I thought my biggest fear had finally caught up with me: I was going to be stranded at sea, in the middle of the night.
It was 1994, and I was the pilot-in-command of a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter, one of two birds flying over the Mediterranean Sea headed from the island of Cyprus to Beirut, Lebanon. About fifty miles from land, in the middle of the night, I got a radio call from the second aircraft.
“Eagle 32, you have smoke billowing out of your number 1 engine.”
Throughout my life, I had a fear of crossing any large body of water via bridges, boats or planes. The thought of struggling to survive in a massive body of water, especially night, was a secret fear.
Like most people, I simply tried to avoid situations associated with this fear, and went on with my life. I certainly didn’t expect the fear to alter the trajectory of my life path. I went to the beach, jumped in the water, and even rode jet skis and such…but always stayed within swimming distance of the coast line.
Instead of the Navy, I joined the Army, expecting to avoid flying over large bodies of water…just jungles, woods and deserts.
You know where this story is going, right?
After flight training, I was assigned to the mountains and jungles of Central America, and then the rolling countryside of Germany. Then, in an unexpected turn of events, I was assigned to one of the few U.S. Army units that actually specialized in over-water, night flying missions. What the heck?!
Aviators in the Eagle Flight Detachment gained proficiency in U.S. Navy ship landing and sea rescue operations.
We all received excellent training at the U.S. Navy’s Water Survival Training Center at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (Florida).
During missions, we wore specialized “Mustang Suits” to improve survivability in cold water if stranded at sea.
Back to the story…
After receiving the alarming radio call from the other aircrew, I was concerned that where there was smoke, there was (likely) fire. Having a fire onboard an aircraft in flight, at night, over miles of water, was a very sobering thought, and would present quite a challenge.
My co-pilot and I began an analysis of the cockpit instruments to verify indications of a fire, including engine oil temperature, pressure, etc. Everything looked normal.
I began to put the aircraft in slow “S” turns to get a better visual on our problem, and I asked my crew chief in the back to look out and identify the “smoke”.
“Yes sir, we have smoke coming out the left side.”
I was perplexed. More than one person had confirmed “smoke”, but everything inside the cockpit and the aircraft performance was normal. We continued to try to solve the mystery, but without the ability to simply land and evacuate the aircraft, and no real fire fighting capabilities onboard, the options were limited.
I began to think about the steps necessary to prepare the crew for the dreaded “ditching at sea”, in the dark. Although I had deliberately tried to avoid ever being in this fearful situation, it looked like I was in it. Interestingly at that moment, because of training, preparation and knowledge, I really was not that scared.
I had practiced this maneuver in the flight simulator, and after learning the process at NAS Jax. The procedure would begin with the pilot-in-command bringing the aircraft to a hover over the dark sea using night vision goggles with no reference points. At that point, the crew chief would kick the inflatable raft out the door into the sea, and then the rest of the crew would jump into the darkness of water and deploy their “water wings” (think inflatable arm bands). They would swim to, and board, the raft until the other aircraft was clear to commence rescue operations.
Next, I (the lonely pilot-in-command) would have the responsibility to fly the bird away from the crew a “safe distance”, and then the real fun would begin. It required the unnerving procedure of ditching, waiting, then exiting a submerged and dark aircraft.
It involved a controlled crash, engine shutdown, violent moment of blades impacting the water, then waiting until the aircraft had rolled upside down into the complete darkness of the Mediterranean Sea. If you tried to evacuate before the blades stop, you risked being killed by the moving blades.
At that point, I would unhook my seat harness, exit the dark aircraft and swim to the surface. If I was lucky enough to surface before being trapped in the sinking helicopter headed to the bottom of the sea, I would orient myself to the crew in the inflatable raft by finding their strobe lights, and start a long swim to their position. Easy, right?
But, luckily, we were not at that point of ditching just yet, because there was no actual fire, just “smoke”. So, we continued to analyze the problem while keeping the other helicopter crew updated.
Just as I was starting to feel like the refreshing night dip in the sea was inevitable, a light bulb came on inside my head.
I wondered if our auxiliary fuel tanks may be the problem. The “Aux” tanks were configured as attachments to allow for longer flight range by transferring extra fuel into the main tanks,. Each Aux tank had a “shut-off valve” that automatically stopped pumping fuel into the main tanks when full.
If that valve was malfunctioning, the aux tank would continue to try to transfer fuel into a full main tank. The resulting mist, caused by the spewing of fuel out the side of the aircraft, may just look like “smoke” to aviators looking through night vision goggles.
I reached down, and flipped down the aux fuel transfer switch, and made a call to the other aircraft.
“Eagle 15, this is Eagle 32…is the “smoke” still coming out?”
“Negative, it stopped.”
My crew chief stuck his head out the window and confirmed.
“No “smoke”, sir.”
Good gracious. Everything was fine, besides the soiling of our flight suits (just kidding)!
With energy and focus, we avoid fearful situations, and attempt to cast them aside. However, even though it takes a long and circuitous path, the boomerang of our fears eventually comes right back.
Fear of public speaking? Large crowds? A certain creepy crawling critter? Trusting others?
Everyone has a fear. Some people just hide it well, and take deliberate actions to keep themselves out of situations that may bring them face to face with the fear.
Ultimately, the best approach may be to recognize and identify the source of the fear, and then invest time to learn about the best ways to deal with the fearful situation, if it ever “rears it’s ugly head”.