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Legal ... but is it Safe?

Legal ... but is it Safe?


C Company, 2nd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment
1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division
Fort Hood, Texas

There I was, month 13 of a 15-month deployment. My only thoughts were of going home and reuniting with my family. The other Soldiers in my unit were doing the same. We were told during this critical time that we needed to be more vigilant and not let complacency set in. An age-old sense of urgency associated with many aviation support profiles — to launch in marginal weather — has been the recipe for far too many aircraft mishaps.

I headed to the hangar to check on my assigned aircraft for the day and then to the tactical command post to check the mission profile. It was a familiar mission: a flight of two UH-60Ls were to fly a five-and-a-half-hour ring route under night vision goggles.

At the hangar, the crews continued loading the utility vehicles with necessary supplies and equipment for the mission. Sometime before sunset, I headed out to preflight the aircraft. With the preflight accomplished and the gear prearranged where we wanted it, we headed for the dining facility to grab dinner before our long mission.

The two flight crews met at the TOC for the mission briefing. The mission brief went as usual. The S-3 informed us where friendly forces were in our area, while the S-2 filled us in on where the action was in our battle space.

Another critical step was checking the weather for the evening. We had legal weather; however, the weather report showed a dust storm in our flight path. Although the battle captain knew the environmental conditions, he told us we had legal weather and expected us to accomplish the mission. I expressed my concern and some uneasiness about the situation because our crews had been caught in a dust storm before and knew the consequences. The battle captain instructed us to at least attempt to fly to our first stop.

We boarded our aircraft, started the engines and positioned ourselves at the terminal to pick up our first passengers for the evening. As the passengers boarded, I noticed a slight haze in the distance. Other crewmembers noticed the same thing. We discussed the weather conditions and decided to keep an eye on it. When fully boarded, we took off and headed to the first stop.

It was about a 20-minute flight and, as we got closer, the dust storm worsened. Our visibility was rapidly deteriorating and, to make matters worse, we had only a single light source in the distance to determine our visibility. We decided to return to the airfield at that point because once we passed the light source, we wouldn’t be able to see much of anything. Our aircrews carefully synchronized our return flight using proven aircrew coordination skills.

I kept an eye on the dust cloud and instrument panel at the same time, which wasn’t a good idea because I soon became disoriented. Relying on the technology rather than my senses, I transitioned inside to the instruments and noticed our nose starting to rise and our airspeed slowing. I informed my co-pilot of my observation and positioned myself to take the controls if he couldn’t correct our situation. The co-pilot turned the aircraft and started a climb in preparation for an emergency GPS recovery.

Soon we had turned back and all the instruments were reading straight and level. It was only then that I was able to look outside again. I could barely see the ground. We stopped our climb at a base altitude of 3,000 feet and returned to the airfield. This time we were lucky, we arrived without having to use the emergency GPS approach. This event made me realize the importance of instrument meteorological conditions training and proper crew coordination.

Back on the ground with both flights shut down, we secured the aircraft and headed back to the TOC to check with Air Force weather regarding improved visibility later in the evening. We also obtained a report from the battle captain concerning the weather situation at the destination airfield. They were calling for three miles visibility, which is certainly legal weather. However, the weather forecaster at our station did not agree with that assessment.

What we had was conflicting weather briefs from reliable sources. What would you have done in our situation? How do you weigh the importance of the mission with your ability to complete that mission safely? We had passengers, field Soldiers, aircrew and our aircraft to consider. We informed the battle captain of our weather forecaster’s concerns of flying the mission. A description of the weather we had encountered earlier added credence to our discussions with the battle captain. He made an informed decision to put the crews on standby in case the weather lifted. When the mission window passed, he canceled the mission.

This was certainly not an isolated incident in country. On another mission, we were told we had legal weather, the forecaster reporting three miles visibility. Yet, when we actually made it to our destination, we could not see the other end of the airfield. Our pilot report, along with others, gave the forecaster more information to augment his observation. As a result, he changed his report to three-quarters of a mile visibility. This team effort ensured a more accurate assessment for the battle captain. On this day, he made the decision to shut down and wait for the weather to pass. The next day, we were then able to make it back to our home base, but not without encountering a slight amount of bad weather along the way.

Lessons learned
Just because the report you receive says you have legal weather, don’t always assume it is accurate. It is beneficial for flight crews to know the area’s weather trends. Research the weather reports and gain the knowledge you need. Compile data from other bases and other crews to help your crew make an informed decision about your mission. Some missions require a second briefing or the completion of another risk assessment. The time it takes to complete this is well worth the effort to ensure the command is aware of the increased risk involved. This additional information will assist the approval authority in making the final decision to accept the risk.

Prior to every flight, all units must use the risk management process to ensure the weather is more than just legal. This process is designed to facilitate the decision-making process. If the benefits of performing the mission do not significantly outweigh the inherent risks of marginal/borderline weather, the flight should be a no-go or implement alternate transportation to accomplish the mission safely. Following these or similar guidelines will result in a higher mission accomplishment rate, a lower weather-related mishap rate and a better image of aviation professionalism.

  • 26 November 2017
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 816
  • Comments: 0
Categories: On-DutyAviation