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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Unlearned Lessons

By Todd Vorenkamp

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not mistake-free in my flying and the activities that surround it. Luckily, my mistakes have not landed me at the end of a long green table or, much worse, at the bottom of the briny deep! Many moons ago, sailing on a schooner, I made the same mistake several times while attempting to perform a simple nautical task. The mate on the boat said, tongue-in-cheek, “The thing that separates humans from the rest of the animal world is that we learn quickly from our mistakes.” Apparently he noticed that I was single-handedly fighting evolution.

Recently, while flying and getting ready to fly, I made a few mistakes that, had I learned my lessons long ago, ‘coulda/shoulda’ been avoided. During my education and re-education, the lessons vary in their severity, but it should not be hard to envision a scenario in which the consequences could have been more dire.

Story One: Years ago I was eating a slider and fries on board USS Carl Stennis. Sitting across the table was an amiable F/A-18 Hornet squadron CO. Sea stories and jokes were flying around the table and I mentioned that we had found an attack submarine that morning while on a passenger transfer between battle-group ships. He said, “I pledged my Hornet guys a case of beer to the first one who spots a sub.”

“Any winners?” I asked. “Nope, I can’t get any of them to look out of the [expletive deleted] window,” said the tac-air veteran.

Several weeks ago while prosecuting a SAR case, we decided to deploy a DMB. As we approached the datum and prepared to drop, I had my head buried in my lap while scribbling down the frequency of the DMB, tuning it, and scribbling down the position. In fact, I had my head down so much during the next 45 minutes that I became mildly airsick as the PIC in the right seat yanked and banked around the search patterns I was punching into the computer. After searching for a short time, Group asked us to drop a DMB. I informed them that we already had deployed a beacon and we decided to go fly to the DMB to check its position and calculate set and drift.

Head down again, I tuned the DMB and punched a direct course to where we dropped it. Overhead the DMB, our flight mechanic spotted the survivor (alive after 90 minutes in 53-degree water, wearing a T-shirt and shorts!). It was a happy ending to our SAR case, but one of the sobering takeaways was our theory that the survivor was right outside of my window when we dropped the DMB 45 minutes earlier. Had I been searching the waves, instead of being mildly consumed with cockpit administrative duties, we might have found this gentleman much sooner than we did. This could have easily been the difference between life and death.

Unlearned Lesson One: Look outside! If you have to be head down, try to get as much administrative cockpit work done before you get into the search area.

Story Two: In my prior life, I flew the beautiful CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. The Phrog, as it is known, leaks like an oil tanker hard aground. Every, and I mean every, helo on the line had a puddle underneath it and an assortment of puddles inside the cabin. It was part of the lifestyle of a 46 driver. You’d figure out what the puddle was made out of and, using basic Sherlock Holmes techniques, where it was coming from. Then, once the guilty reservoir was identified, you determined if you could go flying or not, and, if so, for how long. Recently, I started flying the H-60 and then the H-65; two bone-dry aircraft.

Leaks and puddles are not a thing of the past. Leaks and puddles now signify problem areas—not the old H-46/H-3 Sea King adage, “If it isn’t leaking, it must be empty.”

Several weeks ago I was finishing a walk-around of the H-65 I was about to strap on and the PIC asked, as he walked up to the aircraft, “What is that puddle next to the left main landing gear?” I replied, assuming: “That is from the water wash after last flight.” The PIC knelt down next to the wheel and touched the wet area and found, not water, but hydraulic fluid. Oops.

Unlearned Lesson Two: Check all puddles! I grew up in helicopter aviation checking puddles religiously. A short time in non-leaky aircraft and I have quickly become complacent in thinking that the remnants of a puddle next to the left main undercarriage of the H-65 had to be water from the engine wash.

Editor's Note: This column is reprinted from Talon: The Journal of the H-65, an internal U.S. Coast Guard newsletter.

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