CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 CORY CRAIN
Detachment 4, B Company,
248th Air Mobility Command Air Support Battalion
Iowa National Guard
As a National Guard CH-47 company, we are always subject to possible call up for state and national emergencies or deployment overseas. When Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast in 2008, we found ourselves being called on like never before.
It had been a busy year, with a trip to a high-altitude training site, annual training at Ellsworth Air Force Base and responding to the floods in our home state of Iowa. We were focused on future training when Hurricane Gustav popped up on the radar. It appeared Gustav could possibly threaten New Orleans in much the same fashion as Hurricane Katrina did three years earlier.
The call went out for the National Guard to send troops and equipment to New Orleans in advance of the hurricane. We responded to a request for one CH-47 from Iowa and departed Aug. 30. After a night in Searcy, Arkansas, due to weather, we made our way to New Orleans. Our departure from Searcy put us among what was the nation’s largest airlift of civilians out of New Orleans.
Our first mission was to transport hospitalized civilians who were not in need of immediate medical care to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After two turns between New Orleans and the Louisiana State University track facility in Baton Rouge, we departed for Jackson, Mississippi, to avoid Gustav. We moved to Meridian the next day to get farther away from the projected storm path.
After being weathered in overnight, we were called back to Baton Rouge when the conditions cleared. The weather appeared to be marginal visual flight rules conditions, and we would not be able to fly under instrument flight rules because of the thunderstorm threat. We launched from Meridian and planned to fly south to Gulfport and then turn back to the west, avoiding the low ceilings and other marginal weather. From Gulfport, we would fly west to Baton Rouge to await missions.
All was well and the weather forecast looked better. We turned east earlier than planned to make the flight to Baton Rouge quicker than the expected time briefed. That’s when we ran into weather issues.
We had options: we could make a 180-degree turn back to the east and return to good VFR conditions and continue to the south as planned, or continue on our current flight path since we had loaded our GPS with several waypoints. We had two airports loaded for navigational purposes, both in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We made the decision to continue ahead since we were still VFR. We figured we would make another weather call and probably land at an airport on the south side of Hattiesburg.
The clouds got lower and the ground got higher. The combination just was not getting any better. The chatter among our crew of five was turning to almost terrain flight communication since we were now following a river we identified on the map that would take us within a mile of the airport. That’s when we knew we would be landing at the airport.
To make things worse, we were flying at an altitude of 500-600 feet to stay clear of the clouds. Visibility was less than a mile. Next, the rain set in and obscured visibility as we approached the airport. We followed the river for about four miles until we were within a mile of the airport and prepared to land. There was no discussion about whether we would land. This was one of those times when the entire flight crew just knew what we were doing.
To say that we landed with legal VFR weather per Army Regulation 95-1 would be truthful. However, the conditions greatly deteriorated as the afternoon went on and we spent another night away from the mission due to the weather. Following our stay in Hattiesburg, we did make it to Baton Rouge and then New Orleans, where we were based out of the Naval Air Station for the next week. When our mission was complete, we were forced to go through the same decision-making process on our way back to Iowa. Again, we made a weather call, which was supported by the chain of command without question.
We’re not always afforded the opportunity to make weather calls and stay where we are rather than push on into the unknown. Before this mission, none of us had ever flown south of Arkansas. The lessons learned from this experience will stay with me for the rest of my career. Thorough mission planning and briefings are a must — no matter how insignificant the trip or mission. Also, use risk management to keep the flight crew fresh, and know when to say when.