Everyone at one time or
another wishes that they had done something differently at one time in
their life. One of those times and one of my deepest regrets was
a night flight that ended up costing a crewmember his life.
I was to lead a 3-ship night flight to pick up a group of soldiers that were just finishing up several days of training. The area they were to be picked up in was very familiar to me and could easily handle 100 ships with rotors turning. Bean bag lights were to be set up in the upper portion of the pickup zone. Though mentioned at the briefing but of little apparent concern was a strand of Como wire that stretched across the far end of the area. It was a very small gauge wire that was strung on poles that had it up about 12' high or so. The wire effectively left us with 5/6ths of the zone to land in.
Though it was VFR weather it was a moonless night and was it ever dark out there. After I had taken off I had the two other ships follow me in a loose trail formation. I had hoped to use the lights from the main road north as a reference. That road met the main east/west road that ran right by the pickup area. It should only have taken us 15 or so minutes to get there. Right out of Camp Casey all the street lights and home lights were out. I then took the flight upstairs to get some kind of orientation and got barely enough to fly by and stay off of instruments. I should have canceled the flight because the darkness bordered so close to IFR conditions. We could have easily flown into a mountain it was so dark. That was my first regret.
I spotted the landing zone and after radio contact began a long approach to the bean bag lights at the far end of the landing area. I told the other ships to stay in a loose trail formation. After I landed I guess we were on the ground about 10 seconds when we saw a bright light go by us very quickly to the left and up the mountain. A soldier then came up to my window and pointed to our rear yelling that a ship had just crashed. I opened the door and leaned out and saw the #2 ship lying on its left side. I brought our RPM down to ground idle and told the other pilot to stay with the ship. I then got out and started running to the downed ship. I failed to realize the vast distance I had to go to get to the downed ship. I fell several times because I could barely see. I must have run several hundred yards to get to the ship. That was my second regret, I should have hovered over there.
About 1/2 way to the ship I could see a small fire starting by the baggage compartment. By the time I got to the ship it had spread to the rear seats. I yelled out to find the crew but got no answer. There were soldiers standing around just watching. As I tried to kick in the lower front window the flames filled the pilot's compartment and I had to back off. It was too late if anyone was still in there. I then tried to save a radio or two but the heat was too much.
I yelled again for the crewmembers and somebody told me they were over by him. By now the fire had engulfed the entire ship and the light made everyone visible. Both pilots and the door gunner were accounted for but not the crew chief. That was his side of the ship pinned against the ground. I slowly walked back to my ship and brought it back to the area of the burning ship. I don't remember what #3 did.
That night all of us had to write down our interpretation of just what had happened. I remember being so down because we had lost a man and I was as tired as tired could be, I just wanted to hit my bunk and sleep. Its one thing losing someone to combat and its another thing when you lose one to an accident that may have been prevented.
The next day all the details were put together. The #2 ship had landed way short and was hovering up to where I was. While doing so the other pilot saw the Como wire first and without thinking yanked back on the cyclic. That jammed the tail boom into the ground busting off the stinger and tail rotor. The ship then flipped over on its side. That accounted for the light that we saw go up the ridge in front of us.
Why one of the ground officers or sergeants near the crash didn't take action to account for the crew I do not know. Why the pilots did not account for both crewmembers I do not know. Why they did not answer my calls I do not know.
What I do know is that if I had hovered over to the downed ship I would have had several more minutes to do something at the crash site. I wonder to this day if I could have put out the fire with our ship's extinguisher while it was still small? There were enough men standing around that I could have ordered them to right the ship by pulling on the skid. I may have had the time to do so if I had hovered over there.
Those are the regrets that I have, not canceling the mission in the first place because of the darkness and not hovering to the scene of the accident. We were told not to talk about it because it would depress us and the rest of the company. The results of the accident board's findings were never given to us. And life went on as if nothing had happened. I don't recall us doing any more night troop pickups. How quickly though life can be taken away from us.