‘On 21st February 2012 Apache AH Mk1 ZJ202 (Camelot 1) was being flown by a Wattisham Station crew to complete a night Conversion to Role (CTR) sortie as part of a formation of AH. As the aircraft descended in order to approach a nominated Holding Area (HA) the aircraft struck the earth wire on high voltage electricity wires approximately three miles south of Ipswich. The crew conducted a successful landing into a field approximately 500m beyond the pylons. The rear seat aircraft captain had 4,800 hours total, 3,000 hours aircraft captain and approx 1,500 hours on type. Of his 9hrs 50mins flown in February, 9hrs 20mins was at night using NVD on similar mission profiles. The front seat student had 330 hours total flying of which 90 were on type. Only a single night area famil of 1 hour duration had been flown that month.’
The above extract from the Unit Inquiry succinctly summarises the occurrence and the experience of those involved but it will always prove difficult to get across in black and white the factors that led to the aircraft striking a set of power lines.
As with every occurrence, it has been pored over with a fine tooth comb and contributory factors identified but the bottom line is that a breakdown in situational awareness and human factors in the last 90 seconds led to impact with previously briefed wires. As the aircraft captain I have soul searched and found difficulty in reconciling how I ‘allowed myself to be sucked in’ however, the other half of my analytical brain can see each factor that contributed to the breakdown in SA.
The mission briefing included the location of the pylon line and the presence of a set of domestic wires although, in hindsight, less emphasis was given to these domestics because they were much lower than the major obstacle. The presence of the pylons was re-briefed in the cockpit at the commencement of the final leg towards the obstacle. Post this reminder and prior to arrival at the incident point, two further sets of pylons had been negotiated.
At the location of impact the situation was more complex than had been anticipated. There was an additional set of wires running along a railway line that had not been included in the brief. The pylons on the line that was hit were actually outside of the FLIR field of view and concealed behind wood lines with the wires themselves back dropped against a further tree line. In view was what was subsequently identified as two telephone masts. To the north was a lit mast that was sufficiently close as to attract my attention to ensure we had separation.
As we approached the impact point I believe that I assessed there were no wires between the masts (as it transpired the telephone masts) and then my attention was distracted by the mast to the north to ensure separation. Ironically with no pylon wires visible in the FLIR but having identified the domestic wires and then allowing the aircraft to descend, the pylon on our left became visible with my left unaided eye in the glow of the port navigation light. Not the best feeling in the world but taking control and having maybe two seconds notice of impact probably was the first factor that saved our backsides. The second was the wire cutter just above the rear seat pilots head that severed the top earth wire of the pylon line as we tried to climb. At this point things got somewhat dramatic, and spectacularly bright, as the main pylon line just below arced into the undercarriage and then out through the roof and into the wire that we cut. A few seconds later when the light show finished, the engines were still driving and I had control, we executed a hasty but controlled landing into a field where we were free to breathe a sigh of relief and reflect on how lucky we were to be able to do so.
Wires are never going to go away and will always remain a risk. Given what we are paid to do, they are a factor that we must deal with as, on the battlefield, we must be capable of flying low and cannot negate this risk. Clearly we should plan effectively but when it breaks down, as in this instance in the last few minutes, the only thing that will have a chance of saving life is a decent set of deflectors and cutters. I think it is fair to say that both of us are acutely aware that had there been no cutters in this instance then I wouldn’t be here to write this article. Needless to say neither of us intend to repeat this experience and I can assure you that we, and hopefully you, will redouble efforts to make sure no-one else does. Too many colleagues and friends have been less lucky than we were that night.