The next few days or weeks likely will not be easy for aviators in the Tennessee Army National Guard as the service begins analyzing what led to an accident that killed two National Guardsmen when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed during a training sortie over Huntsville, Alabama on Wednesday afternoon. No other service members or civilians were hurt in the crash.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of two Tennessee National Guardsmen, and our prayers are with their families during this heartbreaking tragedy,” said Brig. Gen. Warner Ross, Tennessee’s Adjutant General, in a statement on Wednesday. “We ask Tennesseans to join us in supporting their families during this time of unthinkable grief.”

Federal and state authorities are investigating the crash. While the statement did not specify if the Army will look into the crash, the services usually launch intense investigations whenever a service member or military aircraft is harmed in a mishap. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Newgard, a Black Hawk pilot with the Oregon National Guard, recalled what happened after a crew in his unit caused several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage to the rotor blades of their helicopter when they accidentally cut the tops off some trees in the middle of a rescue.

“We had a safety stand down and there was a thorough review of our practices and procedures to make sure it wasn’t a unit cultural issue,” said Newgard, who cautioned that he was speaking from his own experience as a Black Hawk pilot, not as a trained Army aviation safety officer. “Mandatory briefs were a part of it, as well as an open forum with the unit to discuss if anyone felt there were unsafe things going on.”

Why such a thorough approach? The Army Combat Readiness Center, which analyzes mishaps and works to prevent them in the future, views mishaps as indications of a flawed system rather than as isolated events.

“Mishaps and near misses are a result of a series of events comprised of multiple system inadequacies and/or hazardous conditions that provide the opportunity for an unsafe act or violation to occur,” the Center writes in its Mishap Investigation Handbook. “A superficial investigation reveals the act or violations but the goal of a complete investigation includes the identification of the system inadequacies” such as fatigue, complacency, illness, or other surrounding problems.

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The Army seeks “complete investigations” because lives, money, and missions often depend on the safe operation of its aircraft. Military aircraft are expensive, complicated machines that take a stupendous number of regulations, manuals, and standard operating procedures to handle safely. Even the way military aviators talk in the air is regulated, like when the Air Force points out in a regulation that “nonstandard phraseology contributes to misunderstood clearances and aircraft mishaps.”

When accidents do occur, the military classifies them into one of several categories. In the Army, Class F is the least harmful category, covering just aircraft turbine engine damage that affects no other part of the aircraft. Class E is the second-least harmful category, where the total cost of property damage is greater than $5,000 but less than $25,000. The most harmful category, Class A, is where the total cost of property damage is $2.5 million or more; an Army manned aircraft is destroyed, missing or abandoned; or an injury and/or occupational illness results in a fatality or a permanent total disability. The exact nature of the investigation into a mishap depends not only on the class of mishap but also on its circumstances.

“Much like most things in the Army, it depends,” said one Army aviation safety officer on the condition of anonymity. “The commander has the authority to stand the unit down if they desire for any reason. If it is quickly suspected to be a wider issue, they might suspend operations for a week or so till things get figured out.”

The length of time for which operations are suspended also depends on the location. If it occurred at a home station, there might be a longer pause than at a combat station or training center, the safety officer said. If the mishap warrants it, the Army Combat Readiness Center dispatches investigators to identify any “system inadequacies” that need to be addressed. This can be a difficult task, particularly when the unit being investigated has just lost some of its members.

“It’s tough for the unit … there are fresh wounds there (literally and figuratively),” said the safety officer. “It sucks to have people say your unit is jacked up after a loss.”

It is also a difficult task for the investigators, who have to “listen to the cockpit recorder dozens of times … hearing people’s last moments alive on repeat,” said the safety officer. The investigators sometimes have to look at body parts, personal effects, and other reminders of the fallen aircrew, some of whom they may have known personally. Sometimes an investigator gets choked up and has to step outside for a minute, the safety officer said.

Though the work is difficult, it often leads to life-saving lessons. Many service members are familiar with the saying that “regulations are written in blood.” The saying means that each line in the stupendous number of regulations and procedures for safely handling aircraft may have come from somebody else finding out the hard way and paying the price. 

The regulations usually work, as military aircraft like the Black Hawk fly nonstop around the world, often for years after the end of their expected service lives. But mishaps still happen. Army Times reported on Wednesday that the last time a fatal Black Hawk crash occurred was in March 2022 when a medevac pilot died in an unauthorized flight at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Army Times also noted that nine soldiers received minor injuries in January after a Black Hawk struck some trees and lost its tail and main rotor while attempting to land in “white out” snowy weather in Germany.

As the Tennessee National Guard recovers from Wednesday’s loss, perhaps the lessons learned from it can save lives in the future.

“They very much are written in blood,” the safety officer said about regulations. For every investigation, “there are Army-level recommendations that get published in the next revision of the doctrine.”

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