A medal for not dying?

I’ve promised, in several places at one time or another, to tell my story about the time the Army gave me a medal for not dying. It’s time to get on with it. On April 17th, 1985, I was flying my first mission as Pilot In Command (PIC), when I flew my entirely Visual Flight Rules (VFR) scout helicopter and nonflying Lieutenant Colonel passenger into the clouds. It happened in Germany, near Neurnberg, when I was a young warrant officer. I lived through the experience and landed at the American training base in Grafenwoehr with an undamaged aircraft.

In very compressed order, I was flying in a shallow but steep sided valley away from Grafenwoehr and toward Goeppingen, through an area with a forecast of patchy fog, but three kilometers of visibility. The banks of the valley grew increasingly foggy as we headed west, and near the Poppberg intersection the autobahn we were flying above suddenly started to disappear in front of me. I started a turn and entered thick clouds at fifty-knots indicated airspeed, a forty-five degree bank angle, fifty-feet above the ground. When he world went gray, I leveled out, pulled all the pitch I had power for, and climbed at max angle of climb airspeed (essentially the slowest speed you can go and still get maximum efficiency from the rotor system. If memory serves, that was about fifty knots indicated, and was a little slower than the Kiowa helicopter was fully stable. I was more interested in putting ridge-lines and hilltops beneath me than in flying smoothly at that moment.

I’d been having some difficulty with my VHF/aviation radio, and so I turned on my emergency transponder code, then continued to follow the inadvertent IMC procedure as set forth in the USAREUR Supplement I to the Army’s flight regulations. It never rains but it pours: I discovered that I could not communicate on any emergency frequency. (This communications failure was due to poor equipment. The aircraft was returned to Coleman Barracks for avionics work after return to home base) About 5 minutes later, I regained contact with Grafenwoehr tower on my tactical FM radio. Because I no longer trusted my radios. I continued on the “copter only” nondirectional beacon approach I had planned while flying without communication. After 35 minutes flying on instruments only, we broke out of the clouds on final approach into Grafenwoehr.

After landing, I forgot to drop my passenger at the VIP pad. He didn’t seem to mind. Later, he claimed not to have been aware that we had survived an emergency that day, and that the only indication he had of anything unusual was the altimeter needle going around and around during the climb. That is a polite fiction, as few colonels are accustomed to obeying orders snapped at them by overstressed WO1 pilots. Without the colonel’s calm support and professional manner, this young WO1 might not have landed safely that day. As it was, we both spent thirty-five minutes pretending everything was business as usual.

I had probably pushed too hard, but that was the job, and given the circumstances of visibility in that valley of twice what we required for single pilot operations, I’m not sure that anybody I knew would have backed down. I know that thirty army helicopters spent that night parked in fields across southern Germany, when the forecast patchy fog turned turned out to be overly optimistic.

Had I pushed too hard? European weather is often poor, and we become accustomed to flying at minimums. It is possible that I was simply overconfident and blundered into a fogbank. But the picture of that Autobahn fading away haunted me. It did not look as if I flew into the clouds. It seemed as if the fog suddenly closed in around me. I eventually wrote an article in Aviation Digest, the Army’s flight safety journal (September/October 1989), discussing what I think happened that caused me to fly into the fog. In a nutshell, the valley had wind blowing directly up it from lower altitudes, and I think that Venturi effect caused winds in that valley to keep the surrounding fog pushed up and away, and the local windspeed high enough to delay fog formation. Then the winds shifted by about ninety degrees, and a million tons of fog fell on the autobahn from the side of the valley. The visual effect was as if a curtain dropped on the path in front of me.

So, why did I get a medal? I can only theorize about that. The European Army aviation people were very interested in my story, and spent a few days digging around to see if I was a bad-boy. My boss at that time was an experience older Warrant Officer, and I’ve always suspected that he knew something major had to happen. The way of the Army is, if you do something unusual, you’re either a hero or a goat, and my boss decided I wasn’t a goat. He also knew that we worked directly for an Infantry unit, and were always at least a little suspect in their eyes. I suspect more to prevent a witch hunt than because he really thought I deserved it, my boss recommended me for an Air Medal. After a couple weeks of confusion, we got a call from headquarters telling us that they don’t give air medals for going into the clouds. This pleased me no end, because I wasn’t feeling heroic, I was feeling like a lucky survivor, and emotionally still felt that going into the clouds was entirely my fault. My unit compromised by giving me an Army Commendation Medal.

In later years I decided that, for my then level of expertise and knowledge, I’d done alright. I hadn’t been any dumber than any other WO1 pilot trying to prove himself, and a lot of other pilots got caught by that wrong forecast. Also, I did some research into inadvertent IMC in the Army, and discovered that, between 1 January 1980 and 5 April 1988, 38 reported rotary-wing aviation mishaps involved inadvertent IFR/IMC in forecast VFR conditions Ten of those were Class A mishaps, which meant back then that they either destroyed the aircraft or killed somebody (for those who were around, a class A either killed someone, or caused more than $100K. If you were flying a Huey or an OH-58, that meant you destroyed the plane. If you were flying an Apache attack helicopter, it meant that you accidentally shattered the NVS helmet hookup when you jumped out of the helicopter to take piss during a long training flight (Okay, I’ve done some odd stuff that led to good story. How do you tell somebody in a bar that you had a Class A incident because you forgot to unhook a cable with a sending unit from your helmet, jumped out of the helicopter to pee in the woods, and had the $100K sending unit shatter when it snapped off your helmet and slapped against the side of the helicopter? More to the point, how do you tell that one without just sounding goofy?)

Moments come back to haunt you, sometimes. Suppose I had been in a deeper valley when I started that turn and the world went gray?