COMPILED BY KNOWLEDGE STAFF
It was a typical day in Iraq. I woke up with the taste of dust in my mouth, which usually meant bad weather had moved into the area. I was pretty disappointed because I was on the flight schedule and that probably meant I would not fly. This would be the third night in a row weather grounded our battalion.
Still, I showed up to prepare for the mission. The weather brief looked bad. It was going to be below minimums throughout the night with lines of dust storms moving throughout the area. Both ring-route missions were delayed, which was standard operating procedure until crews ran out of duty day. However, I noticed the air assault mission was not delayed or canceled. This was unusual because those missions usually have a weather abort time.
When I asked the flight lead what was going on, he told me they were going to prepare to launch. “What about the weather?” I asked. He replied that the air mission commander, the battalion commander, thought it was going to lift. Our supporting unit and gunships from the Kirkuk area of operations reported visual flight rule conditions. The weather brief they received showed below-minimums conditions at the landing zone.
As I walked to chow, I heard the auxiliary power units operating. They were getting ready just in case the weather lifted. Next thing I heard, to my surprise, was rotors turning. The whole chow hall instantly got quiet for a couple of seconds. People were wondering what was going on. Maybe the weather was lifting, so all the flight crews headed back to their companies.
When I got to the company area, everyone was gathered around the radio listening on the company (their internal) and the battalion (operations) frequencies. I had my pilot check the weather. The forecast had worsened. The air traffic controllers in the tower still reported the field was under instrument flight rules. We’d all felt command pressure before, especially after a couple of weather days in a row, but were they really going to launch in bad weather?
Chalk 2, the air mission commander’s aircraft, repositioned first because they got permission from the brigade commander to be the weather bird. They went around the traffic pattern and informed Chalk 1 what they’d observed. The AMC told Chalk 1 bad weather was surface-based up to about 1,000 feet above ground level and clear above it. I remember the word “glorious” as part of the description. He also said it extended to the ridgeline, but was clear beyond it.
Chalk 1 responded by telling them they lost sight of them at mid-field and regained visual contact only during their approach. They were parked on the approach end and everyone had on their goggles. The AMC stated his plan was to go to Kirkuk and update weather there.
By this time, most of the flight crews in the battalion were listening to the radio. A couple of radio transmission later, I heard, “I need you to reposition now.” Anyone who’s been around aviation for more than a day can imagine what people were saying at this point. They were starting to doubt Chalk 1's crew.
Chalk 1 had two pilots in command who were chosen because of the LZ. It was going to be a dust landing into a small confined area on a ridgeline. Other companies called us, wondering what was going on. We could not find the company standardization pilot. So far, this mission had all the typical signs that lead to an accident.
After a couple of minutes, Chalk 1 informed the AMC that they were discussing the situation with the crew. What was their plan if they had a maintenance problem en route? The AMC replied that he understood their concern, but the weather was not that bad. A couple of radio transmissions later, I heard that Chalk 2 was going to reposition and the mission was canceled. Before Chalk 2 returned, operations called the AMC. The message was that ground forces had canceled the assault, Kirkuk reported IFR conditions and they did not have medevac support.
Where was the company standardization pilot? He was in Chalk 1. What made the AMC cancel the mission? It was the door gunner in Chalk 2, who said he was not comfortable flying in these conditions and wanted to get off. The most junior crewmember was the one who drew the line. Where was the battalion SP? He was the pilot in Chalk 2.
In the after-action review, the discussion acknowledged how the air traffic controllers in the tower did not alter the weather report, regardless of command pressure. They gained a lot of respect that night. If any ATC personnel read this article, remember you are an important part of the aviation checks and balances. The door gunner was also praised by the company leadership and his actions were used as an example for other junior members.
In summary, every successful system has checks and balances. We, as warrant officers, provide it with informal leadership. After more close calls, the warrant officers got together and vowed not to let command pressure endanger any more lives. We, as crewmembers, know the hazards and have an active voice, but neither our passengers nor their families have any say on the matter. It is amazing how everyone coming back from a tour today points to weather as their No. 1 hazard. Why are we still trying to shop for weather or fly below our minimums — the same minimums we set ourselves?