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March 29, 2005

TINS!* Why I Hate Wires...

Before I get to the usual self-flagellation, I owe this one to frequent visitor, frequent comment-party participant and blogger-in-her-own-right, AFSister. She's in mommy-mode today and has done a nice piece on Castle Afghanisandbox Correspondent MSG Keith's Read to Your Kids program over at Blonde Sagacity. Even included Keith Khan's deployed address. Drop him a line--from a been-there-done-that perspective, a real letter beats an e-gram all hollow when you're far from home. And he can't always get to a 'puter.

Back to the scary stuff.

There is a small photograph on the wall in front of my desk, showing a hand holding two pieces of 5/8-inch, 7-strand steel support cable. One piece of cable looks like it had been cut with a hacksaw, the other looks like an explosion in a spaghetti factory. The caption reads, “Tuttle’s Incontrovertible Proof of the Existence of God” and therein, as Shakespeare said, lies a tale...specifically, the one that relates to my becoming one of the handful of (prior to 1993) helicopter pilots to have hit wires in flight and lived.

I’ll give you some deep background first. I belong to a National Guard Attack Battalion, then-equipped with the usual OH-6A’s and UH-1M’s -- the “olden days” when the Comanche was still the LHX (and still alive) and Crew Coordination meant the copilot could successfully walk and chew gum 70% of the time. We had deployed to our Annual Training (AT) site a week earlier with a mixed bag of high-timers (3000+ hours) and recent IERW grads (newly-transitioned into the “Loach” or the Mike-model). As Senior Scout, Instructor Pilot, Instrument Flight Examiner and Keeper of the Combat Acetate and Indelible Markers, I wasn’t anticipating a lot of time inspecting my eyelids for pinholes.

Oh, I almost forgot -- since you already *know* I’m gonna get creamed, I’ll heighten the suspense for you. The sharp clink that you’ll hear--sigh see-- from time-to-time is the sound of links being forged in the accident chain; Instructor Pilot Frustration Quotient is indicated by the addition of one or more exclamation points...

And, as usual, it's a long one. Click Extended Entry/Flash Traffic below for the rest of the story.

Day 1: Following our afternoon arrival, the Battalion Commander dispatched the Battalion and Company Safety Officers to the airfield on Main Post to make copies of the Master Hazard Map, from which we would create our individual maps. At the evening Officers’ Call and Post Safety Brief, we had some good news; the Engineers had been very busy over the winter and had run most of the telephone and power lines underground. The Hazard Map showed only a few areas with wires remaining aboveground -- mostly around and through the permanent campsites.

Clink

Day 2: Our usual First Light mission at AT is a wire recon. Each Company is assigned a sector of the training area and each Scout crew (an “old-eyes/young eyes” mix) receives a sub-area, which it scrutinizes for wires, antennas, poles and other hazards to continuous aerial flight. The crews then debrief the Battalion on their findings and update the Master Hazard Map. Based on the previous day’s Good News briefing, The Boss decided to forego the recon and proceed with the training schedule.

Clink

Days 3 through 7: My logbook entries (yeah, I still kept a logbook until about a thousand flight hours ago --ho-hum) show 15.8 hours flown with two newbies and one fellow Vietnam vet -- not a lot of flight time, but a lot of good Deep Attack and Rear Area Combat mission-training for the new Scouts, mostly in foul weather. (“Of course the aircraft leaks, Andy -- it’s raining.”) Sorry, no clink on this one.

Day 8: The first day of our Three-Day War tactical exercise was hazy, with no wind, a good ceiling and only a few cumulopuffies in the forecast. During the Execution phase of the morning Mission Briefing (Battalion Deep Attack), I got poleaxed with, “Tuttle will be lead scout; he’ll also be giving 2LT Ferdinand Magellan [no, not his real name, Neffi] a currency ride and some mission training. Got to get the rest of my Staff up soon or they’ll need refresher training, too.” Standard joke, standard reactions (laughter from the line pilots, rueful grins from the Staff). I’d qualified Ferdinand Magellan in the Loach and he’d been pretty sharp. N-o-o-o problem.

Clink

As Ferd and I marked the mission graphics on our maps after the briefing, I asked him how long it had been since his last flight.
“My end-of-course eval. Early December, I think. Things have been pretty hectic at work.”
Since it was now the middle of May, the phrase “refresher training” lost some of its humorous aspect. So, in addition to the standard crew brief (at the aircraft, during preflight, in between playing “What’s this part?” and then answering my own questions
clink!
because Ferd had entered “deer in the headlights” mode), I told him that I would fly during the mission and use the VHF; he would navigate and use the FM and UHF. We’d break off from the flight after the mission for the currency ride -- as briefed.

During our NOE flight to the release point, it was obvious that Ferd had lost both currency and, despite my running commentary about our flight path, a basic aviation-related skill -- map reading.

Clink!

