In November 2020, American forces were in the middle of consolidating bases in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. military’s planned drawdown there. Part of that effort required moving large relocatable buildings via Ch-47 Chinook helicopters.
A U.S. Army CH-47 moving one of those buildings suffered catastrophic damage when its sling load suddenly swung upward and hit its rear rotors. Its five-man crew managed to land the aircraft, saving it and their own lives in the process. For their efforts, all five received the Army’s rare Broken Wing Award.
The Broken Wing Award was established in 1968 and is given to Army personnel who show “extraordinary skill recovering an aircraft from an in-flight emergency situation,” and “minimize or prevent aircraft damage or injury to personnel,” according to the Army Safety Awards website.
If there are multiple crew members involved in an incident, each crew member can be considered for the award, like the crew of the CH-47 over Afghanistan on Nov. 20, 2020.
That night, Army pilot Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ryan Schwend, co-pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eugene Park, and crew members Staff Sgt. Ben Kamalii, Sgt. Andrew Donley-Russell and Sgt. Ty Higgins were moving a relocatable building slung from their Chinook from Kandahar to Marine Corps Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan’s Helmand Valley.
It was a routine night mission, one they’d performed many times with night vision goggles. Everything had gone according to plan, right up until their approach to Camp Dwyer. While hovering at 1,000 feet, the load somehow swung upward, hitting the rear rotor of the Chinook with a loud bang and forcing the helicopter into a right bank.
Higgins called for the crew to jettison the load while Park tried to gain control of the aircraft. The load, however, would not fully jettison and was now pinned to the bottom of the Chinook.
Meanwhile, the aircraft itself was sluggish and slow to respond to its controls. If they attempted a landing, they risked a rollover, which could mean the loss of the Chinook, along with everyone on board.
The crew members, with the help of a ground response team, finally cut away the load and began shutdown procedures.
As the rotors slowed, the crew noticed their blades were beginning to sag. The after action report of the incident showed the side wall of the building they carried had collapsed, allowing air to enter and pushing it upward into the blades.
While hovering, the blades were held straight by the centrifugal force of spinning. As they began to slow, the damage to the blades made itself apparent. When the blades slowed completely, they, too, hit the sides of the aircraft, causing further damage.
The quick reactions of the crew and their coordination with Army personnel on the ground allowed them to free themselves of the load and land safely. All five crew members received the U.S. Army Aviation Broken Wing Award in June 2022 for their actions in saving the Chinook and each other’s lives.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at email@example.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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