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CAMP ZAMA, Japan — About six minutes after the main warning light flickered on in the control panel of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter Tuesday, pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 W. Chris Purser slowly guided the aircraft onto the 50-yard line of a Japanese college football field.

It was a precautionary landing, not an emergency per se, but a necessary stop to allow pilot and crew to make sure everything on the aircraft was OK.

Purser, from the 78th Aviation Battalion, made the landing around noon at Seijo University in Isehara City, roughly 10 miles from Camp Zama.

As he was landing, a second chopper carrying a specially trained maintenance pilot set off to meet the aircraft and ensure its ability to fly. In a little more than two hours, both helicopters were home.

Purser was crossing over a ridgeline on the way back to Camp Zama from Camp Fuji when the master warning light appeared, telling him to look for trouble among the 75-odd other warning indicators, he recalled.

“Your first thought is, ‘what’s wrong, and what to do about it,’” Purser said.

The light, along with the manual he quickly consulted, indicated he should land as soon as possible. He began a descent, slowed the aircraft and looked for the safest place to land.

Colleges, with empty, flat and protected athletic fields, are often a good bet.

“You know there’s not going to be wires there and you know it’s a controlled environment,” he said.

Purser passed over the goalpost and circled the empty football field to gauge the best wind direction for landing, then made his way down.

“I would not have gone down if there were people on the field,” Purser said. “The only little bit of damage was dust.”

At the same time, co-pilot Warrant Officer Brian McDonough and crew chief Spc. Adam Nash checked for clearance and potential dangers and rechecked the manual to make sure they did everything according to the book. They called in the GPS coordinates to the battalion, shut down and secured the area around the aircraft.

Purser told the university’s principal, who arrived moments later, what happened and that everyone was OK. The principal closed off the area to onlookers. The police came soon after.

“This call was textbook perfect,” said Capt. Peter J. Presley, Company A maintenance commander. “It went off like it does in the simulator.”

To prepare for just such instances, pilots practice similar landings and other emergencies twice a year in a flight simulator.

The warning light Tuesday was activated by a chip detector, a magnetized part that monitors aircraft fluids and triggers a reaction when a piece of metal any bigger than a grain of rice touches it.

Any metal casing or gear parts that flake off from normal wear and tear can trigger the response. And if metal parts are shredding somewhere or if an aircraft in combat is hit by something, early warning from the detector is vital. But occasionally the device short-circuits and falsely detects a chip.

But Tuesday’s alarm was the real thing, Presley said. The chip that triggered the warning light was metal, but analysts still are working to determine its origin, he said.

The chip detector that stopped Tuesday’s flight was in the right side accessory module, the part that runs off the transmission and powers accessories. Had the module broken down, the aircraft still would have been able to make it back to Camp Zama, Presley said.

The landing was the battalion’s second precautionary landing in the past several years — as long as those in the unit now can recall.

In May 2003, battalion executive officer Maj. Robert McArdle landed after he felt an odd reaction from his flight controls, similar to the way the steering wheel of a car reacts when there’s a flat, he said.

He also was over a college near Camp Zama and lowered into a field.

The battalion flies about 1,000 hours a year, mostly around Tokyo.

The incident Tuesday may have been hair-raising to those involved, but aircraft have several redundant systems for a backup if something does go wrong.

The pilot adage is it’s better to be on the ground with a mechanical problem, wishing you were in the air, than in the air with one wishing you were on the ground.

“It’s much safer to make a controlled landing,” McArdle said.

After the aircraft was safely on the ground, the engines were off and the area secure, Purser had a moment to think about things.

He immediately worried about possibly creating an international incident, he recalled. He also thought of his wife worrying if she was watching news reports and the ribbing he would get from his fellow pilots.

“It’s always easy [to fly] until something happens,” Purser said.


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