Where did the ship go?
Our crew met in CIC at 2200 for a brief with the ASTAC and TAO to discuss the night's SSC tasking and the weather. We knew that operating in the Gulf of Oman in April could make for some interesting weather, but the forecast appeared benign: overcast skies and good visibility. We knew it would be dark, but the current ceiling of 3,000 feet and visibility of five miles was no cause for concern ... or so we thought.
After thoroughly preflighting our venerable SH-60B, we strapped in at flight quarters, started up, donned our NVGs, and prepared to launch. There was no natural visible horizon that evening, but all of us were comfortable thanks to the horizon present through our NVGs. We launched as scheduled, and as we launched, my HAC was preparing to give our "ops normal" call to the LSO. Then the ship disappeared. My radalt indicated 150 feet AGL, and we were solidly in the goo.
We climbed ahead to 500 feet, completed our post-takeoff checks and gave the LSO our "Ops not-so-normal" call. We explained the situation and that we would be coming back to call it a night; the weather was definitely not 3000/5. As we turned downwind to set up for an approach back to the ship, my HAC and I formulated our plan. Weather minimums to shoot the TACAN approach back to our cruiser were 200-1/2. We estimated the ceiling to be somewhere around 150 feet, which presented a slight problem. Our normal approach profile did not have us below 150 feet until somewhere between .5 nm and .25 nm from the ship. Still on NVGs, we decided to come down to 150 feet and see if we could make out the ship through the clouds.
No such luck. We leveled off at 125 feet, which turned out to be low enough to provide what we had been hoping for: A view of our ship with a beckoning green-deck status light.
I COMPLETED THE LANDING CHECKLIST, and my HAC turned to intercept the approach course. We were about 45 degrees to the right of lineup, but at 3 miles astern, we still had plenty of time to correct back to the final approach radial.
As we continued in, I backed up my HAC, suggesting we use a larger intercept to get behind the ship. He responded, "Roger," and came to the left. The correction wasn't enough, and at about 1.5 miles, I mentioned it to him and received a similar response. Now inside 1 mile, we were approaching the cruiser at an offset similar to an approach to a Flight I DDG, not yet uncomfortable but certainly indicative that something was not right in the cockpit.
I decided to make the call that we should wave off, re-set and try it again. My HAC responded, "I've got it," and came left a little bit more. Again, not enough. This is where I should have stepped in and taken the controls, but he and I had flown together numerous times and I was confident that if he felt like he "had it" then he "had it." I was wrong ... the fun was just starting.
As we hit .5 miles, my HAC started to descend even though we were already below glide slope. I called him on it and we leveled off. At this point I again urged that we wave off and got the same response from my HAC. We continued inbound, still 45 degrees off the approach radial and as we closed in on .25 miles, we started to descend again. While looking up at the flight deck of the cruiser just inside .25 miles, I called for power, got no response, took the controls, and executed a waveoff over the missile deck of the cruiser that got everyone's attention.
After we were clear to port and on downwind at 125 feet, I made a radio call to the LSO, letting her know that we were fine and would be coming back around for another approach to land. I flew the aircraft out to 2 miles, established the aircraft on the approach radial and landed uneventfully. Surprisingly, there was very little discussion in the cockpit during the waveoff or the approach, short of the usual CRM that takes place during a landing evolution to the back of the ship. While shutting down, my HAC told me that he would do the water wash tonight and would meet me in the wardroom once complete.
As I went into the hangar, our AW grabbed me, got very close and thanked me for saving our lives that night. He also apologized for not being more vocal when it came to calling for the waveoff. It dawned on me then just how close we were to putting a perfectly good aircraft into the water or the side of a guided missile cruiser. I stowed my gear, logged the flight, grabbed a soda, and made my way to the wardroom to wait for my HAC.
When he came into the wardroom, we looked at each other with "What now?" expressions. We talked about what had happened and what had gone wrong. He apologized for not waving off when I called for it. He was not the only one who had committed an error. I was also at fault for not being more assertive and taking the controls when he didn't wave off as requested.
During our NATOPS brief a few hours earlier, we had stressed that anyone could call for a waveoff without questions. Both of us were to blame for the adventure that night. We had both disregarded our NATOPS brief until it was obvious that we were about to be in extremis. Self-preservation and CRM training took over before disaster struck, and we were both able to walk away with a valuable lesson.
BY LCDR JEREMIAH BINKLEY
LCDR. BINKLEY FLIES WITH HSM-72.