Inside the Vultures Nest – As the helicopter gently crashes.

I have had to deal with almost being killed in flight several times. One of the problems with a particular helicopter was that a mechanic did not install any of the fasteners on many of the flight controls on the UH-60. Now they have redundancies, I know that. But someone who fails to do their job, followed by some QA/QC type somehow fails to miss all the flight control rods. This incident is discussed in this link to another Vultures nest story. It is not necessary to read this secondary story to understand this one.

My unit deployed to Maraz-E-Sharif in late May for OEF 11-12. By June I was not on flight status for two weeks because I had been grounded recently. My wife had been told by the doctor that our son in his 8th month of pregnancy, had developed a symptom called fetal hydrops which is where the fetus swells up with fluid and will soon die. This is because my wife has a rare disorder and was considered a high-risk pregnancy. She had to have twice weekly NST and weekly ultrasound. She also had a weekly blood flow scan to detect the levels of anemia, which is the indication of if the fetus is being attacked by my wife’s immune system. I had requested staying back at the rear detachment, but the company command refused, I was too “vital.” Yet, they allowed our senior maintenance test pilot stay back, his wife was not a high-risk pregnancy. He also would not be there during the critical folding and unfolding the aircraft before and after transit from Hood to Kuwait when you need the test pilots the most. We had a fleet of 10-12 aircraft and we sometimes loaned out to our Medevac company that also had 10-12 aircraft, so our workload was pretty intense at this time. We work 12-hour shifts regardless, it is just the intensity level fluctuates. 13 – 15 hours for the NCO’s. I mentioned we have an hour-long round trip commute, we also had to eat, go to the gym, go to the MWR to call or talk to our families, conduct personal hygiene, jerk, if you had not performed a combat jerk during the day, and sleep.

My wife waited two days before she shared the information about the potential of our son dying with me because she was torn whether to tell me or not. She decided to tell me which I am very thankful for. I immediately went to my company commander and demanded to be sent on emergency leave. He told me that he would talk to talk about it and get back to me later in the day. When he came back he said him in the first sergeant and a platoon sergeant decided to have me remain and deployed and that I would have the first leave opening when it came up. I give up because I am stressed enough. I was so angry I was grounded by the flight doctor because of my checked mental health history. We are told 9 days later that the doctor who told her was an intern doctor and he should never have told my wife that because he was not qualified to. The pressure lifted, but was replaced with anger over the entire incident and realizing how little my command really cared about me. I was on my second deployment with the company and we had all been together for 3 or so years. My company commander had been a boot lieutenant in this company. I was reinstated to flight status and continue flying. I ask to be moved to Delta Company, my request is denied. This is the third time I have made this request and the third time it has been denied.

About a week or two later, my wife contacts me with an email that the company commander’s wife had sent to my wife. My company commander’s wife yelled at my wife stating that she had no business telling me about the health risk to our son because it “took me off flight status.” She said that if any lives were lost that it would be on her because I was no longer a flying member of the company. She told my wife that she should have leaned on immediate family. My wife was an active member of the Family Readiness Group, the wives, and family of those deployed, who are supposed to help each other out. My wife was extremely antisocial and was not a part of the FRG doing my second deployment when we married and I asked her to be a part of the FRG for my third deployment because of how hard it is. She became a key caller, responsible for passing messages along. The commander’s wife was the leader of the FRG. Some of the other wives were also really angry with her. They had email conversations then forwarded my wife, so we got an email line from them that they considered her a traitor. Their anger was hinged upon the fact we were already down two crew chiefs and I would be the third. So again she was told that any death would be in her hands. Wonderful FRG conversations. We also have no family to lean on because both of our parents were violent and abusive, so my wife only had me to lean on. That is none of the FRG’s business, nor is my family’s business.

Here is the email if you are curious. I have not altered anything other than the names for decency.

