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Time to Call it a Day

Time to Call it a Day
C Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment (AHB)
4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division
Fort Carson, Colorado

For those of you who have had the pleasure of experiencing a calm Korean morning, this one was no different. As the sun came up, we could barely make out the control tower on the airfield. The mission was to take a general officer and his crew from Yongsan to a grid coordinate on the northeast shore of the peninsula. We would be a flight of two UH-60s.

One of the more senior aviators was the pilot in command of Chalk 1, and our company commander was the pilot. I was the pilot in command of Chalk 2, and my pilot was a fairly new aviator in the unit, although he had more hours in the airframe than me.

We picked up the current weather information and we were a “go.” Next, we completed our preflight and discussed the weather during our air mission brief. We expected decent visibility en route with 3,000-foot ceilings. The plan was to pick up the passengers in Seoul and take them via an easterly route north of Wonju and follow a few low-lying valleys to the east coast. I had flown the route several times and was familiar with the area.

To give some insight on the weather reporting in Korea, the U.S. Air Force forecasters did a great job with the resources they had. At that time, though, those resources were very limited. There were just a few observation stations at their disposal, and they often had to rely on a forecast that was given the day prior by a Korean national in a remote area. This particular day, Camp Eagle (in Wonju, about 30 miles south of our route) was reporting two miles visibility and that was supposed to be our worst area. As was discussed in our AMB, we would keep an eye on it.

The mission was going as planned and we departed our home station with four miles of visibility on takeoff. The weather en route and at our pick-up point was only improving as the sun burned off more of the morning fog. As we proceeded eastbound, our luck was about to take a turn.

We crossed a checkpoint, known as “East 1,” on a fairly large river, and proceeded northeast into a large valley. That is where visibility started to drop, very fast. Chalk 1 announced it was slowing to 80 knots. We acknowledged and followed suit. The ceilings were beginning to come down and it became evident that the morning fog had yet to escape the valley. Chalk 1 slowly settled to an altitude of about 400 feet above ground level and continued the mission. I asked my crew if anyone was uncomfortable. The consensus was shaky, but the agreement was that if it got any worse we would turn back.
We continued to fly at this profile for about five minutes. Once again, the commander advised, “Slowing to 60 knots.” By the tone of her voice, I could tell she was starting to get uncomfortable with the deteriorating conditions. We followed suit once more. About 20 seconds passed and I saw Chalk 1 quickly start a right turn, and then a sharp left turn. Chalk 1 then came across internal and announced, “Turning left, turning left.” I could hear the urgency in her voice, yet it was unclear why.

As my aircraft got to the position where Chalk 1 was when they began their turn, I understood why. There was a set of very large wires that appeared from the sky in front of us. They drooped like an inverted rainbow and then disappeared up into the other side of the sky. We quickly turned our aircraft and avoided them. The flight then made a precautionary landing at a very small Korean airfield about three miles away and waited out the weather. When the weather cleared, we returned our passengers to Yongsan and flew to our airfield.

We conducted an after-action report at our home station and decided the lesson learned was that you should never become so mission focused that you let your drive for the mission get you into a bad situation. We were not taking fire, we did not have a casualty on board the aircraft and we were in a friendly environment. We encountered unforecasted weather and put ourselves in a position where we came very close to flying under a very large set of wires, or possibly worse, a wire strike at the cost of several lives and the loss of two Army aircraft. The smart thing to do would have been to call off the mission once we encountered the deteriorating weather and not waiting until a close call made us do so.

Till this day, I still talk to the crews of that flight about the near tragedy. It was a hard lesson to learn and, as strange as it might sound, I am glad I was put in that position. I often discuss that flight during crew briefs, and I am sure the other pilots that were involved do the same. I make every attempt to educate other crews about my incident so that they don’t have to experience it the way I did.

  • 1 October 2014
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 10366
  • Comments: 0