AH Apache emergency landing in Afghanistan 2014
On 25 January 2014, a pair of British Apache helicopters launched on a routine operation in Helmand Province in support of Coalition Forces. Some ten minutes into the sortie, one of the aircraft, c/s ‘Ugly 52’ experienced a catastrophic mechanical failure of the tail rotor drive shaft, an extremely difficult failure to control – even in benign circumstances. At the time of the incident, the Apache formation was in the cruise at approximately 2500 feet, some 20 kms to the east of Camp Bastion.
It happened while the crew were conducting a routine weapons check. There was a bang and the aircraft yawed to the right. Control pedal input became ineffectual and the crew quickly realised that there was a serious problem with the tail rotor system. They immediately reduced the power, which in-turn reduced the yaw and increased controllability. A turn towards Bastion was effected but, as the reduction in power had also initiated a high rate of descent, they transmitted a ‘Mayday’ call as confidence in recovering to Bastion diminished. In order to maximise the crew’s chances of that recovery, they elected to jettison the full load of external fuel tanks and weapons. They further elected to fire the Apache’s 550 rounds of cannon ammunition, in an effort to minimise aircraft weight, but with sufficient presence of mind to carefully select an area which would not suffer damage to life or property. With the immediate risk of uncontrolled descent past, the commander concentrated on giving clear and concise directions to his pilot to help maintain airspeed and horizontal orientation. The crew continued to display incredible CRM given the situation. The commander’s commentary continued throughout the final stages of the descent and contributed significantly to the pilot’s ability to fly the aircraft effectively. It quickly became apparent that, due to a combination of the continued loss of height and an inability to maintain orientation towards Bastion, the aircraft would have to be landed beyond the camp’s boundaries. At only some 500 feet above an area of open desert, control of the aircraft was reaching the limits of the pilot’s abilities. They shut down the engines and reacted to the loss of power by flaring the aircraft.
They then followed the procedure which no British Apache pilot had previously had to conduct outside the flight simulator, and succeeded in landing the aircraft with little impact and a straight run-on. Uninjured and in an aircraft that was undamaged, save the initial mechanical failure, the crew continued to follow their training and rendered the aircraft both safe and declassified by removing cryptographic material. They then awaited subsequent and successful evacuation by a US CH53 transport helicopter.
Flying at first alongside and then above, as the wing aircraft Ugly 53, the crew passed the info on to Bastion. They were then contacted by Cadillac 61 the CH 53 which conducted the pick up. The pick up was organised by the wing aircraft, and a mere 15 minutes after the incident the crew were safely back in Bastion.
For the most outstanding airmanship, piloting skill, presence of mind and level headedness, resulting in the saving of their highly operationally valuable aircraft, the crew of Ugly 52 were awarded the Hugh Gordon-Burge Memorial Award.
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