02 May 2009

Mail Bag: Crew Coordination

Today I got a question from Sarah from Syracuse, who asks, "Do you ever hit things with your helicopter blades"?

Good question. The answer is no. Well, aside from that one bird, but that doesn't count.

This is actually quite a dilemma with helicopters. The fuselage of a helicopter isn't really that wide at all, and it's easy for the pilot to perceive. However, the rotor blades are really the widest part of the aircraft, and when they spin around at hundreds of miles per hour, they can become damn near invisible. This makes landings in confined areas (such as in a small clearing in a forest) so difficult, particularly under night vision goggles. Not only is it difficult enough to perceive the distance from the rotor blades to the trees, but the night vision goggles take away much of the depth perception, adding to the difficulty. Night vision goggles also do not allow for a very wide field of vision, so the pilot constantly has to scan outside his window to see where he or she is drifting. Not to mention, helicopters typically have poor side and rear visibility.

That's why crew coordination is so important in aircraft like the Black Hawk. The two crew chiefs who man the door guns are constantly ensuring that the aircraft is well clear of any obstacles near the aircraft. Although the crew chiefs don't have access to the flight controls, they certainly do have a great deal of control over the aircraft when they tell the pilot which way the aircraft is drifting. Particularly when the aircraft is hovering over the almost-featureless desert terrain. No crew chief has ever crashed an Army helicopter, but they sure have saved many of them.

Of course, Apaches aren't lucky enough to have crew chiefs looking out the sides of the aircraft. They also have the added disadvantage where, if they do hit the trees with the blades, the whole incident will be recorded on film. Watch:

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