She was at the gym with us for deployment… Maybe remind her of that. On another note, how’s the pregnancy going? How often do you see the OB? What have they said? I know it’s hard being prego alone, especially when there are concerns. I found out I had some cancer while preggo and CT was gone, but he was able to make it back in time for my surgery. It was scary to go into major surgery while preggo, but it all turned out ok. Now they’re concerned about delivery coupled with the spine surgery I previously had and some other stuff, but I do my best to make sure CT doesn’t worry about it because its beyond our (especially his) control. I have to lean on my folks so that I make sure I don’t distract CT from the mission at hand. His guys need him and everyone they have and they need to know he is focused on the mission and completing it safely. It’s miserable to think he won’t meet our baby girl til she’s 7 months old, but it’s part of the job for both of us. I can’t imagine telling him all the stresses I have with the house and baby because I can’t possibly risk his mind being on me. I know what they’re doing is dangerous because they can’t discuss it. They’re already short two guys who were deployed with division or late and they just switched dick for cox, which makes things even more hectic. I doubt CT is the only one with 19 hour days and flying almost daily. I can only hope and pray that every other spouse and family member realizes that the soldiers have to stay focused and do their job, basically unless an immediate family member dies. If one guy cant do his job fully and safely, it puts everyone else at risk! It’s hard on them and it’s hard on us, but that’s why we have each other back here… To vent and share our concerns and lean on to help make it through a tough year. I hope you know that you have people, including me, that you can talk to if you need or want. I also hope you know how lucky you are that he will be able to be home for the birth of your child — that’s truly special. And that whether things are easy, hard, or scary now, that it’ll all be worth it and you’ll feel so strong and proud knowing you did it “alone” and your husband will never forget how strong you are. I know how much it means to them and how much it comforts and relaxes them when they know we have it all under control back here… Even if we don’t! We just use our resources and do our best. If you have a social, talk to those who show about making sure they keep their soldier focused because we all want our guys back home safely. And the only way to do that is by being selfless and strong so they can do their job to the best of their ability. If they don’t, then it puts extra (unneeded) pressure on the rest of the company and if theyre already working close to burnout, then one guy falling out really could cause irreparable damage, which hopefully wouldn’t be an injury to a fellow soldier. I could never forgive myself if ty made a mistake or slacked off cause of me and someone got hurt as a result! That would be the worst 😦 Well I noticed I rambled on and on — my bad, I do that when I can’t sleep! Like I said, I hope all is well and you can talk to me anytime if you like!

I became furious and started screaming my company commander. Now I was not the type to scream at a Company Commander at that point. I was kind of soldier that had no administrative actions taken against me because every time I fucked up. I would just take physical punishment as opposed to something on paper. But that day is the day that I snapped. My First Sergeant stood there in shock for a few minutes until he finally pulled me off of the commander. I was obviously aggravated and had a history of suicidal ideations (and I had no business at all touching an aircraft, I also had bipolar and borderline personality disorder) so I went to the Flight Doctor and he grounded me. I went on leave and was able to get back to the successful birth of our son. I returned September 1 and I am promoted the same day to E5. My SSG is pissed, we have an oil and water relationship. I keep it professional, he skates on the edge. I am slightly useful now even though I am grounded. He ends up being blown off a tail rotor about 13 feet and fractures his arm. He is in a sling. They make me maintenance NCO at night. A few weeks later I am cleared by the doctor to return to flight status. I fly for the rest of the summer and into the beginning of fall I tear my rotator cuff yet again, so I am removed from flight status.

Fun fact, the company commander was off for over 12 hours in front of the Battalion VTC so he could be there for his wife’s birth over the skype. Then he got to go home. Must be nice to use that rank to your advantage, because that would not have been offered to me or anyone else.

I had my SSG who was not a fan of ol’ BT. As the section sergeant in my company, he was one of four people on limited Technical Inspector (TI) orders. Limited orders allow simple non-critical items to be signed off. Screws, electrical plugs, lubrication, and so on. You cannot TI a Fuel line packing replacement, nor the tightening of the nut on the line He disconnected the fuel line. Which is okay he is a mechanic. Replaces an O-ring. Which is a foul, because a TI has to verify the O-ring by stock number and parts diagram to show it is the correct O-ring, make sure it is new and lubed, this was not done. Then he signs off on his own packing. Which is not okay because you cannot sign off your own work, even as a TI. Then he tightens down the fuel line. Something he can do, except not in his current evolution of maintenance practices. Then he signs that off as well. As we talked about earlier. He cannot do that. Then he closed the engine cowling climbed down and went inside. Now what he should have done is he should have gone inside. Written up that he had done all this work and take it to an actual TI so that he can tell them that he is fucking stupid too and to go back and undo all the work and have another TI sign it off like he supposed to. He also has no right to sign off the 13-1 which is the maintenance form that identifies what overall is broken on the aircraft is. The 13-2 is the forms mechanics use to write all the steps they take. Any Red X grounds the aircraft from flight and requires a TI to sign off. Most critical 13-1’s need to be signed off by a maintenance test pilot once the test flights are completed. These are the items that make the aircraft unsafe. Untorqued items, major component replacement, engines, transmissions, basically everything.

