Audio Blog, 8:25
Today at work, I made a mistake. It was a small one that didn’t lose money or cause a significant problem. Nonetheless, it was a sloppy mistake that I should not have made, and it was a bit awkward when my manager identified it and I owned it.
This small moment made me think back to 1994 on the island of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea, when I made a very serious mistake that could have been fatal…
At the time, I was a pilot in the U.S. Army, living on a Royal British Air Force base as part of a small contingent of American aircrews. Our task was to fly the Beirut Air Bridge, a mission using UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to provide support to the US Embassy in Beirut. The Air Bridge provided the only safe mode of transportation for US diplomats and security personnel between Cyprus, a stable island nation, and the US Embassy in the war-torn city of Beirut, Lebanon. The mission originated in the aftermath of the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing that infamously took the lives of several hundred marines and government personnel.
The BAB mission was flown in the night at very low levels (100 – 500ft) to reduce the exposure to radar detection and hostile action. It required the skilled use of night vision goggles, dubbed “NVGs”, and a totally “blacked-out” light configuration on the helicopters. Flying with NVGs is similar to looking through two toilet paper rolls with everything in a greenish color.
The tricky and most dangerous part of the mission was the transition from flying from the dark sea, into a brightly illuminated city, and vice versa on the way back out of Beirut. It was complicated because the pilots had to switch from using the NVGs (aided vision) to looking under them with “unaided” vision, into the bright lights of the city. It could be very disorienting, and we often had to reference cockpit instruments to get our bearings.
I had flown the mission numerous times, and felt confident executing it. I had volunteered to remain in Cyprus longer than the standard rotation (I liked living on the beautiful island and the adventure), so I was perhaps the most experienced BAB mission aviator in the unit. The result was that I was often tasked with conducting the pre-flight briefing to all crew members and passengers. I always stressed the danger to the pilots and crew members of the transition from aided to unaided flight on the coastline of Lebanon, especially on a zero illumination night (no starlight).
One dark night, after spending less than two minutes on the embassy landing zone, I lead two helicopters back out of the brightly lit city, towards the dark sea. I was the Pilot-in-Command, and there was a co-pilot, door gunner and crew chief in our aircraft. Behind our “bird” was another Blackhawk following us. Adding to the normal difficulty of the transition from light to darkness, was the steep descent that the helicopters had to take to get back down from the embassy, at a higher elevation, to the coastline.
Additionally, the radios were very active with necessary communications between our aircraft and other U.S. assets in the area. Finally, there was the added distraction of the ole’ APR-39, a radar warning device in the cockpit to detect and audio warn us about any hostile weapons system “painting” the helicopters with radar as we flew by non-friendly areas. A lot was going on.
Anyway, flying at 150 knots (~mph), less than 100 feet above the ground and in a very steep descent to follow the contour down to the coastline, my co-pilot and I became distracted right as we crossed over the beach as we headed back into the “abyss” of a very dark night. The unaided eye could distinguish very little difference between the water and horizon. At that point, when I should have switched back to using NVGs, checked the instruments, and leveled off the aircraft at 100 feet, I unknowingly continued the descent and we were headed right into the dark sea….
Luckily the door gunner, Private Pennington, a 19 year old from Louisiana, was looking into the cockpit at the radar altimeter and yelled…”Watch the @$#!%* altitude, Sir!”
I was on the controls, and looked down at the radar altimeter and it read a mere 33 feet. Whoa!
I applied full power with the collective control in my left hand, deep left pedal for anti-torque, and yanked back on the cyclic stick with my right hand to arrest the descent…and waited…and somehow we didn’t hit the water! I climbed back up to 100 feet, and set a course for home in the complete darkness. For over 100 miles, in complete darkness, no one said a single word.
The hour flight back to Cyprus was difficult for me to stay focused on the mission, and not beat myself up over a mistake that almost cost four lives. I was numb with regret, disappointment and anger (at myself). My mind wandered to what my crew must be thinking about me right now. And I was surprised that I made such a mistake, after being so clear in my pre-flight warning to everybody else on the dangers of that very transition. Ugggh.
When we landed, I pulled the crew aside, thanked Pennington for saving our lives, and apologized for the mistake. I felt very down that night, because I knew that if the young soldier would not have spoken up when he did, CNN would be running a story of a “Blackhawk Down off the coast of Beirut”. Everyone would have assumed hostile action, and not the truth: pilot error.
What did I learn from that harrowing night?
- The best way to handle a mistake is to verbally acknowledge personal fault. It is natural to make excuses…share blame with the co-pilot for not catching the error, or identify all the things that distracted me. However, the bottom line was that I messed up big, and it was a burden removed from my shoulders when I publicly admitted it to the aircrew. I believe they appreciated the accountability.
- It is always better to encourage subordinates to feel empowered and able to speak up and identify something that is abnormal. Besides Pennington speaking up, the second most important factor that saved us was the open communication environment of the crew. I give myself credit for this, because as part of my pre-flight briefing, I always told all crewmembers to speak up when they see something wrong, regardless of their rank or position.
- When you make a mistake, it is best not to mope around and worry about it. Moping around usually results in a second mistake. Just accept it, commit to learning from it, and move on. Own it.
- When time allows, always review what happened and formulate lessons learned, and a procedure to reduce the chances that you make the same mistake again.
When you handle a mistake correctly by taking responsibility and acknowledging your human faults, the painful experience eventually makes you a better person.