CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 BENJAMINE KAY
All Army aviators, at one point or another, have used the term “comfort level” during a crew or team brief. This so when a crewmember has reached a point where they feel uneasy or uncomfortable about weather, an approach, an engagement or anything else, they will speak up and possibly prevent a mishap. We have all reached the point in which our comfort level was exceeded; however, rarely does one say something until later. It must be that Type A personality we get accused of having. There was one night, while flying one of two AH-64Ds over one of the largest cities in Iraq, that I reached my comfort level and said something about it.
I was in the back seat of the lead aircraft, flying in support of a ground element clearing a small neighborhood. After a couple of hours circling the area, I noticed that to the west the sky appeared cloudy. It was difficult to tell under FLIR exactly what it was, but I knew it wasn’t normal.
We contacted the local weather briefers via radio and they assured us there was nothing expected to come in and affect us. But 15 minutes later, we could see it was getting closer. At that point, we called the weather briefer at another airfield west of our location. They reported one-quarter mile visibility due to a sandstorm. We then reported this to the other crew so they would expect to possibly land sooner than planned.
Once we could see the ground start to disappear under the wall of dirt a few miles away, I made the call. I had reached my comfort level. The front-seater reached his point just after I did. There was no way to tell the density of the dust cloud, nor did we know how fast the winds were moving. Rather than become a liability, it was time to land.
Of course, trying to convince the company commander in the other aircraft took some work. He wanted to stay and support the ground unit’s move back to their combat ourpost. As much as I wanted to do the same, everything told me we needed to get on the ground — and fast. Otherwise, their road march back to the COP might turn into a search and rescue for us.
As we turned final for landing, the west side of the FOB was no longer visible. No time for fuel, just take it to parking. By the time we shut down the engines, we were engulfed in the dust cloud. Staying out just a few more minutes could have put us into an emergency situation. Even the crew chief who recovered us mentioned he was worried we weren’t going to make it back soon enough.
We all have limits, and often times those limits are pushed, especially in combat. I had to weigh the risk of the oncoming weather against continuing our support mission. Fortunately, we made the correct decision. With the conditions encountered, we would have not been able to function as needed for the ground element. Not only that, but we would have put ourselves in an emergency situation that could have been catastrophic. Instead, we were able to continue supporting those who rely on us, and returned back to the states with everyone we left with.