Saturday, January 23, 2016

Rex Keyes: Pre-night mission training essential for helicopter pilots

By Rex Keyes, Guest commentary

Recently there was a crash that occurred at night of two CH-53 Marine helicopters off the coast of Hawaii. There are a lot of questions that should be asked by an investigative board. This was supposedly a training mission. But in training missions, especially at night, there needs to be close oversight of the mission.

In a mission both helicopters should have known of each other’s presence and location and have been in communication on the same radio frequency. If they were flying in formation at night, did they each have their night lights on which consist of three position lights and/or a rotating red beacon? How much instrument training did they have because at night, the lead helicopter of a formation would need reference to his instruments because of hardly any outside visual reference, especially over the ocean? Also, how much night flying did the pilots have or flight simulator training instituting night simulation and/or instrument flying? Were there flight instructors or senior pilots with experience seated in the co-pilot’s seat to help in the training? This is standard procedure in the Army with its vast fleet of helicopters, but is it in the Marines?

As a prior flight simulator instructor at Fort Ord we had many Army helicopter pilots go through training flying on instruments. In the armed forces there was a mandatory amount of hours in instrument training per year each pilot had to go though. We had a few pilots from the Air Force and a couple of Marine pilots. It was essential that they got training either in an actual helicopter or in a simulator.

This helps them to fly in reduced visibility whether it be fog, clouds or at night. Without this training the chances of an incident in reduced visibility rises dramatically. One could actually see the improvement in the pilots between the time they started their recurrent training and finished.

The chances of survivability in a helicopter midair compared to a fixed-wing airplane is extremely low because of the intermeshing and or destruction of the rotor blades, the immediate loss of lift and the sequential falling out of the sky like a rock. Training of the pilots prior to a practice night mission and oversight of a night mission is essential.

Rex Keyes, who has been a flight simulator instructor at Fort Ord and a Vietnam War helicopter pilot, lives in Corral de Tierra.


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