incident was as expected: professional! The decision to abort the flight and put the cat out was indeed wise. This kitty had at least 40 lives at stake: the 13 P-3 crewmen, her nine, and nine for each of the two kittens. Had any one of the latter 27 lives become entangled in the flight controls, the lives of the other 13 would surely have been in jeopardy.
(Originally published in November 1982)