I Learned About Flying From That: Lady Luck

How several mishaps led to a decision no pilot ever wants to make.

ILAFFT Lady Luck

ILAFFT Lady Luck

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

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.

By now, both of our low-fuel lights were flashing. I previously instructed the crew chief to give me fuel remaining every five minutes until the 15-minute mark, then every minute. He gave me the 15-minute call. I computed the distance remaining and realized that we might not make it to Florala — and our route would take us over wooded areas, swamps, ponds and the town itself — not good areas to flame out. It was a very difficult decision. We might make it, but if we did not, the consequences would be disastrous.

It was time to land. I announced the decision to the crew that we were making an off-airport landing. At this point, I took the controls from the copilot and tried to minimize power inputs in order to conserve fuel. I spotted a clearing ahead and announced I was starting my approach to the clearing. On short final, the crew chief shouted, “Wires, climb!” The copilot and I did not see the power lines strung across the field, but the crew chief saw one of the support poles. We now had 10 minutes of gas. We flew along for what seemed like an eternity with no place to land. Finally, a cow pasture came into view, with the lights of a farmhouse at the far end. I again announced my intention to land and initiated the approach. This time nothing interfered, and we were safely on the ground.

As the copilot and I shut down the helicopter, I asked the crew chief to go to the farmhouse and ask to use their phone to coordinate a fuel truck. I was also wondering how I was going to explain this to my commander — how an experienced pilot almost ran out of gas. As the rotor blades coasted down, the crew chief returned to the helicopter. He hooked up to the intercom system and gave me the first good news of the trip: The Florala refueler was the brother-in-law of the farmer. As soon as the farmer saw us land, he assumed we needed fuel and called his brother-in-law. Sure enough, 30 minutes later the fuel truck showed up, topped us off and sent us on our way.

There are many lessons to be learned from this event. I’ll try to name a few. I probably should have done a better job of reviewing the copilot’s work, but I felt rushed to get in the air and down to Eglin before exceeding my duty day. I also task-sa­turated the copilot. Some of the things I wanted to teach him distracted from the primary task at hand and helped lead to his disorientation.

When VFR, the map, compass, clock and a pilot’s eyeballs are the primary source of navigation — not GPS. I should have checked the copilot’s navigation earlier. When I told him to fly a radial, I did not confirm he was doing this.

It’s vital to use all your resources, especially in an emergency. The crew chief was essential to the safe outcome of this flight. We can teach nonpilots who fly with us regularly certain tasks, such as scanning for other aircraft and hazards and how to tune the radios.

There comes a time when you need to cut your losses. This might require landing at an airport without fuel or perhaps making an off-airport landing with power in a place of your choosing rather than making a forced landing without power. In this incident, I made the mistake of bypassing an airport because it did not have gas. Yet, in the end, I made the difficult decision to set the helicopter down in a field rather than risk running out of gas.

I don’t like relying on luck, but 14 years ago Lady Luck looked out for me, and I’ll never turn down her help.