CGAS Kodiak HH-65C
Accurate, Bold and Concise?
By Lt. Pat Lineberry and Lt. BJ Miles
At what point would the fly on the overhead console have called it quits? So many things
stacked up to scrub this mission that it could have been called at a number of moments.
But as we passed through aligning holes of Swiss cheese; each seemed insignificant. It
wasn’t until the two jokers in the front seats figured out what the fly understood back on
deck… maybe we never should have taken off.
We, and our trusty HH--65C Dolphin, were the AVDET onboard the first Coast Guard
high-endurance cutter to patrol the Arctic coastline coastline along Alaska’s northern
coast. Our primary function would be to fly ahead of USCGC Hamilton to determine the
safest passage through the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas’ broken summer ice fields.
Secondary would be to locate vessels for possible boardings and to conduct the first ever
SAR exercise this far north. Summer weather is pleasant by Alaskan standards; light
winds, flat seas, temperatures above freezing. All tempered with random pockets of fog
that can be thin enough to see blue sky above to those that will bring a CAVU day down
to 0/0 and have you searching your radar screen to find the cutter. The last few days we
have easily popped in and out of the thinner variety and we had grown comfortable with
it as a mild inconvenience. The word complacent comes to mind.
That brings us to today, the SAREX. The USCGC Spar, a buoy tender, was pretending to
be a cruise ship that had hit an iceberg, lost a lookout overboard, was taking on water,
and had two crewmembers needing medical evacuation. The plan was for a Kodiak C-
130 to drop a pump to the Spar and we would then hoist the two injured personnel while
the C-130 searched for the person in the water. In step, our two salty HH-65C aircraft
commanders set out on a gloriously sunny day to hoist our Coastie brethren from an
enormous buoy deck back to the cutter flight deck. This is our bread and butter. As we
conducted the walk -around, enjoying the warming rays of the sun, we could see the
USCGC Spar just a few miles away; both of us underway north of the town of Barrow,
Alaska. We conducted the crew brief and discussed the series of events; our flight
mechanic was equally salty and just as confident in his abilities to conduct such a routine
hoisting mission. We couldn’t have been more mellow if we were sitting on a beach in
Maui. We love days like this.
Amber deck, engines running, take-off checks complete, get the numbers and request one
take-off to port. Green deck, tiedowns off, TALON disengaged and we give the take-off
hand signal to the LSO. Looking to port it takes a second to figure out what we are
looking at. When did it get foggy? I thought this only happens when we request to land,
we chuckle to ourselves. We all agree that we can see blue sky overhead, and as quickly
as the cutter went into the fog, surely we can fly out or over it back to the picture perfect
weather in the OP area. We take off, complete level -off checks at 100AGL and make a
180 to where our MFD D has the buoy tender plotted only seven miles away. The fog is
instantly above our comfort level, but we should break out any second. The fly whispers
“Wwhat about the C-130 conducting drops to the buoy tender?”
Hey, what freq is the C-130 on? We turn up the volume on COMM2 just in time to hear
the Herc ask the buoy tender to reposition for the drops since they are entering the fog.
Instantly both of our salty aircraft commanders have the image of a pump and parachute
dropping through the rotor arc as we bomb through the fog. I’m pretty sure we stepped on
each other as we both recommended going back to orbit the cutter as they make their way
out of the fog and over to the SAREX OP area that used to have great weather. The fly
again whispers, but he is drowned out by the cacophony of Ricky Bobby quotes… “I am
a semi-professional race car driver and amateur tattoo artist.” Does anyone realize this
day is really not going well?
Safely established in an 75’ orbit around the cutter, we wait to drive through the wall and
emerge back in our sunny day. “If you ain’t first, you’re last…” the quotes continue. The
SAREX continues without us and we are listening in on the radio chatter from the cutter,
the buoy tender and the C-130. Should we land and save gas? We can’t hot -gas due to a
mechanical glitch so we would have to shut down to refuel. Naw, let’s just keep orbiting.
