MH-53J–Don’t do that.

Maybe Pave Low John can give us the backstory on what happened.


Helicopter aerodynamics are… different from fixed wing aviation. Particularly near the ground. Weird stuff happens.

Also, don’t go running toward the crash.

10 thoughts on “MH-53J–Don’t do that.”

  1. Thank goodness the tailboom skid was in the lowered position. Scariest thing in the world…an Army WO1 fresh out of flight school who says “watch this.”

  2. So the Guy on the ramp figures everything is OK or does his shouted warnings simply panic the pilot way up in the air and facing the sky into pulling for more altitude.

  3. Right after the VaARNG got their Blackhawks back in the day, I was OPFORing a combat assault and watched a guy stand a Blackhawk up on its tail like that.
    Fortunately for them,they had some altitude, all I could say at the time was “Thank God I’m not in the back of that”.

  4. Ah, the “Oklahoma Ditch-Digger”. I’ve seen that making the rounds lately, which is odd since that video has been around for a while.

    Here’s the backstory. Just before I showed up as an IP at the Pave “Schoolhouse” at Kirtland AFB, a crew from that squadron (the 551st SOS) had flown out to Vance AFB to do a SOF demo for the flight school students there. Well, the two pilots, who I know quite well (shout-out to Big Al and “Uncle” Hat) decided to make it look “tactical”. Which is usually a really bad thing to hear two rotor-heads say in the cockpit (“Hey man, let’s make this last approach look tactical!”)

    Usually, when you do a tactical approach in a Pave, you want the bird to rotate up, with the tail rotor staying more or less level. Then, when you lower the nose and suck all that power back in, you’re nice and level with the horizon just before you set down or stabilize in a hover. In this particular instance, you can see the cockpit remain level and the tail rotates down…which is why the tail rotor digs into the ground. The crew wasn’t even trying to land, they were actually supposed to be doing a simulated fast-rope insertion, with a 30 feet hover. But when you rotate around the cockpit and get low on your approach….ouch.

    The Pave Low Dash-One (aka NATOPS aka Dash-Ten) describes the attitude warning system for an MH-53, which gives the pilots and FE an audio warning if the landing attitude is greater than 10 degrees while below 150 feet (at a landing attitude of around 12 degrees, the tail rotor contacts the ground before the tail skid). But, since they were planning on terminating in a 30 foot hover, they ignored the warning horn.

    The crew was really lucky the aircraft didn’t flip over, which is usually when you have people killed in a helicopter crash. But since they set it down in a level attitude, no post-crash fire and everyone walked away. Both of the pilots were reprimanded, but they both retired as O-5’s, so it must not have done too much damage to their careers.

    The biggest lesson for me when I saw the video was don’t assume that just because you have a crew of instructors and evaluators that safe flight is guaranteed. Even really experienced pilots can screw up. I also became extra cautious whenever we did tactical demonstrations, air shows, fly-bys, or any other kind of high-vis operations. For some reason, normally solid aircrew sometimes talk themselves (and their crew) into doing risky and sometimes flat-out stupid things when they have an audience. Chalk it up to human nature and hubris…..

    1. Hey John, thanks for that explanation. When I asked Bob about it, he said “pilots were screwing around.” (Wow, thanks for the detail, bro!) My favorite part of the video is the commentary by the folks watching.

  5. If you want to see the Marine version of the same phenomenon, here is a scary video of a mishap from the late 90s. The CH-46 was doing the same thing, coming in hot for a “tactical” approach to a fast-rope insertion and they descended below their briefed altitude. In this case, tragedy struck when the rear landing gear got tangled in the wire netting around the fantail and the helo does a back-flip into the water when the pilot pulled max power for a wave-off. I still get a chill every time I watch that one (the crew got out, but the marines that were getting ready to fast-rope onto the ship all drowned…)

  6. I’d completely understand if you removed it, it is a very disturbing crash to watch. The CO and DO made us watch it every time we did a brief for ship-board ops because they wanted to drill it into our heads how dangerous even peace-time training could be around naval vessels. Sure, we did other kinds of missions that were dangerous as well, but ship-board ops were something that we did (especially on NVGs) that had a lot of potential to wipe out an entire crew. That video, as much as it made me cringe, probably prevented a bunch of future mishaps by impressing upon us how seriously we had to approach the idea of landing on a ship, even in broad daylight.

    There, but for the grace of God, go I….

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