THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
I still remember it as vividly this day as I did 7 years ago. The loud banging on the door that came from one of our chiefs who was frantically running around doing a headcount at 1am. I wrestled myself out of bed forgetting I was wearing nothing but the suit I had on at birth as I stumbled towards the door. I swing the door open thinking its my roommate and he forgot his key again…standing before me was an E-7 visibly distraught and seemingly unphased by the fact that I was in the nude.
“ARE YOU HERE?! Do you know where your roommate is?” she questioned visibly distraught by something.
Mustering every ounce of restraint for a 1am wake up, I responded, “Of course I am, Chief, and I think he’s at the shop.”
Something didn’t sit right though. She was a bit frantic normally, but this was above and beyond her usual energy. The fact that she was wholly unphased by my lack of modesty and the fact that she beat on my door at that hour of the morning seemed to indicate that there was something more serious going on.
“What’s going on, Chief?” I mustered the energy to ask.
“We’ve lost a bird.” She snapped as she ran off down to the next door, beating on each and repeating the question.
It was about that time that I realized the chill of the desert night was slightly cooler than normal and became alert enough to realize I was stark naked. I was still confused, and very tired so in my mind, “lost a bird” just meant that it lost communications, which isn’t too far fetched considering the age of our aircraft and didn’t really raise any alarms to me. I stumbled back to bed and threw the covers on to catch a couple more hours of sleep before my 6am shift started.
As morning came around, I wrestled myself out of bed and somehow managed to shower, shave and make it to work on time, yet something seemed very off. Nobody had even bothered to look up when I walked in, and everyone was dead silent in the shop. For that matter, the entire flight line was dead silent, with nothing. Nobody speaking, no engines running, no distant sounds of aircraft maneuvering…just silence. It was the kind of silence that instantly puts you at ease and you know that uttering a single word will disturb the solemn tranquility that comes with an event such as losing an aircraft. It was a long while before someone came in to speak to all of us, day and night shift just sitting there waiting for anything hoping beyond hope that what had happened wasn’t real, that we were somehow just trapped in a bad dream or an alternate reality that we’d come out of.
It wouldn’t be so for us. We did lose an aircraft, and all hands onboard died in the crash and ensuing fire. ‘612’ had gone down after hitting unmarked wires on a routine Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) flight with no survivors taking our Commanding Officer, a junior officer, the senior enlisted aircrew, and two other aircrewmen. In the blink of an eye CDR Sheehan, Lt Andersen, AW1 Weatherford, AW2 Rossetto, and AW2 Bibbo were gone from our lives forever and the memories of them were all we had left. I still clearly remember seeing and talking to CDR Sheehan just a bit before his flight as he sat on the bench overlooking the stunning Nevada sunset completely at peace with life and happy to be a Navy Aviator in charge of one of the greatest squadrons in the Navy. I remember watching Bibbo get super pissed because he was “cock-blocked” by one of his more sober, and more level-headed friends. I remember sitting down and joking with AT2 Teinert about stealing the hubcaps off a golf cart in the Bahamas, with Lt Andersen sitting there clearly having had one too many and telling us that he thinks that might be illegal. I remember to this day, listening to AW1 Weatherford speak in his fatherly and light-hearted tone around the hangar always taking the time to say hello to us lowly maintainers. One thing I don’t remember was seeing AW2 Rossetto without a smile on his face, so happy and full of life all the time. Those memories make life harder, knowing that 5 great people were never going to see their kid go to school, or get married, or deal with the trivial day to day things we take for granted like deciding where to go eat lunch. I miss each of them for what they brought to our squadron, and the pain has started to fade, but the memory of what happened and what followed still sticks with me to this day as vivid as it was seven long years ago.
As traditionally happens with any accident in aviation, there was plenty of speculation and what-ifs that followed this horrific tragedy. Everyone asking things like “Why don’t we have the new H models with the wire cutters on them?” and “Why were there unmarked wires in the flight area that our crew didn’t know about?” to anyone and everyone else. One of the hardest questions was mine and mine alone to ask, and it still haunts me to this day. As some of you know, I was an Avionics Technician and one of our responsibilities was to check the RADALT or RADAR Altimeter that sends a signal to the ground and reads the relay time to tell them how many feet the aircraft is from the ground. On the day of the accident, 612 was due up for a check and had some gripes on the RADALT and it fell to me to do the checkout for it. I ran the tests as we were trained to do and found that in the midrange it was about 8 feet off. I consulted one of my fellow ATs about this, and we decided that it was still well within the +/- 15 ft range for that particular section of the altimeter. To this day, that is what haunts me the most. What if I had zeroed the RADALT to the proper midrange reading, or what if I had replaced it with a more accurate one? What if I had ‘downed’ the bird for maintenance to allow us time to properly fix it? If I had just done my job, I thought, the crew would still be around with the 8 feet needed to clear the wire instead of clipping it with their tail causing it to pitch up to an unflyable angle and come crashing back down?
What happened serves as a lesson for us to be more aware of our training environment and make a greater effort to ensure the safety of the pilots and crew that trust their lives to us, as they’re responsible to save the lives of so many others. These crews go out and risk their lives in machines that defy physics so that others may live, and for that, we want to remember the crew of 612 as May’s hero of the month on this, the seven year anniversary of that fateful flight.