The Four Cs

  • Published
  • By Capt Adam Ackerman
  • 90 SW/SEF
I had recently been upgraded to aircraft commander during my first assignment. I was still the newest aircraft commander in the 1st Helicopter Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. It was a great feeling to know leadership now trusted me to maneuver a UH-1N Huey helicopter and command a crew of three (pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer) in the highly visible and security-restricted National Capitol Region. This area includes a great number of America's treasured buildings and monuments, and its security is vital to the government's continued operation. Helicopter flight provides a panoramic bird's-eye view of the lively District of Columbia and more than a few unique memories; however, I can no longer recall any details from the standard 2½ -hour helicopter flight that occurred just a couple of years ago. What I do remember are the events and lessons that followed. The sequence taught me that the responsibility of an aircraft commander extends beyond maneuvering an aircraft and managing a crew.

The flight itself was of the most popular flavor, vanilla. After shutdown, I remained strapped in and started to work on the aircraft forms while the flight engineer hopped out and began to walk around the helicopter and conduct the required postflight inspection. The crew chief met us at the aircraft and began his standard duties. About the time I finished the forms and was ready to help finish the postflight, the flight engineer told the crew chief and me that he had discovered some fuel on the deck of the No. 2 engine compartment. The puddle was a foot or two in diameter and definitely a concern for an aircraft the size of a Huey. We poked and prodded around looking for the source, and checked the general condition and security of everything in the compartment. After a few futile minutes, I returned to the forms to write up the leak. The crew and I then gathered our personal equipment and went inside to avoid interfering with maintenance and to finish our postflight duties.

A few minutes later, I received a page over the intercom from the Supervisor of Flying to report to the operations desk. I already knew what was coming (a maintenance ground run for the aircraft), so I grabbed my helmet and checklist on the way. The SOF delivered the expected news, and I went to the aircraft to meet the crew chief again. I conducted an extensive ground run with the crew chief, but there was no evidence of a fuel leak in the engine compartment during operation or postflight. I documented that no leak was discovered during the ground operations and returned the aircraft to maintenance. The end of the day was approaching, and I expected the leak to be investigated further, so I was shocked the next day to learn the same aircraft conducted a precautionary landing in the middle of downtown DC due to the smell of fuel in the cabin. No leak was discovered in the engine compartment, but maintenance eventually found the source in the compartment just forward of the engine that isn't examined during pre- or postflight. The fuel my crew observed the previous day was only what worked its way into the engine compartment during flight and didn't indicate the actual size of the leak.

When I heard the news, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, but luckily no damage or injury resulted from the leak during the flight. The full extent of my responsibility and mistakes became painfully clear. After the ground run on the previous day, I didn't intend for the aircraft to be returned to flight before fixing the hidden leak. I assumed this was implied to the crew chief in our conversation and wouldn't be passed to other maintainers as a problem that couldn't be replicated. Regardless, a large chunk of responsibility still rested on my shoulders since I filled out the events in the forms. First, maintainers, just like pilots, always prefer the opportunity to have face-to-face conversations about an aircraft with one another. It's important to realize the chance doesn't always exist, due to workloads and other external factors. It's also important to recognize human factor topics, such as "the strength of an idea" and "hidden agenda" don't only apply to people operating aircraft. While the tiny box in a 781 may be the only method of communication a maintainer or aircrew member receives, we hope it will be the most valuable one. I used to look at the forms as simply a place to write down problems for maintenance. However, now with each official write-up, I try to think about the "Four Cs:" Clear, Concise, Coherent and Consequences.

When I land, I'll be the first to admit I'm generally focused on either quickly emptying my bladder or filling my stomach, thus the readability of my penmanship often suffers like my organs. I have to force myself to focus on making a clear, legible write-up that won't be lost in translation. The write-up itself is important, but I think the biggest culprit is name block. You never know when someone is going to have additional questions about a write-up for you.

Making write-ups concise saves the writer's ink and the reader's time. When I find myself with a relatively complex problem, I find two questions helpful in determining whether a write-up is concise. 1) Does maintenance need all this information to fix the problem? 2) Should this go as two separate write-ups?

Next, bullets and fragments can be coherent, but good grammar is a more dependable way to produce something understandable and easy to read. It is also crucial to use only the most commonly accepted abbreviations (e.g., ACFT, ENG, etc.), in order to correctly grasp the whole message.

Finally, I ask myself the consequences of my write-up, and whether it'll be helpful to others. While it's important to provide helpful information to fix the problem, maintenance should not be told how to fix the problem in the write-up. If a part is broken or missing, just put that, don't direct a repair or replacement. While repairs and replacements are expected outcomes, write-ups will also have the consequence of additional paperwork for the crew. If it's an unusual event or occurrence, see your neighborhood flight safety office for appropriate actions.