*sigh* Good thing I’d memorized the flight route. I told our admin bird I’d be slowing down for Magellan’s benefit and got, “OK, but why haven’t you been acknowledging the radio calls?” from the Battalion Commander.
Uh, oh.
A quick glance down at the appropriate squelch switches confirmed my sneaking suspicion -- both FM and UHF volume levels were tuned to whisper mode.
“Uh -- *why* did you do that?”
“Because I couldn’t hear what you were saying with all the radio calls going on.”

Clink!!!

[*thought balloon*] Take a deep breath, count to ten, he’s not intentionally trying to kill me...but I could see the Senior Rater's Remarks in the ol' OER just took a nosedive.

“Tell you what, Ferd -- I’ll fly and handle the radios; you concentrate on the map. Look at the landmarks I’ll point out, keep us on the map and confirm my call at the control points, OK?”
“OK, you’ve got the radios and the controls.”

CLINK!

Soon after one particularly-spectacular “Oops-wrong-grid-square-again” Ferd-error, I came to an OGE hover and asked my intrepid navigator, “How far are we from Blank Camp?” When he guessed wrong (again), I pointed out some Butler huts just visible through the trees and said, “There’s Blank Camp. Look at all those cool little “x’s” marked on the map -- it’s a real wire-nest. And off to the right, at two o’clock, you can see that cut through the trees where the telephone wires used to run before the engineers put ‘em underground. Got us on the map yet?”
“Yes, right here.” He pointed to our map location and was right on the money.
“We’re gonna maintain this heading to those trees at twelve -- any hazards?”
“The Laser Range is about a klick beyond those trees.”
“Solid aviation answer, lad!” I caught simultaneous calls on Fox and Victor and answered both. "We're getting some Good Training, Ell-Tee. A Scout’s gotta be able to handle anything and everything, ya know?”

Clink

Geez--this flight might be salvageable, after all.

Clink

My mood improved considerably as I headed southeast into the midmorning sun toward a long, narrow field bounded on the left by a treeline paralleling our flight path. To the right was a large brushy area fading to woodland, with an isolated pair of 40-foot trees about midway down the field. I kept up the Instructor patter:
“On a real recon, we’d drop down, using the left treeline for masking and dash across this field to the woods at twelve, ‘cause that old line-cut through the woods is a perfect fire-lane for any bad guys with heavy automatic stuff. Then we’d stop at the treeline and unmask for a looksee. But with the rest of the Battalion behind us, we’ll stay up here at thirty feet so they can keep us in sight. We’ll keep our airspeed just above ETL; that’ll give them time to get into overwatch. After all, this is only training, and it’s for all of us.”

As we came abeam the pair of trees, we felt the aircraft lift very gently and heard a soft “thump”...

OH-6 Class D
A series - During NOE training mission, crew heard a thump and felt aircraft lurch slightly upward. IP immediately landed aircraft with power in a grass-covered field. IP turned controls over to pilot and got out to inspect aircraft for damage. About 100 meters behind the aircraft he found a wire that had been cut by the WSPS. A second wire had passed along the underside of the skids and scraped against the FM antenna before being cut by the tail rotor blade. Wires were not marked on hazard map. ----FLIGHTFAX, 20 June 1990, page 8.

The engineers had indeed put the telephone lines underground; however, they had not put all the *wires* underground. Hidden behind the treeline to our left was a telephone pole; lurking between the pair of 40-foot trees to our right was another pole. What I had hit were two of the three 5/8-inch support cables (nicely oxidized to a soft, pale grey) strung between the poles and supporting -- nothing. My visions of a Flight Evaluation Board faded when the Brigade Commander paid me a visit in the Dispensary and told me that the wires were definitely not marked on the Post Hazard Map; but my blue funk returned when I pulled out my previous-year’s map and saw -- you guessed it -- the wires, plainly marked, right where I had performed the functional check of the WSPS (Wire Strike Protection System, aka "wire-cutters." They'd been installed the week before. Story just got scarier, didn't it...)

And no, I was not awarded the tail rotor blade as a souvenir...

Our Battalion still does a wire recon as the first mission at AT; we also fly a monthly wire sweep of our home Tactical Training Area, and when the “newbies” ask, “Why?” somebody usually says, “We had a wire-strike a couple of years back -- if you’ve got about five minutes, have Tuttle tell you the story.”

Oh, yeah -- about the caption on the photograph. On the OH-6, there is a gap about the length of a US Government pen between the tip of the lower wire cutter and the skid toes. Judging by the scraped paint on the relevant components, I’d caught the first wire an inch above the breakaway tip and the second wire about an inch below the skid toe cap; an inch higher or lower and one of the wires would have passed through the gap and flipped us. If I’d been flying slower, the cutter wouldn’t have cut the top wire completely--and the wire would’ve flipped us. If I’d been flying faster, the wire would have snapped the cutter tip -- and flipped us. If I hadn’t been flying the only Loach on Post with skid shoes, the skid cleats would have snagged the middle wire -- and flipped us. So we were flying at the only possible combination of altitude, attitude and airspeed in the only possible Loach on post that would insure we had the slightest chance of surviving a multiple wire-strike.

I figure that’s Divine Intervention. It sure wasn’t due to any skill on my part…