Every military pilot who has flown in combat has experienced frightening and stressful situations. It happened to me one night in 1969, over Vietnam, but it was of my own creation. During the Firefly Missions, my unit provided two UH-1 gunships and a Huey with a bright spotlight array every night to patrol the river networks near Da Nang. We alternated with another unit all night long.
To prepare for the flights, preflight checks were carried out in daylight, so all we had to do was strap in and start the engine. The UH-1s have two generators, main and standby/backup also serving as the starter motor. During the systems check with the engine running, DC voltage is checked by rotating the VM knob to each position. Then the main gen is switched to Off and the standby gen is switched from Start to STBY. The main is switched back On and the standby gen is left in STBY as a backup.
In the gunships, we always left the standby gen in the Start position, so in case of a low-altitude flameout, we could attempt a restart. When in a rush, we usually turned the main gen back to On by closing the red cover over the switch. With the main Off and the standby in the Start position, the engine runs on battery power only.
Fast forward 30 minutes. The slick with the lights flew at 1000 feet agl. One of the gunships flew cover at 1200 feet with nav lights on. I was the aircraft commander of the other gunship on the deck near the light beams with external lights out and the instrument lights set very low. At low level, the pilot at the controls concentrates outside the cockpit while the other pilot monitors the instruments.
After a while, I noticed the intercom was inoperative and that the instrument lights were out. The radios were also inop. We climbed away from the other two ships and the crew chief used his flashlight to signal that we were headed back to our base. Since I was busy flying the aircraft, I wasn’t able to sort out the problem. The other pilot was inexperienced, pretty nervous and no help.
After landing, we troubleshot the problem. The main gen cover was closed. When I opened the cover to check the switch, I noticed that the switch had not closed fully due to wear on the underside of the switch cover. After resetting the switch to On, the cabin lights came on and all started working again even with a mostly dead battery. I switched off the main gen and turned the standby gen from Start to standby and all worked as advertised. How embarrassing!
When all went dark, all that was necessary to restore electrical function was to reset the main gen to On or switch the standby gen from Start to Standby. Needless to say, that night I was taken down a few notches on the Hotshot Scale.
Have you encountered a situation or hazardous condition that yielded lessons on how to better manage the risks involved in flying? Do you have an experience to share with Aviation Safety’s readers about an occasion that taught you something significant about ways to conduct safer flight operations? If so, we want to hear about it.
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