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Just another cross-country weekend.

Jet-setting is one of the highlights of advanced helicopter training, and one cross-country weekend, we found ourselves in Atlanta, Georgia. It was Sunday morning and we were fat, dumb and happy. It had been a successful, albeit rainy, weekend and we were three short flights from home. A large storm was west of Atlanta and north of South Whiting Field (KNDZ), so we planned to head south to avoid it and then west to KNDZ.

Everything looked good on preflight and start-up. I was smug because the other two crews we were with had to service their hydraulic and transmission systems. That's when the holes started lining up in the proverbial block of Swiss cheese.

After receiving ATIS and calling for clearance, we switched to ground to inform them we would be requesting a present-position takeoff. They switched us to Tower and I requested takeoff. Crickets. I requested again. Crickets. I switched back to Ground. Crickets. By this time, my comrades had finished their servicing and had started up. I switched to UHF and contacted them on the discrete frequency we had discussed.

After a series of attempts, we determined that we could transmit on VHF, but not receive. I asked another pilot to inform Tower that our aircraft would be shutting down to troubleshoot and to cancel our clearance. I also told them not to wait on us and that we would see them back at KNDZ.

After shutting down, I called maintenance and the CDO. Since I had a working UHF, they both recommended I plan a route that would accommodate UHFonly communications. My students and I pulled out the charts and approach plates. The only route we could find was to head west to Montgomery (KMGM) and then south to KNDZ.

I was apprehensive because ceilings were forecasted to remain low for the duration of the flight as a result of the storm. To get to KMGM, we had to fly IFR for the entire route, and the last thing I wanted to do was go lost comm while IMC. We discussed the possibility but decided that we had no reason to believe that the UHF would stop working. After all, they were two completely separate systems. We filed IFR, started up, got clearance and took off using the UHF radio.

Shortly after takeoff, we found ourselves squarely in the clouds with heavy rain. No big deal. The mighty TH-57 is an all-weather aircraft. As we continued west, we started having issues communicating with approach on UHF. I asked one of my students to look up a VHF frequency for approach on the off chance our VHF fixed itself. We plugged in the frequency and it worked. There was no avenue of fame, yet.

I explained to the controller the nature of our radio issues. He gave us a handful of UHF and VHF frequencies to try. The only one that worked was the VHF frequency we had initially used to contact him. My students and I began discussing what we would do if we lost contact with him and whether we should turn back to Atlanta (KPDK) or continue on to KMGM.

As I was about to inform approach that we wanted to return to KPDK, approach asked us if we were in a turn. I looked at my RMI and my copilot's RMI: they were steady. My observer was following along in the back with fore flight and informed us it looked like we had completed a 270 degree turn. He instructed us to look at our magnetic compasses and sure enough, our magnetic compasses were showing a 120 degree difference in heading. We manually slaved the RMIs and made several attempts at troubleshooting. The RMIs began spinning.

We were still IMC, had unreliable radios and appeared to have lost our directional gyro. I thought we should declare an emergency, and my students agreed. My copilot pressed the magic button, and I declared an emergency with approach. I told him the nature of the emergency and requested vectors back to KPDK. We had only been airborne for about 30 minutes, and I assumed KPDK was our closest and best option.

The weather had been fine when we took off and had been forecasted to stay the same. Approach said there was an airport that was 10 miles away with an ILS (West Georgia Regional, KCTJ). My copilot looked it up in the approach plates to see if we could do it. The ceilings were low, but we had the approach plate and the weather, so we accepted.

As approach vectored us, we divvied up responsibilities. My copilot was responsible for figuring out our rollout headings on the magnetic compass and calling them. She also briefed the approach and kept me honest with heading. My observer, who was eagerly sticking his head between the seats and white-knuckling the crossbars, helped by calling out my altitude and airspeed deviations.

I had done plenty of no-gyro PAR and TACAN approaches with students in VMC, and I naively thought that a failed card ILS in the clouds would be as easy as a VMC no-gyro PAR. I could not have been more wrong. I also assumed that my students had already completed their failed-card training hops. Strike two. Upon reaching final, I turned to intercept and went full deflection almost immediately. I held my altitude and informed approach that I was executing a missed approach and requested vectors for another attempt.

My observer, still white-knuckled, mentioned that we should request "no-gyro" vectors. I relayed the request to approach, they obliged and our workload was instantly cut in half. As we snaked and slithered through the pattern and turned onto the final approach course, confidence built in the cockpit. With the help of my students, I was able to maintain something that resembled the course and glideslope of the approach we were attempting.

As we got closer and the ILS became more sensitive, the CDI began to walk out. We were about 200 feet above decision height, right at the base of the clouds, and the rain on the windscreen was nearly blinding. Our focus had subconsciously shifted from an aggressive partial panel scan to looking outside the aircraft for the airport. Before we knew it, I had gone full deflection again. Our confidence quickly turned to doubt. My copilot referenced the Atari-era GPS and said we were about a half mile from the airport. Holding our altitude and heading, we frantically scanned in front of the rain-distorted windscreen.

Just as we were about to admit defeat and go missed approach for a second time, I looked to the right and left of the helicopter. At 7 o'clock and no more than 50 yards, I saw the huge, white approach end numbers. There were a few choice words, followed by "runway in sight." We turned, landed and shut down without any further incident.

We climbed out of the helicopter. A wave of relief swept through us as we realized the gravity of what we had successfully battled through . When the maintenance representative arrived the following day, we discovered that our all-weather aircraft's avionic compartment was a veritable swimming pool, and the source of our faulty equipment.

During the debrief of the events, we all agreed that our success was as a direct result of solid CRM. The student-instructor hierarchy had been left at the door during the emergency, and all three of us had equal stakes in finding a place to land. We made a few missteps along the way, but our ability to swallow our pride, accept critique and offer guidance to each other helped us successfully navigate to a safe conclusion of a less -than-textbook situation.
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Title Annotation:helicopter training
Author:Smith, Becca
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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