But no, he avoided all that stuff by not writing any of it down, a failure that could have legal consequences especially if there is a loss of life or damage from maintenance failures. Fast forward to the night shift. I come on as the night maintenance NCO and my other day maintenance test pilot tells me to have the aircraft do a full run-up of the engines, shut down and inspect for leaks, then go on the training flight. I briefed the night crew chief, my other NCO, to instruct his pilots the orders given to me. No, the instructor pilot knows best. He, of course, is the Blackhawk whisper so he goes on his merry way to teach the boot pilot how to fly without checking the engines first. He teaches the lesson of what happens when you do not follow common sense procedures and they have to land because they smell fuel during the flight.

They land and the crew chief comes and lets me know what is going on. We open the cowling. Lo and behold fuel line is leaking. The packing was pinched when it was reinstalled. This would have been caught if it was actually inspected by someone who did not do the work themselves and who just simply wanted to get the job done. Which by the way we just threw safety out the window. This was done by a Section Sergeant in charge of maintenance. He was also an active crew member. So I go to the computer logbook to see all the work that was done as I was unaware of exactly what fuel lines have been messed with. Strange. There are no writeups in the logbook at all about fuel lines. I figure the book must have dumped all of the data which they commonly did. I went to production control to tell them that the aircraft was down again for the fuel line problem. They told me they had no idea about a fuel line problem. PC tries to find the write-ups but they are not there. Which is pretty solid if I remember correctly, I appreciate any corrections.

At the end of my shift. The NCO shows up. I confront him about it professionally and privately to figure out what happened. He just flies into belligerence and starts screaming and yelling at me. My other maintenance NCO shows up and stands there as we both get yelled at. I do not recall what was said but I do know it went on for about 10 minutes before I said “Sergeant, if you cannot talk to me like a man about this. Then I am going to go ahead and take off and we can talk about this at the end of the shift.” So we left and we bitched about how stupid the SSG was for the 30-minute bus ride from the airfield to the living area. No one even happens to notice how off the rails shit is. Except for the Apache crew chiefs who came from about 150 meters away hearing the screaming.

When I arrived for the beginning of my shift 10 hours later. I was intercepted by my First Sergeant before I showed up into the maintenance tent. He told me that I had disrespected a senior noncommissioned officer and that I was fired from the company. He instructed me to go straight to Delta Company and the orders for my transfer would come later. I asked him if he was curious about my side of the story to which he said no. I left without any further fight because I was beyond worn out. I was passing out during flights, a lot of us were. I just could never sleep enough or feel rested. We were worn to the bone. We were all given automatic extensions on our flight hour limitation because we were maxing people out two weeks into the month. This is not uncommon in aviation, just a factor worth mentioning.

Afghanistan was not like Iraq. Iraq we were on our game flight wise. Rarely over 1000 feet above the ground. Rarely in the sky longer than 15 minutes before landing. The landing was a fucking rush. Just ready to fucking murder people, I am getting a thrill just thinking about it. We were landing over and over. We were well oiled. Afghanistan we were flying 45 minutes to 3 hours at a leg, stopping for fuel for 15 minutes, then taking off for another 2-hour flight. Then returning the same way. It was brutal. Thick sand was almost always guaranteed. We were often flying only instruments. There is nothing to keep you awake. We were 4500 feet usually. My 240H is only really good at about a 1000 feet. I prefer 250 – 500 feet.

