Details of the investigation into the crash of AH-64D Apache helicopter 0-20 from the Royal Netherlands Air Force in Afghanistan were made public recently. On August 29, 2004, a flight of two Apaches left Kabul IAP for Bagram airbase to transport emergency radios for testing there and to carry out a reconnaissance mission in the area. The whole flight was to be flown at low level, below 200ft (60m), and during the first phase a riverbed would be followed. The flight was using callsigns Mayhem 1 and 2, where Mayhem 1 was the section leader.
The AH-64D Apache can be flown from both seats, where usually the flight controls are handled by the back seat pilot. The procedure for handing over the controls between both pilots is called the ‘three way positive control hand over’. The pilot in control tells the other pilot: «You have control». This message is answered by the words «I have control», which is then confirmed by the pilot saying «You have control», and at that moment he releases his controls.
During take-off, Mayhem 1 was flown by the back seat pilot, but controls were soon taken over by the front-seater. Halfway into the flight the section leader was supposed to announce his departure from the Kabul control zone and to report in at Bagram control. This action was planned to take place after passing a mountain ridge running from east to west. At the moment the section passed the ridge, Mayhem 2 called in sighting of a ‘bogey’, which proved to be a CH-53. This sighting was confirmed by both pilots in Mayhem 1. After passing the ridge, the Apache started to descend back from 400ft (120m) to 200ft and the front-seater decided to return control of the helicopter to the back seat to report its presence to Bagram control. This was the moment where things went wrong.
The front seat pilot announced «Your controls», but the reply was negative: «No, stand by». The back seat pilot had to clear up a couple of things before he was able to take over the controls and started to prepare for this. The front seat pilot, however, assumed he had heard the words «I have control» and released the controls. Both pilots were at that time focused on working on the inside of the helicopter without looking outside. When they both looked outside again, it was too late, and a crash was inevitable due to the low altitude they were flying and to the fact that they were descending. The first contact with the ground was most probably made with the tail section, damaging the tail rotor, before the helicopter finally crashed 1,000ft (300m) further on, coming down on its left side.
The back seat pilot was able to leave the damaged helicopter through a broken window and was unharmed. Noticing a fire, he returned to the helicopter to help his injured colleague get away. From a safe distance they contacted Mayhem 2 and reported their crash. They also warned him not to come too near the crash site, to avoid the exploding ammunition. Mayhem 2 reported the crash to Bagram control and the CH-53 that had just passed was asked to pick up the pilots, who were flown to Bagram. The Apache was consumed by the fire and later recovered by French troops.
The conclusion was that this crash was caused by pilot error. The lesson learned was that the procedure must be better trained and put into the Standard Operating Procedures for this type. The other advice was to only change controls on routine flight at moments when there are no other tasks to be performed and when a full overview of the situation is clear to both pilots.