The story of the sick helicopter and the broken pilot.

The sun was beating down mercilessly on the tarmac of Fort Hood Texas. The aircraft, a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, sat on its pad, covered in wires and sensors like a hospital patient. I, Specialist BT, arrived at the hangar at 1200 p.m, ready for a take off in two hours, after the pilots go and eat their lunch. My primary role is serving as a mechanic for the Blackhawk helicopter. Additionally, I had been trained as a crew chief. I that role, I act as an aircrew member, responsible for any passengers, cargo and maintenance issues that occur during flights. The aircraft I would be flying on today just came out of an overhaul and needed to have all the systems verified through a series of test flights before it could be allowed to fly in normal missions.

The maintenance pilot, Mr. Pilot, approaches me with his typical blank expression covering the facade of arrogance. “You do not need to inspect the aircraft, I have already looked at it. We will take off after we come back from lunch.” The other pilot, his name eludes me but is not important, so we shall call him Mr. Elusive; he was a very junior pilot and had no real opinions or personality yet, he was not allowed to.

“Okay, Sir,” I responded to Mr. Pilot. I was relatively new to the aviation field, having recently switched from a combat role. Typically, aircrew members are confident in their teammates, that they have conducted their jobs properly, seeing as lives and equipment are at stake. He then goes to work on his lunch. I assume what he tells me is true, why would I think any other way? He had not given me any reason to have no faith in his word.

After twenty minutes, one of the company’s new arrival, SPC Golden, a soldier assigned as a door gunner, acting as a glorified chauffeur, arrives. Being the super proactive soldier I was at the time, I take some time to help the newcomer become familiar with how the aircraft works, as that is one of the tasks that aircrew must accomplish as part of their training to become a new aircrew member. I could have spent the time staring at the wall, watching the lead paint peel, but alas, I am a super proactive soldier.

“Let’s go outside and do some component familiarization since we have nothing better to do,” I say to the new entry. So the two of us walk outside of the massive hangar doors, several theme songs looping through our heads because nothing makes you feel quite so cool as climbing on a helicopter you can repair and fly on. “Highway to Hell,” by AC-DC and the “Top Gun,” theme songs are always good, and of course “Flight of the Valkyrie,” by Wagner was my favorite, made famous in Apocalypse Now, one of the major fight scenes circled around 1/9th Cavalry Regiment, which was my previous unit.

Once we reached the top of the aircraft, I unlatched the two hooks that secure the sliding pylon over the flight control deck, known in layman’s terms as the piece on top, next to the giant spinning fan thingy. This area houses all of the hydraulic pumps, that control all the flight components. All of the electrical inputs that convert the manual control stick movement into the hydraulic system allowing the pilots to manipulate the rotors for flight, you could think of it like power steering. Also, the electrical generators are located in this area, attached to and ran by the main transmission which is just aft of the flight control deck, just like an alternator on your car. Except these alternators provide.

Almost immediately upon opening the cover, I spot some serious problems. First, I see a giant black spray paint can lid just sitting on top of the flight controls. In the aviation world, one of the biggest killers is called FOD, which stands for Foreign Object Debris, this is anything that is not directly a part of the airframe. Loose screws, bits of safety wire snippings, anything that could end up jammed in the flight control rods, or sucked into the engines. I have witnessed a small screw less than an inch long, completely ruin a $730,000 turbine engine, like the ones installed in tandem to powers the Blackhawk. Needless to say, FOD is a very serious problem, and I had a very large problem staring me in the face. I for one was terrified, imagine opening your car and finding some very angry pit bulls, and then combine that with falling out of the sky in an uncontrolled descent, they are pretty much one and the same. The FOD and the angry falling from the sky pit bulls, not angry pit bulls falling from the sky, which is also bad.

