Crunch in the Junkyard

BY PO2 CLIFFORD LONESOME, VFA-195

An aviation ordnanceman uses a skid to transport munitions to an aircraft. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans)

An aviation ordnanceman uses a skid to transport munitions to an aircraft. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans)

A fellow aviation ordnanceman (AO) and I were preparing our aircraft for the day’s flight schedule during the command’s fall Western Pacific patrol onboard USS Ronald Regan (CVN 76). The flight deck coordinator (FDC) called over the radio for us to reposition an MHU-191 ordnance skid in the support equipment holding area of the flight deck, an area commonly referred to as the junkyard. The ordnance skid we were moving carried four bomb rack unit (BRU-41) improved multiple ejector racks (IMERs), used to carry practice bombs on the F/A-18. The skid was located in the junkyard next to an MH-60R helicopter, lined up port-to-starboard on the ship instead of the standard parking orientation of forward-to-aft. Our job was to move the skid to a position where it was resting in the proper forward-to-aft alignment.

As the name implies, the junkyard is extremely crowded with support equipment, complicating our task. We decided to move the skid to a small space between the front of the helicopter and an aircraft external fuel tank dolly that was located closely beside it. As we worked to reposition the skid, my fellow AO guided the aft portion of the skid while I pushed against one of the IMERs to keep it from hitting the helicopter. After starting the move, we realized the skid would not fit into the narrow space available with the IMERs still on it. At this point, we were about halfway done with the move and I left for the work center to get additional AOs to help remove the IMERs from the skid.

While I was gone, the PO3 assisting me noticed some scratches on an antenna on the forward portion of the helicopter. As she was trying to determine if we caused the damage, the FDC from the helicopter squadron came over and took a look as well. He confirmed that the scratches were not previously there and that the damage must have been caused while moving the ordnance skid. As I returned to the flight deck, I was told to immediately contact our FDC. The maintenance departments of both squadrons were notified and our quality assurance shop began an investigation. At this point, the realization that the IMER had scratched an antenna on the helicopter began to set in, turning what should have been a routine move into a potential mishap.

Due to the sensitivity of damaging an airborne sensor, the helicopter squadron could not determine if the scratched antenna would need to be replaced until the aircraft flew and the antenna could be evaluated. Fortunately, the following day the helicopter did fly and the antenna checked good airborne, requiring only cosmetic repair despite the damage. This time, luck was on our side, but the whole event could have been avoided through better operatinal risk management of the move evolution.

This crunch taught me some valuable lessons. My fellow AO and I thought this would be a routine move of our support equipment in the junkyard. However, nothing we do on the flight deck should ever become routine. I did not properly assess the risks involved, especially since the skid was parked so closed to an aircraft. Had we taken a few extra minutes prior to rushing into the task, we could have gathered help from the work center and removed the IMERs from the skid prior to executing the move. As we gain experience operating on the flight deck, it is easy to develop a false sense of proficiency and comfort. This near-miss taught me the consequences of complacency when operating in such a dynamic and dangerous environment, and how to avoid them in the future.