PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — As a chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, I have had the honor of some unique experiences, but none compare to riding in the “hurricane seat” of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.
I learned this lesson on a recent trip visiting one of our geographically separated units, and felt it worth sharing to anyone thinking a ride in a Blackhawk would be a thrill.
It is, with one small caveat; if you ever get the opportunity to ride in a Blackhawk with the doors open, do not ever, and I mean ever, sit in the far right back seat. There are some incredible aerodynamics which converge inside the cabin. These forces make this single seat feel the full thrust of the chopper’s main rotor blade with reported wind gusts at over 160 mph blasting you in a full frontal assault.
It is hard to describe this unforgettable 47-minute experience, but I will do my best. Imagine being strapped to a seat which makes you feel like you’re stuck in a mini-tornado, all the while, being pummeled by gale force winds that feel like an invisible man punching you in face. Imagine it is very hard to breathe and almost impossible to open your eyes, while your nose runs uncontrollably, and as pulsating unseen forces clear out your sinuses. Imagine multiple seatbelt straps whipping you in the face while your previously harmless uniform collar is attacking you with welt-like force. If that is not bad enough, imagine you and you alone are suffering through this misery while the rest of the passengers are taking scenic aerial photos on their cell phones, while gentle breezes flow around them.
After a flight which left my cheeks numb and sinuses cleared, I reflected on the meaning of an unsuspected ride in the hurricane seat. I strongly believe life lessons present themselves in unexpected ways. Here is what I learned from sitting in my little torture seat for nearly an hour.
• There is no such thing as being too prepared.
Flexibility is indeed the key to airpower, but sometimes it can be used as an excuse for not planning. While we cannot plan for every outcome to every situation, we should always do our best to think through multiple scenarios and have the resources we need to accomplish the task. In my case, a simple internet search on “Blackhawk helicopter ride” would have pulled up many entertaining videos of other hurricane seat survivors. Check it out — you’ll be greatly entertained and likely have a newfound appreciation for those who subject themselves to such rides — ignorant or otherwise.
• Know your weapon system.
As we transition our space operations to the Space Mission Force construct, we must maximize the capabilities of our weapons systems as well as fully understand their blind spots. We must be the subject matter experts of our weapon systems. If not us, then who? The Army crew chief who smiled at me as I strapped in definitely knew the ins-and-outs of his weapon system. Oh, and being an expert in a weapon system has a force multiplying affect if you share your knowledge and teach others. My Army crew chief blissfully missed such an opportunity.
• Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Pretending to understand is not an effective strategy in warfighting. Pride prevented me from asking questions during our three minute preflight safety brief. I was nervous and did not want the other passengers to know, so I just nodded and smiled. Asking questions makes you smarter; not asking questions makes you a fool. One simple question to the crew chief might have changed my seat selection and allowed me to be one of those other smiling passengers. An ancient Chinese proverb reminds us, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever,” — or at least for a grueling 47 minutes.
• Be ready for life’s surprises.
Although this was a stressful and somewhat painful experience for me, I was ready for it. First, my military training ensured I did not panic. I was able to conduct a quick operational risk assessment of my situation and determined changing seats was not a safe option. My seat belt and safety equipment were in good working order. In fact, I am very glad I spent an extra few seconds making sure I was tightly buckled in. While I walked away from the Blackhawk a little tattered, I was able to debrief and apply some resiliency lessons learned. I’m ready for the next Blackhawk flight!
You never know when a “hurricane seat” experience is headed your way. Be prepared for life’s surprises, know your weapon system, don’t be afraid to ask questions, learn and teach.