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In aviation, from our very first exposure, we are all taught to focus on the task at hand regardless how routine it is. Humans, however, just aren’t programmed to act that way. The more routine a skill becomes the less conscious effort we put to it. This is just a natural progression as we become better at what we are doing. As pilots, we can only try to fight this from happening in an effort to remain more alert in all our actions.
Any and every flight can become routine. As many would attest, another flight around the beautiful country of Afghanistan can fall into this category quickly. We knew the flight area very well after stacking hours in the same region for the previous eight or nine months. On this particular night, the illumination was minimal and the weather wasn’t the best, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. The mission was the same type of passenger movements to the same landing zones we knew all too well.
One of our first stops for the night was an LZ that was pretty tight and had always been on the dusty side. The whole crew had experience in that particular landing area, so we didn’t even bother to do a recon. Of course, that was our first mistake. Additionally, rather than taking the time during the recon to discuss go-around procedures, assign specific crew calls and other pertinent safety items, we simply proceeded into our approach. About 30 feet from the ground, we noticed multiple laser-type lights coming off the LZ that inhibited both pilots’ vision. At this point, we were committed to the landing due to the position in the valley and our limited power.
As we continued our approach with less-than-ideal vision, our left crew chief called out a small antenna on his side just as the dust started to engulf the aircraft. At this point in the approach, the last thing any pilot wants to do is change their attitude or direction. To avoid the antenna, I slid right without any visual reference and immediately re-leveled the attitude indicator. Luckily, we touched down without incident.
After the dust cleared, we had the chance to evaluate our circumstances. Although this particular situation ended without an incident, we, as the flight crew, afforded the opportunity for far too many hazards. Even worse, each and every mistake/occurrence could have been prevented. The problems with the lights obscuring our view only took place because we didn’t take the time to conduct an LZ recon. A pass or two around the landing area would have surely pointed out that hazard. In the same recon, it is likely that some member of the crew would have noticed the antenna inside the LZ that presented such an issue. Also, we would have given ourselves a chance to select an alternate approach path. Our overconfidence of flying into a well-known area was obviously the major contributing factor.
As pilots, it is our responsibility to minimize each and every hazard we encounter. In a job such as ours, there is enough inherent danger. There is no need for us to create more.