Grampaw Pettibone

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Helo Hard Down!

A section of UH-1N Hueys was selected to provide assault support for the operational test and evaluation of a new mobile ground-based air-defense system. After an initial flyover of the ground forces, the Hueys set up for section terrain flight (TERF) maneuvers prior to commencing random attack profiles. During these initial maneuvers, the co-pilot of dash 2 was flying and fell into what was characterized as “excessive trail.” The lead helo instructed dash 2 to “catch up or blow up.” After 10 minutes of section TERF, the section set up for the random attack profiles. Attacks were performed at low altitude and at one point the ground forces commented on how low the lead was on ingress, to which the lead replied “It’s all relative.”

On the final run, the section separated with the lead attacking from the east and dash 2 from the north. As dash 2 pulled off from its run, their crew chief and a qualified observer saw the lead in their attack run, low in a wash. As dash 2 completed its pull off, they heard the ground forces on the radio call “Helo hard down!” Ground witnesses told mishap investigators that except for occasional glances of the main rotors they could not see, but only hear, the mishap aircraft as it ingressed. One very experienced infantry officer stated “I have never seen a helo fly as low as the helo that crashed flew. Ever.”

As the mishap aircraft came into view it was in a left turn, apparently attempting to avoid a large bush and remain masked. As the helo began rolling out of the turn, the main rotors struck the left side of the wash, causing the fuselage to pitch forward resulting in additional contact of the main rotors with the wash floor. As the aircraft struck the wash floor, the tailboom became partially severed and dragged along as the fuselage slid and rolled, crushing the cockpit and cabin compartment. Marines on the ground, including two corpsmen, provided immediate assistance. Two of the crew were killed instantly. The other two crew members were airlifted to a nearby medical center, where they later succumbed to their injuries.

Post mishap investigation revealed the flight schedule called for a 0500 brief and a 0700 launch. However, the brief began late because the mishap pilot, who was also mission commander, was 10 minutes late while the co-pilot in dash 2 was 50 minutes late because he didn’t know he was on the flight schedule and had to be awakened by the squadron duty officer. Although all pilots were aware that TERF would be required as part of the mission, there was no discussion about it during the section brief.

GramPaw Pettibone says
Grampaw Pettibone Says:

Durn it. Just durn it all! I got a big ‘ol lump in my throat just thinking about this one. It’s good that we learn from these events — but in this case the price was way too high for any learnin’ we are gonna squeeze out of it.
You know Gramps understands and even endorses a warrior mindset of fly hard, fight hard, and win. I ain’t a soapbox safety officer and won’t preach being careful over being tactical because this is, after all, a very dangerous business and sometimes we have to take risks. But here’s the thing kids, if you are gonna push it and train hard so you can fight hard, you gotta do it right — exactly right. No matter how salty you are, you gotta be disciplined as you lean forward.

I’m just not seeing it here — two pilots late to the brief, one of them didn’t even know he was flying, no discussion of TERF procedures and tactics, and a couple of radio calls that made the little grey hairs on the back of Gramp’s neck hackle-up and what appears to be overly aggressive flying based on the situation all add up to what appears to be a general lapse of discipline. 

Aviation and strike warfare are about daring and precision. If you have one of those without the other, life’s gonna be tough. Think of all the things we do that require precision: pushing from an initial position on an attack, putting a sonobouy in the right spot of the great briny, and landing on the boat on a dark night are just three of the basics we have to nail every time. The closer you get to the rocks or water, the more precise you better be because touching the ground unintentionally while in the act of operating your flying machine is generally the last thing you do. So put your eyeballs on me kids and let’s learn a lesson from this painful tragedy: Preparation for flight, and the execution of every flight demands precision and attention to detail, and the lower your altitude, the more focused you have to be. Do not, do not, DO NOT accept a lack of discipline from yourself or anyone you fly with.

Now you kids get back to work — Gramps needs to go wash his socks. 

Gramps from Yesteryear

gramps_YYShucks and Flashlights
An instructor pilot was scheduled for three flights in one day in a T-34C. Upon completion of the first flight,the aircraft landed at home field as planned and was refueled. During the preflight inspection of the TurboMentor for the next sortie, the instructor discovered fluid on the cowling. He asked maintenance to check for a possible leak. A mechanic looked over the engine area and stated there was no problem and the aircraft was ready for launch.

The pilot took off and flew the next flight to another air base. Upon landing, the pilot was advised to call his home air station regarding a possible problem. He did and was told the mechanic who had checked out the fluid on the cowling was missing his flashlight and that the instructor needed to examine the engine area for the missing item.

The pilot looked inside the engine compartment for the flashlight but was unable to locate it. The mechanic recommended the pilot check again and pay special attention to the area above the engine. The pilot returned to the aircraft and this time found the flashlight. It had become jammed against the overhead of the engine section. It was removed and the pilot continued with a safe flight.

GramPaw Pettibone says
Grampaw Pettibone says:

Anyone familiar with Louis L’ Amour western novels knows the phrase “light a shuck,” which refers to the husk around Indian corn that frontier folks lit to help them find their way home after dark. They kept pretty good track of those shucks, so vital were they to their well being. Flashlights are the shucks of today and no less important.

Bravo Zulu to the mech who owned up to missing his flashlight, albeit belatedly. As to the pilot’s preflight inspection, he lucked out. Had the missing item jarred loose it could have raised holy you-know-what with the power plant. Bet that pilot has elevated his preflight focus of the engine area, and that’s a plus.

(Originally published in January-February 2004.)