Written In Flames
1st Battalion, 183rd Aviation Regiment
Idaho Army National Guard
Boise, IdahoIt was a clear, sunny morning and I was the pilot in command of an OH-58C Kiowa. Our task was to follow and observe two AH-64D Apache helicopter crews during combat training. I was in the right seat; to my left was the instructor pilot — an experienced attack pilot who was evaluating the performance of the Apache air weapons team. The 64s flew in support of ground units as part of a large-scale scenario. Since it was already a warm day, we had removed both doors from our aircraft.
We had been following the Apaches ever since sunrise — nearly three hours. They had been flying security for a convoy followed by providing air cover for Soldiers doing a cordon-and-search. When lead announced, “Bingo,” we headed to the forward arming and refueling point. Anticipating a routine quick turn with hot refuel, I thought we would be taking off again within 10 minutes. I had experienced countless hot refuels without incident in both the Kiowa and Apache, and this time seemed no different.
We landed on the far right at the number one point and had the Apaches to our left at points two and three. The refueling HEMTT was to their left off in the distance. Due to the position of the two Apaches, the personnel at the refuel truck could not see our helicopter. This problem was normally dealt with by positioning a Soldier at the fire extinguisher to watch us and send hand signals to the refueling personnel at the truck.
After landing, I brought the helicopter to flight idle as usual and casually reminded my PI of our emergency egress procedures, should the need arise. Perhaps 30 seconds later, I smelled an overwhelming odor of JP-8 fuel. I immediately yelled, “Get out! Get out!” and quickly moved through my emergency shutdown steps. Before I had completed those steps, I looked over my right shoulder through the aft Plexiglas window and was surprised to see fuel flowing down the entire window and door exterior. Without warning, the Soldier with the refueling hose had pulled the nozzle from the aircraft fuel port without shutting off the flow.
Quickly moving through my shutdown steps, I again looked to my right through my open doorway (remember, the doors were off). I saw the Soldier soaked in fuel from head to foot standing five feet away, pointing the spraying nozzle in my direction. I watched as a steady stream of jet fuel sprayed under my seat and onto the floor and chin-bubble beneath my legs and feet. I soon found out he had also sprayed fuel on the engine cowling and into the engine compartment.
Moving rapidly, I was able to shut down, unbuckle, disconnect and move out of the cockpit. Fortunately, my PI had followed my briefing instructions and was already well clear of the helicopter. As I ran to the 11-o’clock position under the still-spinning rotor blades, I saw the fuel-soaked refueler still dousing the right-side of my aircraft. I estimated that lasted about 20 seconds.
My PI and I spent several minutes regaining our composure and then called our boss and others who obviously needed to know what happened. Luckily, no one was injured. Not wanting to slow the ongoing training, we began making arrangements to continue the mission with a replacement aircraft. About 40 minutes after the incident, our replacement helicopter arrived and we were re-briefed and continued the mission. A senior NCO from the training team was aware of the situation and was steering a staff sergeant at the FARP to deal with what had transpired. Confident the problem would be resolved, we departed behind our two Apaches.
Another bag of fuel later, we found ourselves back at the same FARP at the same three refuel points as before. That is when details of the earlier event became even clearer. First, I realized no one had been manning the fire extinguisher at our one-o’clock position to send fuel cut-off signals to the personnel at the fuel truck. Second, I found out the fuel-soaked refueler simply walked off without getting help or informing anyone of what had happened.
However, what really got my attention was what was happening now during our second refueling. Despite the significant fuel spill that happened on our running helicopter only a couple of hours before, the three Soldiers now fueling my aircraft were a specialist (who was there during the spill) and two privates. Apparently, none of the officers or NCOs responsible for fueling operations had taken any interest in what had happened. During our second turn, our fuel cut-off signals were not readily understood and fueling continued for 15-20 seconds after we signaled to stop. I was stunned to see such a lack of leader interest after all that had transpired.
Fortunately, we all walked away from the incident without serious injury or loss of equipment. But I left having learned some important lessons:
• Leaders must be involved and aware of what their Soldiers do.
• A lack of training and supervision can quickly end in catastrophe.
• Complacency can lead to a routine situation becoming uncontrolled.
• Communication of hazards to leaders is essential if a fix is to occur.
I believe that a substantial part of that last bullet rested on me. Although I spoke with the training NCO shortly after the incident and eventually submitted an occupational hazard report, I still had not properly dealt with the immediate problem. I had assumed the FARP training NCO had handled the situation and drove on. What I should have done was immediately stop the training and let everyone know we had a problem that needed attention. I should have then followed up to ensure the correct people were informed, involved and taking appropriate action.
I’m grateful this story was written in ink and not in flames. But how close did we come? I don’t want to know.