We’ll get out of this any second. As a radio call conveying these thoughts to the cutter
starts, the flying pilot states “dude!” The radio call immediately stops and changes to
“belay my last, request immediate landing, landing checks complete.” It’s amazing how
much can be conveyed by a simple word like dude, but no one knew the full extent of
battle being waged in the right seat. It was rightfully surmised from the concise statement
that the fog was thick enough to make orbiting the cutter, even at 75’, difficult. But what
we didn’t realize that at 100’ the cutter would vanish. And attempting to pull into a hover
with no wind and a fairly heavy 65 puts the torque into the upper throws of its range. The
fly, I’m sure, heard the mental screams of “don’t over torque, don’t climb, watch your
altitude, where’s the cutter, are the wheels really down, torque, torque!” However, the
left seater is not clairvoyant, and all this is going on while he is wondering what was for
lunch and if there would be any left.
In a moment of Olympic record setting pace, the cutter grants the landing and a green
deck is issued. We were already in a hover a few feet to starboard and, with no fan fare,
landed and shut down. Deep breath… what happened?
First; in the pre-flight brief we discuss that risk assessment is an evolving value and
anyone can bring it up at any moment in the flight and it will get a full re-evaluation. We
let ourselves fly into Alaska’s unforgiving and forever changing atmosphere without a
second thought. No challenge was uttered by any of the three folks in the helo; total
complacency. A mitigation measure would be to state that any change in the mechanical,
meteorological or mental condition of the situation warrants an immediate reassessment.
A simple statement of our operating limits in the brief would have also served us well.
With the exceptions of national defense or urgent SAR, the Coast Guard Shipboard-
Helicopter Operations Manual limits Level (I) Dual Pilot operations to 200-foot ceilings
and ½ mile visibility. When we encountered ceilings at 150 feet, we should have returned
for landing. This alone would realign the cheese slices in our favor.
Second; although brilliant in its simplicity, “dude” just doesn’t get the full picture across.
From the tone, it was obvious that things weren’t going well. But so much more was
going on. The left seater didn’t get the full picture until a BS session well after the fact.
Likewise, the right seat had no idea how busy the left seat was while talking to the cutter
and the C-130, and not backing him up with power and attitude management. We preach
ABC—accurate, bold and concise—in our community to the point of litany. Perhaps a
practicing of our preaching would help, but when your synapses are on full boil and you
only have 0.0001 of a second to get your thoughts out, “dude” wasn’t all that bad of a
choice. Just make sure that when your get a spare 0.0001 second, you fill in the details.
Third; a classic case of mission-itis. It’s very easy for Coast Guard crews to put on the
giit ‘r dunn hat. That’s someone’s father missing or someone’s daughter drowning, but
when it comes to all missions, the possible gain must be weighed against the possible
risk. From our textbooks, risk can be defined as Severity times Probability times
Exposure (R=SPE). The severity of ditching in 32-degree water is one hour survivability.
Multiply that with an increased probably of icing, mid-air collision, or unusual attitude
close to the water for several hours of exposure and our risk is clearly high. A fellow HH-
65 pilot proposed that gain can be defined as Severity times Probability divided by
Exposure (G=SP/E). Both the severity of us not launching and probability of mission
failure is low since a small boat could make the transfer of injured personnel. Divide this
with high exposure through several Coast Guard assets and the gain is clearly low. With
risk outweighing gain, we should not have launched or continued this mission. Not to
mention it was only training!
And lastly; put your game face on! The beach side cabaña atmosphere and lackadaisical
demeanor from each seat only clouded our judgment as much as the fog our visibility. No
matter how many hoists, patrols and landings you might have under your belt, there
comes a time to put the joking aside and take the reins of your situation. In this case you
are a long way from home, over water a few degrees above freezing in a helicopter
surrounded by fog, other aircraft nearby and vessel’s masts poking up into your world.
“What more do you need to slap you into consciousness,” the fly screams. I have no
doubt that we will again slip into the routine, the automatic and fill in the silence with
quotes from Will Ferrell’s latest masterpiece. But the buzzing in our ears will serve as a
reminder and bring us back to the here and now.
Lts. Pat Lineberry and BJ Miles are assigned to Air Station Kodiak as HH-65C pilots in
ALPAT; supplying CG cutters with Alaska qualified aircrews for Bering Sea and Arctic