Illustration by Ted Wilbur
Two H-46 Sea Knights were working the field carrier landing practice pattern at night. All aircrew members were wearing night vision goggles (NVG). As the wingman troubleshot a problem on the practice LHA deck, the lead aircraft executed several landings with each pilot taking a turn at the controls. On the third trip around the pattern, the helicopter second pilot (H2P) had the controls. Passing the 180-degree position on the downwind leg, just as the H2P started the turn toward final, the helicopter aircraft commander (HAC) realized they hadn‘t secured the anticollision lights, the normal procedure once the aircraft entered the pattern. He reached out to secure the lights, but was unable to reach the appropriate toggle switch because he had positioned his seat fully down and aft. The HAC attempted to flick the switch aft using his kneeboard, but hit the cockpit dome light switch instead, flooding the cockpit with non-NVG compatible red dome lights.
The H2P instantly lost all outside reference just as he was beginning a descending, decelerating left turn toward final. Rather than scanning his instruments, the H2P continued to look outside the cockpit. He did not communicate any concerns to the HAC. Meanwhile, the senior crew chief, standing in the crew door, directed the other crew chief to go to the cockpit and assist the pilots in securing the dome lights. The junior crew chief had just started for the cockpit when the H-46 hit the river adjacent to the LHA pad at 70 knots in a nose-low, left wing down attitude. Only the senior crew chief survived the crash.
Now Gramps has known an instructor or two over the years who liked to use their kneeboards for other than their intended purpose-heck, I even fought the impulse to chuck mine into the front cockpit at the occasional conehead what needed a fast erect, as it were-but I ain’t never seen nobody try to use one as a switch flicker. But that having been said, a pilot’s first responsibility is to aviate. If them magic glasses stop working for whatever reason, especially near the ground, you got to revert to good ol’ fashion’ gauge watching. And if that don’t work, let the other guy take the controls.