Into the eyes of a dead man: does this sound familiar? "Our instructions and procedures are written in blood." OK, I get it. But do you?
I thought I understood the term FOD, or foreign object damage. The concept sounds simple: Anything foreign can destroy an aircraft, killing everyone within. Not until I almost killed four members of my squadron did I grasp its true meaning. These were four people I've flown with countless times, four people I consider family.
I was assigned as mission commander for a Kuwait local-area orientation flight from Basrah, Iraq. Two crews were assigned. Our takeoff time was scheduled for 1600, with a 2000 return. We briefed as a section three hours before takeoff and walked to the birds 45 minutes before our scheduled takeoff time. Both crews did a standard two-look preflight and began their checklist procedures.
I heard Dash 2 call maintenance control requesting a FOD search. One of the pilots had dropped a piece of his writing utensil beneath his seat and couldn't find it.
Meanwhile, my crew pressed forward with our prestart checks. "Step 27, Lockpin status check."
"Blade Fold Master switch--ON. Flight, no spread."
I continued to press through the checklist and called for the required head check.
We realized after our systems checks that finding the FOD in Dash 2 was easier said than done. I held at the "No Rotor Brake Start Procedure" to conserve fuel. My copilot and I continued to explore the aircraft's software during the wait.
"Show me how you'd enter a manual contact at this location. Now make it a hostile airborne threat with a circle around it." Why waste the training time?
We continued our session while the maintainers searched for the elusive FOD. An hour-and-a-half went by and still no joy. We were running out of time to complete the mission. Oh well, we'd just try again another day. It was a training mission, after all.
I discussed options with Dash 2's aircraft commander. Since they had briefed for a utility-crewman check ride, there was no reason they couldn't salvage the event if they stayed in the local training area, and as long as I gave them my bird. We got permission for this plan, and Dash 2's crew headed to my bird. I sent my copilot inside while one of Dash 2's pilots strapped in. My crewchief and I gave a face-to-face turnover with our counterparts. I was complete with the checklist up to step one of the "No Rotor Brake Start Procedure." The other aircraft commander signed for the aircraft and the crew began the checklist where I'd left off. Within minutes the rotors were spinning at full speed, and they were out of the chocks.
Three-and-a-half hours later, my heart stopped. The crew had landed and long since debriefed their flight. The maintenance control chief was standing in front of me holding a four-inch, folded pocket knife that a maintainer had found during the postflight inspection--in the rotor head.
I had looked the other crew in the eyes, told them it was a good bird and almost sent them to their deaths. I could have killed a maintainer if the pocket knife released itself from the rotor head and searched for a victim during rotor engagement or disengagement. I was speechless. I asked to see the knife to see if it was etched--it wasn't.
I gathered my crew and pulled them aside. My copilot, a pilot qualified in model (PQM), had unknowingly dropped his knife near a blade-fold hinge. It rested there unsecured throughout the spin-up, flight and shutdown. The knife waited as an evil final judge of destination, not only as a FOD hazard to the crew, but as a missile hazard to each of the maintainers tending the launch and recovery.
My copilot explained how he had heard a "metallic tink" as he climbed over the rotor blade to transition from the hydraulics bay to the engine portion of his preflight. He had discredited the noise. He thought it was "probably" the extra M-4 mag in his lower leg pocket. Probably?
I had failed. How could I have been so careless? How had I forgotten to stress the basics? How could I have not taught him to be accountable for the security and inventory of all personal gear, both before climbing on the bird and after? How did I miss that he took an M-4 magazine loaded with 25 pieces of 5.56mm FOD with him to the hydraulics bay and engine compartments? I wasn't sure my crewchief was breathing at this point. In fragmented English he said, "After the lockpin status check . I went up with the second crewman for the head check."
I didn't sleep that night. I lay in bed wondering what I would have written to the wife or mother of the maintainer or crewmember that I had sealed the fate of when I turned over a FODed bird. How would I tell someone I had messed up so badly that their daughter, wife, son, husband, or father, someone I knew dearly, would never come home? Do I use their first name? Do I still call him AM2? Do I type it? No, it would have to be handwritten. I'd have to see them in person, look them in the eye. I would want them to know that I care. I would want to show them respect. How do I honor their memory? By being thankful for their lives? By writing an article to remind aircrew and maintainers alike that our instructions and procedures are written in blood.
It's a way of life, in the air, on the flightline, and in the hangar. It's an attitude and belief that the smallest lapse in attention to detail can have the largest impact on our family--on the family of our hardest working maintainer standing in the 128 F heat.
I now know what FOD is. I've teetered too close to its wrath, too close to the loss of a family member, too close to having their blood on my hands.
LT KLEIN FLIES WITH HSC-25.
BY LT. MARK KLEIN