22 July 2014

Tiger 45, pt.1: Mountain area flight

On February 20, 2013, an USMC CH-46E Sea Knight (Phrog) helicopter with HMM-262 (Rein), 31st MEU, crashed northeast of Phitsanulok,Thailand while conducting routine flight operations in support of multilateral exercise Operation Cobra Gold. This is the story of that flight.

Maj. Bryan "Spot" Forney 
Spot has over 2100 hours of flight time in the CH-46E. 

0700: The Operations Duty Officer briefs the day's flight schedule, the co-pilots complete the aircraft weight and balance, ensuring that there was enough power available for the planned mountain area training flight. The flight, call-sign "Tiger 45," is a single-aircraft event, in a CH-46E helicopter, scheduled for a familiarization flight, confined area landings and mountain area training. There are seven crew members on the schedule for the flight; six are at the brief, including all crew chiefs and three co-pilots. The Helicopter Aircraft Commander, Maj. Bryan “Spot” Forney, is currently conducting a range sweep and a landing zone (LZ) evaluation for a VIP flight scheduled for later that day.

0830: Maj. Forney returns from the sweep and LZ eval; he briefs his crew on the scheme of maneuver, rotation of the co-pilots and the intent of the day’s training.

0900: The crew powers up the aircraft and readies for departure.

0930: Tiger 45 departs for the NTA with all seven crew aboard, heading northeast to the mountains and the flight training area. The aircraft leaves the city behind, crossing rapidly into rural farming areas and acres upon acres of rice fields, verdant green squares demarcated by raised earthern berms. While enroute, Maj Forney discusses the effects of altitude on power required and reviews landings in the mountain environment with his co-pilot.

~1000: After conducting several low approaches to evaluate the LZ, Tiger 45 lands at LZ Alpha and debarks two of the co-pilots. Maj Forney conducts multiple CALs at both LZ Alpha and LZ Bravo with all three co-pilots. LZ Bravo sits approximately 1000ft higher that LZ Alpha and, as the flight progresses, LZ Bravo begins to be affected by cloud cover.

1135: The third crew chief debarks the aircraft in LZ Alpha, to take photos of the aircraft during the rest of the training flight. The crew inside Tiger 45 is now Maj Forney, the last co-pilot and two crew chiefs. Maj Forney is sitting in the left seat, the co-pilot is in the right seat. Tiger 45 departs LZ Alpha to conduct main mount landings at an adjacent LZ, one that was free from cloud cover. This LZ sits between LZ Alpha and LZ Bravo. The crew overfly the LZ to evaluate the best approach and determine the winds for that approach.

1143: Tiger 45 begins an approach to the LZ for a main-mount landing; Maj Forney is making a controlled, almost ponderously slow descent , and the aircraft has plenty of power. A crew chief calls the aircraft clear to descend below the tree line. Another crew chief asks to slide left, to better place the right main mount further in from the edge of the zone and way from a crevice.

1144: The crew chief calls to slide “left 15-10-5, stop left” and calls clear to land. Tiger 45’s main mounts touchdown smoothly in the zone. Almost instantly, there is a smack of the controls and the aircraft begins to shudder. The aft blades have hit something.

1145: Maj Forney stays on the controls and fights to pull the aircraft backward into the zone, because the nose wheel is in the air and the drop is 4000 ft to the left, right and ahead. The aircraft yaws heavily to the right as the aft blades are lost and then the aft pylon. The aft section of the helicopter breaks free. The nose pitches violently upward almost 80 degrees and the upended aircraft crashes sideways into the zone, remaining rotor blades churning into trees, rocks, and the ground. The impact knocks the co-pilot unconscious and drives the shaft of Maj Forney’s left humerus bone into his shoulder joint while he still grips the collective. The bird rests shattered in the zone, and Maj Forney is looking at the sky. The smell of ozone from the broken electronics permeates the cabin. It is dead silent. Then the fire begins.

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