Immediately, I called Mr. Pilot and told him what I had discovered, and that we could not fly until we did a complete inspection of the aircraft from top to bottom, to discover any additional problems lurking. Since I found this problem, there is no telling what other things we could find. There was no way I could agree to fly on an aircraft that clearly was not taken care of properly. About twenty minutes after my phone call, Mr. Pilot and Mr. Elusive arrived and began doing their own inspections. By this time I had covered about 15% of the surface area of the flight control deck, my job of being through is important when lives are at stake. Oddly, within seven minutes, yes I counted, the pilots had completed their search and told me to throw my flight gear on so that we could leave. There are moments in your life, where you wonder if you are secretly on an episode of Punked, I even looked around and at my pilot very confused, as if it was some kind of test. “But Sir, I have found FOD in several locations and it is very clear that this aircraft is not in a condition to fly until we do a complete inspection,” I say to Mr. Pilot.

“SPC BT, I have completed my inspections and I am confident that we can fly safely.” Is the response that I receive. This statement makes my heart and stomach drop, it seems that I am going to have to use the phrase that I would prefer not to say, the one that will probably make the yelling begin.

“Sir, you claimed you did your inspection, yet I found this.” I display the spray paint cap and am taken aback by his blank response. At this point, Mr. Elusive had taken a position with his mouth open, in what I could only guess was an attempt to dry flies.

“Get your gear on and get in the aircraft.” The sinking feeling becomes more enveloping. I am facing someone who has thousands of flight hours on the aircraft, at least six years of experience and a man who went through a course and whose sole responsibility is ensuring the aircraft are safe to fly, yet he is blatantly ignoring one of the most basic safety rules.

“Sir, I will not put my gear on, and this aircraft is not leaving the parking lot until a 100% inspection is conducted on this aircraft.” Mr. Pilot’s expression goes from the previous blank expression to one full of rage. Little did I know, the man standing before me was more interested in how good his flight numbers and maintenance records look, then about safety. “Then go inside the crew chief office, and find me a crew chief that is not afraid to fly on this aircraft.”

There it is… The bomb drop… Not only am I being ignored, I am not being told to go risk someone else’s life because my opinion is not valid enough for him. This marks the end of my patients, and I walk away, heading towards the Production Control and Quality Control offices. Production control is responsible for tracking all the aircraft flight and maintenance status, and the Quality Control office members are the inspectors who verify our work on the aircraft, to ensure it was done properly. I inform both of these offices as to the status of the aircraft, and the situation that I find myself in. It is quite appalling to find yourself being the only one considering the full implications of falling out of the sky and dying in a fiery heap of metal. After the information was passed along, the aircraft was brought in and a full tear apart inspection was started. I was taken aside by Mr. Pilot, and given a “lecture,” with a few choice words not suitable for printing in this story. As one could imagine, a lot of spite and anger were involved.

The investigation turned up three things that would have killed us, no doubt about it. A radio box in the tail section was not secured down at all. So that right there could have killed us dead. Several of the flight control items were not secured at all, nor did they have any safety devices installed on them. I believe that is three for killing us, zero for not killing us. In a normal situation, no problem would have been created by my finding and notifying the problems I discovered to anyone. Usually, people like living, and like super proactive soldiers who go out of their way to train other soldiers and point out, big boo-boo’s when they are staring them in the face. Even more so when a soldier does not back down to being bullied by someone who loves jumping into a car of angry pit bulls for fun. That was not the case here. In the end, Mr. Pilot praised my actions, to the rest of my maintenance team, but never once addressed me, or offered any sort of an apology for the professional and personal insults and risks. Eventually, I would be promoted to a supervisory role, so that I am in charge of trying to make sure people like Mr. Pilot do not kill others. I would also be fired from the flight company within a few months because I tried to do that very thing, this time with an engine that was leaking fuel everywhere because someone didn’t want to spend the time to do a maintenance procedure correctly. I am sure at this point, you might see a trend. The result was the same, someone else messed up, I brought it up, and somehow I was blamed for it. This incident shook my faith, and eventually lead me to leave the Army.

 


Photograph information.

A C-130 unloads Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). Operation Iraqi Freedom 09-10.