Right Flight Wrong Rock

Flying Military Life Support Helicopters
So that others may live!

Excerpt from "Pulling Pitch." Stories from the cockpit of a Canadian Military Helicopter Pilot by Stéphane Demers.


In the late 80's our Group, which was called 10TAG for 10 Tactical Air Group, was responsible for helicopter support to the MFO (Multi National Force and Observers). I was with 427 Lion Squadron out of Petawawa, Ontario and we deployed on the second of six-month rotations to the Sinai desert. Our CH135 Twin Hueys (Bell 212s) that had been painted white except for our MFO logos on the side doors and were not armed or armored.
      We were based out of the North Eastern part of the Sinai desert near the village of El Arish. The base was called El Gorah and had been a former Israeli air base, which we were told, had been the staging area for the Israelis' daring raid on the Entebbe airport in Africa where a plane load of Israelis were being held hostage. For young Canadians almost everything was new to us. Sandwiched between Egypt and Israel with the heat, palm trees, the sand dunes, mountains, the Mediterranean and Red Sea, camel trains and Bedouin nomads. Everything was exotic and fascinating; it was all a great adventure.
     One of the most memorable things was night flying over this desert. The Sinai is very sparsely settled and has no electrical network. It was before we had made the move to NVG (Night Vision Goggles) and before our machines had GPS. We flew at night with nothing more than our old eyeballs and Omega systems that were ideally suited to a C-130 and not a helo. As soon as we left the lights of our base we were in IMC conditions. It was VFR weather but the night was the blackest I had ever seen. To add to the challenge the Bedouins who lived in the desert had campfires going and with total blackness out there those fires looked like stars. Vertigo and disorientation was very common and everyone felt it at one time or another.
      Since our MFO troops either patrolled or manned OPs throughout the Sinai desert we were tasked to support them. This meant we might fly troops or supplies to them and provide a medevac capability for these remote locations. Our missions were usually flown during daylight hours except when we were called for a medevac which was almost inevitably always at night. Most of our OPs were in the central or Southern part of the Sinai Peninsula.
      We would have never had the ability to do these night missions without being Instrument rated. In order to allow us to go into these spots one of our Instrument Check Pilots had designed instrument approaches for us to fly as an on the field NDB approach. These were extremely well designed and every one of us had to fly each approach in daylight with an experienced pilot before we would be scheduled for night medevacs. This was the best you could do to prepare pilots in a very demanding environment and it gave you a healthy respect for these approaches once you saw the landing pads.
      Because the whole Sinai had been a war zone for numerous wars we had to land on prepared landing zones or pads. Everywhere else in the Sinai was considered an unprepared spot and assumed to still have landmines everywhere. The MFO operation had already seen trucks and people step on mines and no one in our Squadron was eager to find one with a skid. At these OPs the landing pads were usually confined areas and it was not unusual to have large rock outcrops within a few feet of our rotors or a flagpole or light post. The actual OP consisted of an ATCO trailer, a water trailer and a small barbed wire enclosure. The soldiers at these southern OPs were very young conscripts from the Columbian Army. They were left out there for long periods of time and boredom or arguments certainly happened.
     On one particular night I was tasked to gather my crew for a medevac of a Columbian soldier from an OP in the south central region. We found out later that his gunshot wound to his leg was the result of an argument and shoving match with one of his mates. The weather was great as usual and our flight preparations were fairly straightforward but our available weather was very dated. We didn't worry so much because it seemed like another typical desert night of CAVOK weather, the usual for the desert.
      We were planning on flying down to the OP, doing the company approach, picking the guy up and returning him to our base where he would be looked after by the medical company. Seems easy enough and our transit down to the OP was a non-event. Navigation was not the easiest though in the severe darkness and we used a combination of dead reckoning and whatever the Omega managed to give as a position and groundspeed.
      As we neared our timings we saw the lights of what appeared as our spot but it was slightly more to the west then we had expected. There was no radio link with the OPs since the multitude of different languages would have been a major barrier. We had to eyeball it so we discussed it every which way and looked our maps over several times. We took out our photocopy of the unit-designed approach and briefed our timings on our outbound and inbound legs.
