Grampaw Pettibone

Gramps from Yesteryear

May-June 2006

Illustration by Ted Wilbur

Chopper Chain ReactionChopper_art

A helicopter aircraft commander (HAC), who had known marital stress but hadn’t been through a human factors board, was paired with the detachment’s weakest helicopter second pilot (H2P) and a warfare systems operator with a history of unstrapping without telling the pilots. The crew was scheduled for a functional check flight (FCF) on an SH-60B that had just had some work done on a gearbox and driveshaft. The FCF was complicated by a hydraulic leak during the ground turn, which was fixed and completed without a foreign object damage check afterwards.

Because of schedule pressures due to a pending passenger transfer from another ship and routine meetings, the flight brief was cursory and did not include operational risk management or Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization items. The maintenance chief’s brief to the crew was even shorter. As he had a tendency to do, the HAC skipped the preflight walkaround, electing instead to trust the H2P’s assessment of the aircraft’s condition. The helicopter lifted off and the pilot at the controls performed a normal hover check before reporting “ops normal” and turning to the right and flying away to complete the check flight.

A few minutes later, the crew was performing tail rotor backup checks by moving the servo switch to the “backup” position, which caused the H-60 to lose control of the tail rotor. As the helicopter developed a rapid yaw, the warfare systems operator, who had once again unstrapped without telling the pilots, was ejected out the side door. The HAC, who had previously failed a HAC check flight because of demonstrated difficulty with reacting to tail rotor failures, elected to dump the nose in an attempt to fight the yaw with speed, forgetting that the aircraft was only at 1,000 feet. The aircraft hit the water and was destroyed, killing both pilots. The warfare systems operator was never found.

grampa_pettibone_says_leftDang! If I was one of them Hollywood-type moviemakers and this was a script, I might be inclined to say it uses every cliché in the book: failing naval aviator, bad briefs, poor habit patterns, history of performance flaws and on and on—including the ending. Only this wasn’t a movie. This was real life … and death. Gramps is still waiting for the day when these stories stop telling themselves.