How did I get myself into this position? Here I was in a $6 million helicopter, just minutes from running out of fuel, at night, over the swamps of the Florida panhandle. I was beginning to imagine the headlines that would greet my wife and children. “Sir, we’ve got about 10 minutes of gas,” my crew chief said. The airport was probably 10 minutes away.
The mission started off well. Our National Guard unit in Georgia was tasked to provide helicopter support to the U.S. Army’s Ranger Training Battalion at Eglin Air Force Base for a long weekend. As an instructor pilot in the Sikorsky UH-60, I would fly down ahead of time to coordinate the mission. En route, I would finish the night vision goggle training of a new pilot. First, however, I would have to finish my day job as a captain for a regional airline.
The plan was for my National Guard copilot to preflight, plan the route and check weather and notams for the flight. I would arrive about two hours before departure and check his planning. Our crew chief for the flight was an experienced crew member, and I had been flying with him for several years.
After completing my airline trip, I hopped into my car and headed to my National Guard unit. It would be a long day but within the military crew rest requirements. I arrived at the unit and reviewed the planning. It was a holiday weekend, so many FBOs along the route of flight would be closed. The one airport along our route that would have fuel was Florala (014), and the length of the route would leave us with a reserve of 40 minutes — less than the one full hour I like for personal minimums but more than the 30 minutes required for a helicopter at night.
The departure and initial flight were uneventful, except for a wind that was stronger than forecast out of the southeast — our trip was to the southwest. My copilot needed training on night navigation, so I did the flying. Along the way, I asked him about checkpoints, had him update our weather with an FSS and asked him other questions. I noticed after some time that I was overwhelming him and he was not able to concentrate on the navigation task. My first inkling that something else was amiss was when he told me we were on course with Troy, Alabama, out of our right door and Ozark out of our left door. Something did not seem right. The copilot pointed to the GPS, which showed us on course. Still, I had a bad feeling. I gave the copilot the controls and took over the navigation. I tried to tune in some NDBs but could not receive signals from those that should have been close. I tried others — no luck. I tried some VORs — no luck. Finally, I was able to pick up the Andalusia VOR and the Brantley NDB (we did not have DME). I did a quick triangulation and got a shock. We were off course. Not a little off course but 30 miles off course to the west. The GPS was wrong. Somehow it failed without giving us an error message. (I later learned there was an antenna problem.)
I had the copilot fly direct to the Andalusia VOR while I got an exact fix on where we were. At this point, I knew fuel would be critical, so I asked the crew chief to compute the fuel remaining and give me an update every few minutes. I did some quick calculations and figured we could fly to the Andalusia VOR then fly the 165 radial from it direct to Florala. We would land with about 15 minutes of fuel remaining. I briefly considered landing at Andalusia, but I knew we would probably not get fuel until the next morning, which would cause problems for our mission. I did not like the idea of landing with 15 minutes of fuel at Florala, yet our fuel gauges were very accurate. We should be fine.
We flew over the Andalusia VOR, got a needle swing and I reminded the copilot to fly the 165 radial. A few minutes later, the copilot announced that he had Florala in sight and was flying directly for it. I put the map down with relief and decided to double-check the fuel numbers. My computations were the same as the crew chief’s: We would make it.
I looked up and once again got the feeling that something was not right. I saw a beacon in the distance — and looked at my map again. Florala did not have a beacon. We were heading toward the wrong airport. I looked at my HSI and realized the copilot was not flying a 165 radial — he was flying a 165 heading. My map covered up the HSI, so I did not notice this error as we passed the VOR. The airport we were heading toward was Crestview, Florida (KCEW), an airport much farther southwest from us than Florala. With the night vision goggles, my copilot misjudged the distance, and the easterly wind blew him directly toward the Crestview airport. I computed the distance and realized there was no way we could make Crestview. I had the copilot turn toward Florala again.