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Have you ever had to stand before the commander and explain yourself and/or your decisions? Just prior to that conversation, did you say, “Self, there had to be a better way to execute that mission.” Once in the commander’s office, did you feel like the only thing you could say would begin with, “Sir, no one was more surprised than I when …”
The following is a description of two missions to support emergency operations executed by Army National Guard aviation assets from multiple states related to a series of California wildfires and damage caused by Hurricane Ike. These units had generally never trained or operated together in any kind of mission or training environment. The lessons learned from the California wildfires allowed us to operate much safer when supporting citizens and rescuers during Hurricane Ike.
Aircrews have a good understanding of what is required when they are assigned a mission. What is never considered is when you place multiple aviation assets together; the only standards they have to follow are Army Regulation 95-1, Training Circulars 1-237 and 1-210 and the associated National Guard supplements. What is different is every state operates under a different standard operating procedure; and even though they meet the requirements of Army aviation standards, they get there in different ways based on their own SOPs.
During CALFIRE, we were given a rush mission involving a mixed multiship mission of four UH-60A/Ls, one civilian UH-1 and a civilian MD-500. It was stated that time was critical due to the nature and location of the fire. The MD-500 was operating as helicopter control and was basically the traffic cop for aircraft entering and exiting the fire area. Launching aircraft received minimal information from HELCO, which included the fire location and updates on other aircraft scheduled to launch.
So here we are, launching mixed multiship, civilian and military aircraft formations with Bambi buckets and there is no coordination on an inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions break-up plan, no designated air mission commander and no internal communication frequency. See a problem? The only thing right with this entire flight was the fact the aircrews from the military aircraft (four UH-60s from two states) had met each other while waiting for a fire mission and swapped frequencies. This small fact made a huge difference.
One would ask that since we were in the same parking area waiting for missions, why didn’t we conduct a full air mission brief. Honestly, it was never considered since missions had come down sporadically for one- and two-ship missions, and all aircraft had launched with their own states if it was a multiship mission. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that we would launch civilian and military aircraft to the same location. The only reason we coordinated for an internal frequency was in the event we needed to talk with each other while operating in the same area.
Based on all that was wrong, the two sets of UH-60s briefed the mission via FM internal and coordinated who had AMC duties, an IIMC break-up plan and a few fire-related issues while en route. Separation was given to the two civilian aircraft. The UH-60s were divided into two flights of two aircraft separated by about 20-30 rotor disks. The ability to operate on the fly, with a little common sense, made a big difference. It would have made a lot more sense to take a deep breath, gather all the crews and conduct an air mission brief so all parties involved, both civilian and military, would operate together under one clear brief with no misunderstandings.
I have no idea what either of the civilian aircraft would do if they went IIMC. Was it a concern? Absolutely! The area of operations typically had a visibility of one mile or less due to smoke, and sometimes that visibility went down to less than a half mile. The ceilings on a bad day could be down as low as 300-500 feet above ground level. Given the fact we were operating with a full Bambi bucket at an altitude of about 4,000-6,000 feet in steep canyons and mountainous terrain with power margins at minimal, these were valid concerns. So the simple lesson of slowing down and not allowing a forced sense of urgency to override common sense and briefing all the aircrews involved would pay big dividends a short time later.
Fast forward about six weeks and we are once again heading out the door. This time we’re going to Texas, where several state aviation assets are assembling into an Army National Guard aviation task force to support Hurricane Ike relief operations. We deployed two assault UH-60s and one medevac UH-60. The lessons of just a short while ago were still very fresh in my mind. It only takes one person to break the chain of events that leads up to an accident or incident. These lessons learned were briefed to all our aircrews to help mitigate any future problems.
Numerous missions were handed down in Texas involving multiple states and mixed aircraft. The time was taken and proper air mission briefs were conducted. All aircrews operated under the same guidance, and operations flowed smoothly. The sense of urgency was always there, but it was tempered with common sense and good aviation operating procedures. The areas of major concern from CALFIRE had been worked out with simple planning and coordination.
Two lessons learned from CALFIRE were not only obvious, but, if not learned, could very possibly get you and your aircrew injured or killed. First, don’t let someone else’s sense of urgency force you into making a bad decision. The fires we battled were not life, limb or eyesight missions. Take time to conduct air mission briefs. This will get all aircrews aligned with the mission and the payoff from the extra 10-minute delay is well worth the injury or accident avoided.
Second, while operating in a federal or state emergency environment, you will typically conduct missions for civilian agencies and could be operating under their control. These agencies may have no idea of your military aviation-specific requirements. Talk to them and discuss what you can and cannot do and never allow yourself to be pushed into a bad decision.