The other maintenance NCO was not fired. The difference is that he was on flight status and I was not. I was no longer “vital.” Next day. I was sent to be the maintenance NCO at night in the maintenance platoon. I go from having 7 soldiers to 12. Still no business leading maintainers.

So now I am in Delta Company. I am extremely happy, I am turning wrenches and learning more in 6 months than I learned in three years as a crew chief. I was screwed when I came in because the units CSM asked me what my MOS was since I was a reclass. I told him I was a Cavalry Scout (glorified Infantry for those not aware). He asked me if I was good with an M240 machine gun. I said yes. He said for me to report to Alpha Company to be a crew chief. So I had practically no time turning wrenches on major items. I did washes and replaced engines and a lot of work, but rarely and of the teardown stuff. I only did that when I was (frequently) off flight status for my shoulder. I still logged 720 hours over three years, which was a lot lower than most of my colleagues at 900 – 1200 hours. I do not recall if MTFs in theater count as combat or not, but I had 560 hours of flight, I never got my damn 500-hour combat award. Probably shouldn’t have screamed at my commander for that one. I still got my air medal, but only because it had already been written and submitted.

I am in Delta Company for three weeks or so. We are returning from lunch and we hear an explosion. An AH-64 crashes on the side of the runway because of faulty maintenance. I think I might have talked about this somewhere else. The short story is the pilots lived, but one was scalped by the crash. We went and pulled the crew out and then secured the crash site. We had to pull guard duty for 6-7 hours until they finish marking shit and put up a fence.

Next day. All maintenance must first be approved by an NCO before a maintainer can go to the TI, spread the blame around for the shit maintenance outcome of aircraft falling out of the sky. We have this long ass safety briefing that was mandatory after the lawn dart maneuver the maintenance failure caused the Apache to take. The work does not stop though, so we exceed our 12 hour day and I release my soldiers and ask my other E5 to stick around to help me cover, and he refused. Grabbed his bag and left. He fucked off, he was going through a divorce so I just hated him internally and let him go. No big deal, a couple extra hours at work but the job got done, so I can be happy with that.

From the shit leadership we had, an incident we had where a crew chief can fall out of the Ch-47 cargo hole because she is not wearing her harness that tethers her to the aircraft that we are required to wear.

Now I have to deal with an absolute shithole of another SSG. This dude is only more useful than a box of rocks because he can move under his own power to sit somewhere else and be a random weight. We are starting to get into the deep of winter Afghanistan. Our hangers are just the giant Alaskan tents. All of the heaters that we have in the hangar are German and broken. We all try several times unsuccessfully to get them working. I was able to get one of our American ones running for about three hours before it died. The bottom line is it was fucking cold. I never had a thermometer nor have I bothered to look up the data since then, but I know it had to be about 10° or less. You can only hold your wrench for about 20 minutes or so before it was just too damn cold hold anymore. So I was out working. I had two of my maintenance guys inside of our little-heated clamshell thing, the only thing that has any heat. In the clamshell with my two soldiers is my staff sergeant. Kicked back in the chair and asleep. He even has his hat over his face for extra measure. Of course, he sets up his laptop and he is watching movies to pretend like he is actually awake. You do it every day and you do not move, we know what the fuck you doing. I bitch about this to another E5 who is a TI, he complained as well. But as usual, nothing happens. So every 20 to 30 minutes I am rotating my two shifts of guys out. I stay out most of the time because I am running around and observing three different aircraft receiving maintenance in the hangers and then a third out on the flight line. I am also trying to do maintenance on another aircraft because we are swamped with broken aircraft. About four hours into the shift, right before mealtime, the staff sergeant walks out and starts screaming my name. The kind of scream that an NCO does to a private, not to another NCO. I go over and he tells me his grand idea. That I should be rotating the guys in and out of the clamshell. I tell him that I have been. He looks at me like he can understand what I am saying. Eventually, the message gets crossed and he literally walks out of the clamshell for the first time, picks up a mallet and a brass drift, goes over to the cargo hook, and just starts beating the fuck outta this thing. It was like watching a goddamn child.

