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Who's in Control?

Who's in Control?


2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division
Fort Carson, Colorado

The OPTEMPO had been heavy for our single Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System platoon site. I was the TUAS operations technician for the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment out of Vilseck, Germany. We were giving the troopers of my regiment 24 hours of continuous coverage. The attacks on the forward operating base and the troopers going out had slowed a great deal. Our TUASs were utilized not only as reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition assets, but also as a deterrent for enemy forces. I thought everything was going great, and we had our operations down pat. Little did I know!

I had just taken a combat shower and was lying in my bunk, resting from a 16-hour day. Just after midnight, there was a knock on the door to my containerized housing unit. I opened it to see my platoon leader (captain) and platoon sergeant standing there with grim looks on their faces. I knew we hadn’t crashed, but by the looks on their faces, I knew something had happened. They both stood there as if they were in trouble. Tired and knowing tomorrow was to be a direct reflection of today, I asked what was wrong.

The young, newly pinned captain proceeded to tell me the story. Only 30 minutes before their arrival, a young specialist, serving as a newly qualified mission commander, had gotten us some attention from the U.S. Air Force, and it wasn’t the kind of recognition my troop or squadron commander was going to like. We had been the fine recipients of a hazardous air traffic report, or HATR. It gets better than just a report, though.

Somewhere about 11:30 p.m. the night before, the young specialist had the operators pre-position the unmanned aircraft for the next mission. He requested airspace for transitioning. He was cleared for his transition and given a whole keypad, or enough area to do the mission. The operators requested a lower altitude for the mission. A lower altitude meant better video for the ground commanders. However, this was a trade off because engine noise could give away the aircraft’s position, so the mission commander requested a new altitude. The controlling agency granted the request and told him to “elevator in place.” The crew argued at what that meant, as they really did not know. The mission commander instructed the crew to continue their transition across the keypad (since he was already cleared for it) and to descend to the new low altitude.

Not even three minutes into their descent, the mission commander’s communications radio monitor went crazy. The controlling agency was lighting into him pretty good, saying he had busted airspace and had nearly caused a midair collision with a manned fixed-wing aircraft. The crew of that aircraft said they were going to do a HATR. The young specialist replied with “LOL!!! What R U talking about? LOL!”

Lessons Learned

What the controlling agency had meant for the TUAS operators to do was to loiter and descend in place. Of course, this is not what happened. This was not a good thing, but, thankfully, no one was hurt and no equipment damaged. The specialist was removed from mission commander duties, the whole crew was counseled and we got a safety stand down to go over some very important things we had forgotten. However, my Soldiers and I learned a few lessons that day, and I thought it best to share them with the whole aviation community.

1. The chat software being used is for official communications. Leaders should train their Soldiers to use proper messaging techniques with the software. In this case, the specialist thought they were joking around and calling him a “hater.” Neither he, nor any of the other crewmembers, knew what a HATR was.

2. Crew coordination is an annual training topic and very important in the process of doing our jobs. Both Army Regulations 95-1 and 95-23 state crew coordination will be used through all aspects of the flight. There are no new accidents, so we should have the lessons learned for them. Whether we are manned or unmanned, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. If you are unsure of the terminology, then you need to ask someone. Every Soldier and piece of equipment we have is vital to winning the mission. If we are to lose either, then let it be because the enemy got lucky or were just better than us — not because we are too embarrassed or stubborn to ask.

3. Whether the agency granting the airspace is talking on a radio or typing on a computer, we all have a right to know if other aircraft are directly above, below, beside, behind or in front of us. The crew above got pictures of the aircraft because they always scan with a camera during their descent. However, air traffic control never conveyed to our crew or the manned crew that we were in the same airspace. This could have been a huge mishap with lives lost and equipment destroyed. Sadly, the armed forces have enough accidents that take the lives of our brave men and women. Let’s not add to it by thinking that unmanned aircraft are just remote-controlled aircraft. I challenge all ATC units and leaders not to treat these aircraft differently. The rules, regulations and standards are the same, so should the procedures in which the airspace is granted, disapproved and traffic advisories given.

  • 14 May 2017
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 1060
  • Comments: 0