      Just before doing the approach I decided to have another look at the OP to try and confirm we were at the right one. The orientation of the trailer, the one and only light post and the landing pad all seemed right. My First Officer agreed with me but there was uneasiness about the whole thing. Neither of us seemed 100% sure we were at the right place. One last look at the map and off we went to set up for our overhead pass to time our outbound leg. We did discuss our apprehension and all three of us agreed to be extra vigilant for anything that could indicate we were not at the right place. We flew outbound using the best timing we could as per our company approach plate and the estimated wind speed from the windsock at the landing pad. The FO called "time" and I rolled into a rate one turn as published, finishing wings level on the expected heading with the OP in sight. We started our timing again and prepared for our scaled descent to the OP.
     It was our first night approach into one of these OPs but we felt better as we descended with the OP clearly in sight. We did have to correct for drift a bit more than expected but otherwise it was looking good. Suddenly what appeared to be a small cloud layer loomed ahead and just to our left. The FO commented on it just as I also noticed it also. No big deal, we still had the OP in sight but I couldn't help thinking the weather should not produce this type of cloud and certainly not at this level. Almost as in a dream the "cloud" slowly drifted into view and began passing along the port side of our machine. To our shock and disbelief we both realized and reacted at the same time to what we saw. It was solid brown rock, so close that our navigation lights light up the rock face.
     Before we could even speak coherently, I had pulled pitch to about 90% torque to initiate an overshoot straight ahead and the FO was right on the controls with me. There were definitely a few expletives from the FE in the back but all I remember is developing a desperate need for altitude before breathing again. We leveled off at our designed minimum quadrant altitude plus 500 feet for the family.
     Adrenaline is a funny thing and it fuelled us as we now began to trouble shoot our brain-fart or at least try to confirm what the hell we had just done. We checked over the approach plate, the map and discussed the perceived layout of the OP. It all seemed to make sense to us and none of us could figure out why this had not worked but something had definitely gone wrong. Our last chance was to call back to base with our HF radio, which was a 50/50 proposition at the best of times since we often had an easier time contacting the Canadian HF site in Germany rather than our guys in El Gorah.
      We managed to get El Gorah on the radio and they advised us that the Columbians had called a couple of times with questions about this helicopter. One was a call from the real OP asking for the medevac and wondering where the heck we were. The other from an OP 25 miles west of that one asking why a helo was circling overhead. I felt about an inch high and my heart rate doubled.
     We were lucky to be alive. The approach we flew was the right one but definitely at the wrong OP. When we compared the two locations according to our maps it was amazing we had not turned right into that rock face. That drift correction we had on final saved our hides. Our base also provided a new winds aloft report and it helped us understand how we had drifted much further west than we thought and we realized how easily it could be to become complacent even with apparently clear weather. With a keen new sense of detail and calculated planning we proceeded to the correct location and shot an uneventful approach to the OP.
     The actual landing was the hardest part as this was on the top of a large mountain with a fair bit of wind kicking up. The landing pad was quite confined with a windsock and large rock outcrop very close to the rotors. The Columbians helped carry their buddy on board and provided two escorts none of whom we could communicate with since they spoke Spanish and at best we spoke English or French.
     Once we returned to camp I asked our duty Operations officer to sit in on our post mission debrief. I wanted to own right up to my nearly fatal mistake. I felt it was the least I could do for my crew who maintained a totally professional demeanour throughout the flight. Most importantly I wanted this example made public knowledge to the other drivers so someone else wouldn't make the same mistake I felt totally responsible for with my crew. The desert could be cruel night or day and we sure as hell weren't buzzing around the Ottawa Valley anymore.
      I'll never forget the sight of that rock and I swore I did not ever want to see that again in my flying career. Little did I know that I would see rocks that close another time but under different circumstances and in another type of machine. That is another story all it's own which I will save for that particular chapter of my career.

Editors Note. If you missed Stéphane's first story titled Three to a Bag check it out. Otherwise, use the attitude indicator as your guide back to Friends.

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Editor John S Goulet



Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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