On Every Flight
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 PHILLIP FLISSINGER
Detachment 37, Operational Support – Aviation Command
Kansas Army National Guard
One of the last things you expect to encounter when on a landing approach is a funnel cloud. Yet, it happened to me in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the winter of 2013 on an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission.
The previous few weeks had presented varying weather. Unfortunately, on this day, the conditions were beginning to deteriorate. Thankfully, we were on the ground beginning our pre-mission planning. The weather was well above our minimums; however, recently, the forecasted weather was nowhere near what had actually occurred. This did not give the crew a warm-and-fuzzy feeling. We continued to monitor weather and, as a crew, decided to drive on with the mission.
Even though the weather was legal for us to take off, we still thought we needed another out. That being said, we decided we would take off and adjust our station time as the weather permitted. The mission began without a hitch and everything went according to plan. We took off and were in the clouds. Eventually, we arrived at our airspace and flew under visual flight rules above the clouds.
As the mission went on, we continued to monitor the weather, using the local automatic terminal information service (ATIS) as well as requesting current observations on the surface at the airfield via radio and other communications. We remained diligent, continually using our visual cues, the storm scope, weather radar and ATIS. After about two hours, the forecast seemed to be coming true. Cloud cover continued to build and thunderstorms became more prevalent.
As a crew, we discussed our courses of action and decided it was in our best interest to return to base. On our approach back to Kandahar, we encountered moderate turbulence as we navigated around the storms. Still, everything was going according to plan based on the situation. After gaining contact with the tower, we received vectors to intercept the approach course. Then, on short final, we received a frantic call from the tower directing us to abort the approach and immediately make a 180 degree turn.
The air traffic controller (ATC) informed us there was a funnel cloud over the airfield. We immediately followed his instructions and went into a holding pattern while communicating with approach control. After the storm passed, ATC gave us the clearance to proceed with the approach and we landed without further incident.
This event proved to be a learning experience I will never forget. In my mind, we did everything we should have, but the situation still could have ended differently. I believe we executed our due diligence by reviewing the weather prior to departure, continually monitoring the weather using all of the tools available to us, realizing the weather was becoming unsafe, and departing before our scheduled end of station time as well as making snap decisions as prescribed by ATC.
This mission brought to light a couple of things that are excellent to reinforce. First, the mission is the top priority; however, when conditions present themselves to be unsafe, it is imperative we take appropriate action to ensure the safety of the crew and the aircraft. Second, crew coordination is a critical component of our success and survivability of a dangerous situation. Take these things on every flight.