THE DATE FOR the collision of USAF/57th Wing/66th RQS HH-60G Pave Hawks 86-26105/‘WA’ and 91-26359/‘WA’ on Range 64B at Nellis AFB (see Write-Offs, November 1998 and Attrition, April 1999), has now been confirmed after post-crash investigation revealed the estimated time of the incident. Although the two helicopters were not reported missing until 0100hrs on September 4, half-an-hour after they were due to have returned, the collision had occurred at approximately 2132hrs the previous evening, only an hour after they had taken-off at 2030hrs. The wreckage of the two helicopters was recovered to Nellis AFB, where it will be retained until no longer required for investigation purposes.
Examination of all Air Force Technical Order forms documenting maintenance completed on each helicopter showed that all required maintenance appeared to have been completed on the helicopters prior to the mishap flight. All 12 occupants of the two helicopters were using the F4949C Aviator’s Night Vision Imaging System (ie NVGs) but only one pair of NVGs was recovered from the wreckage and was sent to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Mesa, Arizona, which found that they met with operating requirements.
Operations tempo was the common thread tying together a series of factors that led to the fatal collision, according to the accident investigation board report released on March 15.
Although the investigation did not pinpoint exactly how or why the mid-air collision had happened, it revealed that the cumulative negative effects of ops tempo, training, leadership and human factors all contributed to the likelihood of the collision. The high ops tempo — including dual, simultaneous deployments — took its toll on the squadron, which was home for only ten months out of 36. This ultimately put the wrong mix of crew proficiency in the two aircraft. In the board’s opinion, this led to the operator error that caused the collision.
Col Denver Pletcher, accident investigation board president and commander of the Joint Combat Rescue Agency, Langley, AFB, Virginia, put the findings into perspective during a press conference on March 15 at Nellis. “Most of the discrepancies we find during an accident investigation are not ‘the’ cause of the mishap», he explained. “More often than not, there are a number of small problems that, by themselves, may not appear too serious, or at least, not serious enough to cause the accident, but together, under the wrong circumstances, at the wrong time and in the wrong place, can add up to a serious problem. While we can’t say it with absolute certainty, there were a number of factors we think played an important part in what happened,» Pletcher said. “They include a very high ops and personnel tempo, internal and external training shortfalls, leadership problems, broken squadron processes, low aircrew experience levels and a breakdown in supervision. Put all these together,» Pletcher said, “and you put the squadron and its aircrews at some risk.»
He described the 18 months prior to the accident as tough, turbulent times for the 66th RQS. A clinical psychologist on the accident board concluded that the 66th was severely overtasked and under immense operational stress. In addition to simultaneous overseas deployments, an organisational health risk assessment taken in the autumn of 1997 identified risk factors at the 66th RS that increased the potential for a mishap.
Finally, there was what Pletcher referred to as a virtually unmanageable imbalance in copilot manning and experience levels. This was caused by the addition of four helicopters to the unit, the replacement of several experienced aircraft commanders with new pilots and a lack of seasoned instructor pilots to train them. “Put all of these together,” he said, “and you make an accident more probable.»
The Air Force was already addressing problems in the combat search-and-rescue mission area before the accident. In December 1997, Gen Richard E Hawley, Air Combat Command commander, directed a tiger team to review combat search-and-rescue and perform a top-to-bottom review focusing on ops tempo and training. As a result, in May 1998, the Operation Southern Watch HH-60 requirement was reduced from four to three aircraft. Additionally, the Air Force consolidated its three major HH-60 units into two CSAR units at Moody AFB, Georgia, and Nellis AFB, Nevada, to better manage contingency taskings. Dual contingency deployments have been reduced as well.