I screamed them. He screamed back. It was not a good time. He did some pretty serious damage because he hit something he was not supposed to. I was on a roll at this point, screaming at Captains, 1SG’s, and two of my upper NCO’s. I only gave a fuck because I had to support my soldiers. Otherwise, I would have fucked off. I was so over everything at this point. I really needed to be in a goddamn psych ward no in charge of maintenance.

Thankfully, after that screaming match, I asserted my dominance and simply cut the SSG out of everything. I went to the Platoon Sergeant meetings, he was told not to attend. I went to the Production Control meetings, he was not. I coordinated everything, he watched more TV. I took everything off his hand receipts. I set the schedule for when I could give my guys days off.

After a few weeks, we catch a break where we only have two aircraft and both are waiting on parts. We clean the hanger and have nothing to do. We decided to watch some Big Bang Theory. Our Production Control Officer busts in the clamshell and just light us the fuck up. Said we were lazy and some other shit, how dare we just sit around fucking off when we have CH-47’s to fix, really off his rocker since I am not a hooker. (A hooker is a cute term used for CH-47’s because they are a flying hook that you attach shit to and they fly it around). So we went out and pretended to work, the Army standard.

March 22. Another AH-47 crashes after the pilots were caught fucking around on video

In May the deployment ended. Come September I transfer to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks Alaska, I will be on permanent profile in two months for that recurrent rotator cuff tear.

From the Army AR 95-1 Flight Regulation

(2) Each element of the RAW represents a specific hazard which in the assessment process is translated into a risk. Use caution because one element of the RAW may be assessed at a higher value then diluted or overlooked if the overall mission assessment is a lower value. Also, accident data shows that there are a number of critical elements called crew-error accelerator profiles such as when lunar illumination is less than 23 percent and less than 30 degrees above the horizon, visibility is obscured, total flight time of the crew is less than 500 or more than 2,500 hours, or the aircrew duty day is longer than 12 hours with four hours of flight time. Independently these factors on the RAW may indicate one level of risk but because of the combined effect of these crew-error accelerator profiles, they should be added together to elevate overall risk to a higher level or appropriately mitigated.

Another example from the FAA guide.

First, flightcrew members’ circadian rhythms needed to be addressed because studies have shown that flightcrew members who fly during their window of circadian low experience severe performance degradation. Second, the amount of time spent at work needed to be taken into consideration because longer shifts increase fatigue. Third, the number of flight segments in a duty period needed to be taken into account because flying more segments requires more takeoffs and landings, which are both the most task-intensive and the most safety-critical stages of flight. These takeoffs and landings require more time on task, and as pilots generally appear to agree, “flying several legs during a single duty period could be more fatiguing.”

I want to make it clear I am not bitching about the amount of work we had to do. My intention is to point out the sheer insanity of how our unit worked us with no regards to the crew. We consistently put people’s lives in danger, the crew, the passengers, anyone we might fall on, and the airframe itself. Falling out of the sky at best leaves us on the ground. Hopefully, our sister ship can pick us up once we strip off the gee-whiz stuff off. We also now have a single ship operation, a no-no.

I was the only crew chief that had two precautionary landings in our OIF 09-10 deployment. Our transmission has devices called “chip detectors.” They are an open circuit with a magnet if a metal piece in the oil is picked up, it sets off a caution advisory warning panel light. It can burn off within 15 seconds or so if it is small enough. Otherwise, you have to land immediately as it means a large piece of metal has sheared off in the transmission and it could fail at any time. I did that twice with the same aircraft about a week apart. Flying was terrifying enough for me. I constantly war-gamed scenarios in my head as to what to do if we were shot at or crash landed somewhere. So I was always fixated on the idea of falling out of the sky. Flying in an aircraft that really might fall is really shitty.

We flew the aircraft back both times after replacing the oil, no guarantee if the transmission was eating itself up. The main transmission was going out. It was not until the second time we replaced the whole shebang. Two CW4’s flying, one the Battalion MPT instructor pilot. Just kept expecting the transmission to seize up. The Blackhawk transmission holds 7 gallons of oil and is designed to run for 30 minutes with no oil before it dies.

It took me quite a long time to realize how screwed up that unit was.

Photograph information.

CAC 2 (Command Aviation Company) flight lands to drop off support to CAC 1 after a transmission light came on over Iraq that required an emergency landing.