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Badly thought-out ergonomics nearly got me killed in January 1969. As you may know, a segment of flight safety called ergonomics is the study of designing equipment and devices in the cockpit that fit the human body.  The incident occurred three months into my one-year tour as a UH-1H Huey pilot in Vietnam.  Ironically, it was my first real close brush with death over there, ironic because it didn’t come at the hand of a V.C. with an AK-47, or from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade).  Instead, I nearly lost my life at the hand of the company instructor pilot who was checking me out in the Bell 205 while giving me my aircraft commander check ride.
The first hour went well.  We were flying south of LZ Sally just outside the-perimeter, making our landings to a grassy area away from the rice paddies and Vietnamese Ville. I made the takeoff after making a running landing with a simulated fixed-pitch tail rotor failure.

"That was fine, Mains. Now take it around and I'll give you a hydraulic failure on downwind.  I want you to perform the emergency procedure and land the aircraft as you would in a real emergency."

A hydraulic failure in the Huey is no major event if handled properly.  It is like losing the power steering in your car.  The controls become extremely stiff and difficult to move, but you can get down OK if you make a running landing as you would with an airplane.
We were on climb-out, passing through 200 feet when Decker reached over to turn off the hydraulic switch.  It was a special kind of switch that had to be lifted up and pulled back over a small barrier to turn it off.  In this way, it could not easily be inadvertently switched off.  I now had no hydraulic pressure to assist me.  I moved the jerky controls.  Decker was looking out his side window as if disinterested.
I recited the emergency procedure.  "First, I'll adjust to a comfortable airspeed between 60 and 70 knots.  I'll recycle the switch.  If that doesn't restore the hydraulics, I'll reach up to the hydraulic circuit breaker.  Pull it out.  If no power's restored, push it in ... what the ... ???"
I noticed the engine N2 RPM decreasing.  I instinctively tried to lower the collective to enter autorotation.  I muscled it down.  As I did I quickly scanned the instruments:  compressor RPM decreasing … 250 feet of altitude … descending quickly.
Simultaneously, Decker's head swung to look in the cockpit.  Thinking I was just an FNG, (F-----g New Guy) trying my best to kill him, he asked, "What're you doin'?"

"Engine's quit! Switch on the hydraulics!"
He visibly jumped in his seat and quickly switched on the hydraulics. I aimed the ship for a dry rice paddy.  He transmitted, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Black Widow Three-Three, engine failure southern perimeter of L.Z. Sally!"

He just got the Mayday call out when we descended through 50 feet and I hauled back on the cyclic stick, raising the nose of the chopper and putting us into a flare.  We stopped descending as the airspeed washed off quickly.  At 20 knots the machine began to sink again as we ran out of airspeed to trade-off for height.  At ten feet I yanked up on the collective pitch lever to use the inertia in the wide blades to cushion our descent.  I pushed forward on the cyclic.  The aircraft leveled.  I used the remaining collective pitch to cushion our landing.  The craft skidded over the soft dirt for ten feet and we came to an abrupt stop. The blades coasted down slowly above us.  We had been lucky.  We landed in the middle of the rice paddy and missed the four dirt banks surrounding us.

The blades coasted to a slow, steady run-down and Decker looked at me with wide, disbelieving eyes. "What the f--k happened?"

"Engine quit, that's what happened.  I think I know why it quit.  Put your hand on the hydraulic switch again."  He reached over taking the switch between gloved thumb and forefinger. "Look there. Look at the cuff of your flight glove."

"Well I'll be f----d," he said.

We almost were.  Behind 'the hydraulic switch sat the fuel switch.  It was an “up and over” type switch, like the hydraulic switch in front of it.  When he turned off the hydraulic switch, the cuff of his flight glove had caught the fuel switch and turned it off also.

Two helicopter gunships landed next to us in a boil of dust.  "Black Widow Three-Three, you OK?"

"Roger," Decker radioed on guard frequency. "Wait one." He turned on the fuel switch and said to me on intercom, "Try to start her up.”

I did. The fuel ignited and the turbine engine whined to life again.

"We'll be fine. Thanks for coming."

"Roger. Glad to be of assistance," and they lifted off.  I twisted on the throttle to bring the RPM up to flight range.  "Want to continue?"

"Are you nuts?  Like I said earlier, I'm too short for this crap. Take us back to the Widow Web."  It was the first time that day the man smiled. "Congratulations, Mains, you passed.  I have to admit that was some check ride.  Yes sir,” he chuckled to himself shaking his head.  “That was one hell of a check ride."

Posted in: Human Interest


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