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14 seconds to impact: Training helps save pilots' lives

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When there is an in-flight emergency, every second counts.

It was early on a summer morning in Afghanistan as Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark Foschetti and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike McGann headed back toward Bagram Airfield. Assigned to C Company, 1st Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Phoenix, they'd completed their mission. Neither could have anticipated their morning was about to change in a way they'd never forget.

"(McGann) was on the controls doing everything he was supposed to and I was on the radio making the calls to the tower, and then all heck broke loose," Foschetti said. "We heard this crunching snap sound, and I jumped on the controls."

McGann, who was a junior pilot, initially thought they'd been shot at. He quickly transferred the controls to Foschetti as the helicopter began its 14-second descent from 400 feet in the air. Foschetti barely had time to transmit the words, "We're going down," as he tried to regain control of the helicopter. He quickly realized the nose of the aircraft was turning to the right.

"(That's when) I realized we lost our tail rotor," he said. "The aircraft has a natural tendency to turn right because the rotor blades spin to the left, especially with the more torque you pull in. The tail rotor system provides anti-thrust to balance the aircraft and keep the nose straight. No one ever wants to lose that."

Foschetti scanned the area and saw a two-story qualat, or house, in front of them. He said he was unsure if they had enough altitude to clear it.

"We happened to have a beautiful open field right in front of us," Foschetti said. "I made the decision and I told my wingman, 'We're going down.'"

As the helicopter went down, two things came to Foschetti's mind -- keeping the nose of the aircraft up to protect McGann and cushioning the landing at the bottom the best he could. But as he did that, he knew they would be vulnerable to rotating out of control.

"I knew as soon as I pulled in power (to cushion the landing), the aircraft was going to start spinning," he said. "For a split second, I saw my wife, my two kids, my brother, my mother and father -- my immediate family. As quick as it popped into my mind, they were gone and it was time to act, because (I thought), 'We're not dying today.'"

But there were other challenges. Foschetti explained that during training, autorotations are started at an altitude of 1,000 feet.

"If you keep the aircraft in trim, it takes a while to get to the ground," he said.

However, he was at 400 feet, not 1,000, in an aircraft that could not be trimmed. He feared the Apache would tumble over when it hit the ground.

"Those 14 seconds were the longest autorotation I've ever done," he said.

"WE'RE OK"

When the helicopter impacted the ground, both pilots confirmed that they were OK.

"It was so surreal -- the whole descent," McGann said. "The whole thing happened so fast, but at the same time, while it was going on, it felt slow. I remember thinking at the bottom -- at the very end -- I was afraid of the blades hitting the ground and us toppling over. I remember thinking, 'This is going to hurt.'"

As the rotor blades slowed down, the aviators lost radio communication. Foschetti realized they needed to make sure their sister ship that had been flying with them, as well as the Soldiers back at Bagram Airfield, knew what happened and that they were alive.

When the rotor blades finally stopped, both aviators used their experience and instincts. Both Foschetti and McGann served in the Army as enlisted Soldiers for several years before going to Warrant Officer Candidate School and flight school. Foschetti previously served as an Apache armament/electrical systems repairman, while McGann was a military police officer.

"I went into a (communications security) mode, (clearing) my cockpit, getting my goggles, collecting all of my sensitive items," Foschetti said. "When we got out of the aircraft, I ran to the storage bay to grab our flight bags. In case we had to hot tail it, we'd be ready."

He stopped and turned around to check on McGann. He saw him on the perimeter with his M-4 doing everything necessary to provide security for the downed crew.

But Foshetti also saw something else that brought a smile to his face. Before McGann grabbed his weapon, he'd made sure he had one other "sensitive item" -- a stuffed dragon that his 4-year-old daughter, Hope, had sent him.

"It flies with me all the time; it usually sits right on the console," McGann said. "Before I grabbed my weapon, and before I did anything else, I grabbed (the dragon) and stuffed it under my armor."

Fortunately, Foschetti and McGann suffered only minor injuries. Foschetti had a cut on his palm and McGann bit his lip and was bleeding. Within 14 minutes, an Air Force emergency helicopter arrived to transport them for medical treatment. After they arrived at the hospital and saw their commander and first sergeant, Foschetti and McGann were instructed to call home.

"I have an unbelievable wife; she's such a strong woman," Foschetti said. "There were no tears, she was just happy we were OK. I love that woman."

LIFE LESSONS

Foschetti was recognized in May 2012 by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center for his actions with the Broken Wing Award. The award recognizes aviators whose outstanding airmanship and extraordinary skills minimize or prevent aircraft damage or personnel injury during an emergency.

Foschetti, who serves as his company's safety officer, said that the experience caused him to change how he briefs his emergency procedures before flights.

"If something happens, have one person watch the perimeter while the other one collects sensitive items and sterilizes the cockpit, then switch it up," he said.

He is determined to make losing a tail rotor a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Needless to say, my inspection of the tail rotor since then has been even more in depth, (even though) there was nothing we could've done to see that coming," he said.

Foschetti explained that the experience gained during the deployment gave a level of experience to the pilots in his unit far beyond what their flying hours would suggest, honing their decision-making skills. He attributes his ability to react properly to the training he received from his instructor pilots, or IPs.

"(Chief Warrant Officer 4) Sean Richards was my IP (in Afghanistan), and my first IP, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Daxton Barkley, was with me in (my previous unit) and progressed me right out of flight school," Foschetti said. "They were very diligent about the way they taught. I have no doubt in my mind that if it wasn't for those two and the way that they taught me how to fly, there's no way I would've been able to perform an autorotation like that. I owe my life to those two."

Article by Michelle Kennedy, Army.mil