Don’t Freak Out!
Professionalism in aviation must stretch to every area, every aspect, every job, and every person. It is an inherently dangerous occupation, and requires a truly dedicated team to accomplish the mission. I must admit, throughout my career in military aviation, with numerous “close calls” and a number of real-life in-flight emergencies along the way, I have had quite a few days with guardian angels. I prayed to God every single time for a safe flight, and thanked him every time I stepped foot on the ground after. As I reflect on it now, I can only confirm what I already knew then, every emergency is a humbling experience, and it was that “Professionalism” that kept us alive another day. A clear example of this “Professionalism” I am talking about can be illustrated in a brief, real-life in-flight emergency I experienced on a cold spring day in the Land of Bier.
It was a brisk morning at the airfield that day in February, and I (like always) wanted to ride my motorcycle into work. Spring had not yet fully hit, and in Germany’s Rhine-Neckar Valley, at the north west tip of Baden-Wurttemberg, the sun was not out at all, making it colder still. Needless to say, I had to bundle up well. We had a 0600 show for an IFR flight that was to last all day. It was only a training flight, but with a good meal at our pit stop scheduled in München, I was eager to go.
During flight planning, it was reviled that our IFR route was to be covered mostly in thick clouds, which was normal for southern Germany this time of year. We established a safe altitude, double checked our frequencies, and made sure to call ahead. Pre-flight, run up, and takeoff were routine enough. The crew consisted of a senior Standardization Pilot, a very competent and seasoned Pilot who had plenty of time in the airframe, and myself as a solo Crew Engineer. I had flown with this crew once before and was asked for by name the week prior. Our aircraft for the day was a heavily modified UH-60A+ with DV/VIP kits installed, external wings and drop pod fuel tanks that never seemed to come off, an electronics and communication suite good enough to make a jet fighter pilot jealous, and best of all, a newer auxiliary cabin heating system. We weighed in very heavy for the average H-60, yet this was our normal ramp weight, and we were used to it.
Almost near two hours of flying east at 8000 feet MSL and we three were relaxed and simply chatting away about any subject that popped in our heads at the time. We couldn’t see the ground at all due to the clouds, the FAT gauges were reading F’ing COLD!, and there was a strong possibility of icing. So the heat was cranked up in the cabin and all the de-ice’ing was on, blades, windows and all. “Nice and Comfortable” is ALWAYS the exact time when something bad happens right? Without warning, one of the front windshield de-ice terminal blocks suddenly exploded in the cockpit on the pilots side, sending arching electrical sparks everywhere! It continued to fry itself for a few seconds than caught on fire as it melted itself off the glass and started to hang freely by its wire right in front of the pilots face! The flame grew very large, very quick due to a thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes. A few loud screams were heard for a brief second as flames roared up into the canopy, blackening and warping the plexiglass structure.
“HOLY SH*T!!! WHAT THE FU*K!!!”, screamed the PI as a giant ball of flame continued to wave right in front of his face (Anyone would scream for a brief second at this point, anyone).
I immediately reached for the fire extinguisher. I knew they were meant for “People” only, but running on “Situationally Reactive Instincts” for a brief second, I intended to use it for the emergency.
“I have the controls!”, the SP asserted.
He was already on the radio talking to München Control declaring an In-Flight Emergency. The squawk was changed to “Emergency” and München told us that the closest place we could land was Nuremberg, 20 minutes away! By this time, the SP saw me holding the fire extinguisher…
“Hey AJ, I don’t think you should use that because it will fill the entire cabin and we wont see a thing.”, he said in a calm demeanor.
He was right, the air in the cabin was thin at this altitude, allowing for very, very fast atmospheric equalizing. You know when you smell a fart it’s always well after someone let one rip? Well at altitude, mere seconds after the fact it fills every space available (there is a simple science behind this, but I will let you look that up yourself if you’re interested). I changed my approach to the problem.
“Look, just take your glove off and cover the flame up with it. The glove is Nomax, so it should be fine.”, I told the PI while putting the extinguisher down.
Sure enough, this was done and the flame was out. But the smoke and smell started to get thick. We all cracked a window or vent and tried to vent it out, which only worked a little. Needless to say, it was a cigar bar in there, and the humidor had gone bad. Once we could see reasonably out the windows again, the PI stated he was “ok” to take the controls back. This was a good thing as it would leave the SP and myself free to navigate, communicate, and work through future problems. We confirmed that he was alright, and after a bit of verbal reassurance, the controls were passed back.
As we approached Nuremberg, all other air traffic was diverted or put into holding. For a helicopter crew, this is a rarity, for everyone else, I am sure it was painful because we do not travel as fast as they do. We were directed to the first taxiway off the ramp and into parking. Shut down was quick! Feuerwehr (Fire Trucks), Polizei (Police), and Rettungswagen (RTW) (Ambulance EMS) flew to our sides expecting to find a disastrous situation, but only smoke and fumes were left. Phone calls were made and people were all around trying to talk to us and find out what happened – We were beat simply trying to calm everyone down. The PI told me later that he thought I was ice-cold and emotionless, with a sense of calm during the whole ordeal, and that it both impressed him and scared him a little. Little did he know, a million thoughts rushed through my head during the event as I poured through every possible emergency procedure, system, and outcome.
After a couple of hours, we were being picked up by someone from the Army. The decision was made to hanger the aircraft and work on fixing it the next morning as a new windshield and terminal was being driven out to the location. While in the car, I started to think back to the event and realized that everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do without thinking or stalling. The PC (the SP) took over the controls for the moment, radioed in the emergency, changed our navigation equipment to reflect our situation, and guided us safely to the airfield. The PI, just as brief in the Pre-Flight Crew Mission Briefing, passed off the controls, handled the emergency that needed immediate addressing (even with a giant ball of fire waiving in front of his face), received the controls back, and focused on flying the aircraft. And I aided with radio calls, assessed the situation, devised a plan to put out the flame and provide for crew safety, began troubleshooting further possible system issues, and aided in bringing the aircraft down to the ground safely. No one really “freaked out”, but instead, flipped right over to Expert Mode – which makes zombie killing harder, but staying alive in a real emergency easier. It took me a while to realize it afterwords, but the aviators whom I worked with were some of the most professional people I have ever known. Lastly, the terminal block turned out to be “faulty”, not human error.
Further reflecting on this incident has opened my eyes to many other facets of the aviation world since real-life emergencies happen all the time, we read about them every month in publications and magazines like Flight Fax, an Army Aviation publication on safety. It takes a team of professionals, in every field, to make safety happen, and to get the job done. To provide one example, look at the Air Traffic Controllers who guided us down that day. Just how stressful was their job?! They already had to deal with a ton of IFR and VFR traffic throughout their airspace. Now they had to deal with a U.S. Military helicopter, restricted to certain altitudes because of weather, only able to travel so fast. They had to divert or initiate holdings on however many aircraft were present in the area, or intending to land at that time. They had to file reports, pass off information, make phone calls, and worry about more lives than they could count even if everyone in the room was barefoot or wearing sandals!
Although this example hardly seems to fill the same level of excitement as the combat situations so many of us have lived through, it yet still highlights the aforementioned point. Professionalism in aviation must stretch to every area, every aspect, every job, and every person. It is an inherently dangerous occupation, and requires a truly dedicated team to accomplish the mission.