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Sharing the Skies

Sharing the Skies

CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 AARON MITCHELL
Third Army, U.S. Army Central
Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina

It was November 2004 in Tikrit, Iraq, and I was a newly designated AH-64A Apache pilot in command assigned to Charlie Company, 1-1 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion. Our unit was deployed to Forward Operating Base Speicher, which was a former Iraqi air force base prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. We had deployed from our home station of Katterbach, Germany, in February and were now nine months into Operation Iraqi Freedom II, the second year of the operation. This particular morning, at about 10 a.m., I was in the lead aircraft of our team of two Apaches as we flew from FOB Speicher to FOB Warrior, another airport on the outskirts of the city of Kirkuk.

Like most of our missions that year, this day’s mission was fairly routine: one hour of flight time over largely uninhabited desert terrain until we reached FOB Warrior, where we landed, shut down and tied down the aircraft. Here we would conduct a face-to-face linkup with the brigade operations officer to determine if there were any updates or changes to our task and purpose, conduct a final team brief that encapsulated the mission objectives, grab a quick lunch at the dining facility (time permitting, of course), and then make a timely departure for mission execution.

We were to provide a convoy escort for a logistics supply run to one of the outlying bases. It would be about a three-hour mission in which we would establish FM communications on a pre-determined frequency with the convoy commander to provide him with armed reconnaissance and overwatch while he perilously navigated through hostile Iraqi roads to get supplies to the warfighter. Truly the unsung heroes of the operation were these logistics professionals that hung it all on the line almost daily to ensure our troops got the necessities they required. Fortunately, this mission ended like most others: the convoy arrived safely at its destination, and our team refueled one last time at Kirkuk before departing for FOB Speicher.

By today’s technological standards, our antiquated AH-64As were dinosaurs — mostly analog switches, steam gauges and paper maps, baby! The glass cockpit concept (computerized displays with multifunctional screens and buttons) sounded like something from the future to us, but we considered flying these aircraft as a bit of a badge of honor.

Our aircraft were the oldest A-models remaining in the Apache fleet. They had actually seen action in Operation Desert Storm and hadn’t received much modification since. And though there is a lot to be said for doing things the old-fashioned way, today’s technology has become a key contributor to preventing accidents like midair collisions and providing greater awareness of aircraft tracking. With airspace becoming more and more congested, there comes a greater demand for systems that can not only track every airborne vehicle, but also make other pilots aware of other vehicles in their proximity.

The Army began fielding of the RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial system just after the turn of the century, with the aircraft seeing its first combat in the early stages of OIF. It brought the ground commander unparalleled situational awareness and knowledge of his operational environment with a live, round-the-clock video feed he could monitor comfortably in his tactical operations center. But the Shadow was a new concept, and everyone involved with it, including the operators on up to the UAS program manager, were still learning how to integrate it into the bigger Army aviation picture.

One area that truly needed attention was integrating the Shadow with other organic aviation entities. Until the advent and proliferation of systems like Blue Force Tracker, manned/unmanned teaming and Link 16, pilots of manned aircraft had to rely on gaining awareness of UAS from a flight-following agency that may or may not have any idea at all about the number of UAS in a given area and altitude.

Given the sporadic, rarely reported UAS operations that would take place in different areas, a flight follower’s knowledge of UAS activity was sometimes very limited. Obviously this could set the stage for a very dire consequence if the airspace was not deconflicted properly, and this situation finally leads us to our story.

About 40 minutes into our return flight to FOB Speicher, I passed the controls to my co-pilot/gunner so I could reference the tactical entry chart for Speicher’s airspace. What surprised me as I slowly looked up to focus outside was the Shadow that was maybe 20 feet dead in front of our aircraft, flying only about 10 feet lower. It seemed incredible to me that of the four sets of eyes in our team that day, no one saw it until I did. By that time it was almost too late.

I told the CPG not to change anything, just to keep flying on the same track and altitude. I radioed our wingman and, among some other expletives, explained we had narrowly avoided a midair collision and to look for the UAS as we flew over it. Our wingman had adequate spacing and was able to adjust his flight path to also avoid the Shadow, but we all agreed afterward that the outcome of a collision with an aircraft of that size would have been catastrophic, quite possibly causing an impact that could be extremely difficult to recover from, if not fatal. Needless to say, this became a topic of heated discussion among our company.  Sadly, it was not the last near-miss with other coalition aircraft during that deployment, but it did heighten our awareness of this newly emerging hazard.

During our debrief, we reported it to our higher headquarters, providing the exact time, location and altitude of the encounter. We found out many days later that one of the attached ground units based nearby was performing a check flight on their newly received Shadow. If there was knowledge of their sortie, it was simply never passed down to other aircrews (like us) flying in that sector.

It has been several years since that incident, and near-misses continue to this day. Of course, the risk of one occurring can never be eliminated, but systems like BFT, MUM-T and Link 16 are now incorporated into aircraft and TOCs. Nearly all aircraft used by the military are now modernized and able to accommodate these systems, greatly enhancing pilots’ situational awareness of other aircraft operating in their area.

In closing, our community has come a long way with the development of these over-the-horizon communications; they are especially critical to aircrews operating in remote areas of the operational environment. But always keep your head on a swivel. A digital cockpit would have provided us with some improved SA that day. Combining that with good crew coordination and safe operational practices will be essential to preventing close-proximity near-misses as we find ourselves sharing smaller chunks of airspace with a greater number of manned and unmanned aircraft.

  • 12 June 2016
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 1033
  • Comments: 0
Categories: On-DutyAviation
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