CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 KEVIN AIKENS
In March 2003, just four months out of flight school, I found myself deployed to Iraq. For the most part, progression was uneventful, except for those dust landings at night under night vision goggles. There was a lot to learn and a short period of time to learn it.
About halfway through my tour, my pilot in command and myself, a pilot at the time, were tasked to be flight lead for a five-ship mission. We had to escort Ambassador Paul Bremer from Baghdad to Irbil for an important conference. Irbil is located in northern Iraq, which mostly consists of mountainous terrain.
Before the crews launched our flight, we received our weather briefing, which forecasted clear blue skies the entire flight. As we neared Irbil, it started to snow and sleet, and visibility decreased to about one mile and then to about one-half mile with fog. Looking at the Doppler/GPS, we were about three miles from our destination. As we approached the landing zone, weather and visibility began to worsen and we, as a crew, decided to reduce our airspeed and announce the speed reduction to the other crews.
I was on the controls at the time, and before I knew it, we were instrument meteorological conditions. I announced to my crew, “I am IMC at this time, with no reference to the ground.” My PC still had reference to the ground, so he took the controls. It was only a minute or two later until the PC also lost reference to the ground.
Looking out of my window, I could see the mountains, which were about 20 feet away from my right door, and I announced it to the crew. At about the same time, my crew chief also announced mountains. The PC made a conscious decision to climb to avoid the mountains.
We climbed almost straight up to about 10,000 feet and cleared all obstacles, but, since there was snow, we turned on our anti-ice and deice equipment, only to find out that the blade deice was inoperable. The PC was aware of the blade deice being inoperable, but we didn’t anticipate snow and ice. We were able to contact Kirkuk control for radar vectors, which safely brought us into the airfield. After we went IMC, the other crews were able to remain VMC, and they returned to Kirkuk airfield as well.
After landing, we refueled, shut down, received a new weather brief and waited until the weather cleared before returning to Irbil. Flying that particular mission was a great learning lesson from me, an experience that I revert back to whenever I fly any mission or find myself in a bad weather situation.
On another mission two years later in Afghanistan, I found myself on a flight with the same unit, and, believe it or not, the same PC. We had a two-ship mission from Bagram to Forward Operating Base Orgun-E to deliver troops and then return. Our weather briefing stated the weather was supposed to be clear skies and legal visibility our entire route of flight. About 30 minutes after takeoff, we hit a wall of dust with about a quarter-mile visibility. At that moment, we really had to weigh our options. Did we want to push on a bit farther and try to skirt around the dust, or do we turn around and bed down for the night in Orgun-E because duty day was going to be an issue for us as well?
I was very stern on the decision to turn around and stay at Orgun-E for the night. The PC, who was also the air mission commander of the flight, wanted to keep pushing on to Bagram, or at least a bit farther to see if the weather would clear up. The escort crew was pretty adamant about turning around as well because they, too, were uncomfortable with the weather situation.
After staying at Orgun- E for the night, we woke up the next morning to find that the weather had blown over, so we launched back to Bagram. After returning to Bagram, we learned that another crew had launched to Orgun-E the day prior on a different mission. Despite the weather conditions, four ships took off and got stuck in the middle of the desert. They had to land due to limited visibility and wait for a quick reaction force team to drive out to them and establish a perimeter of protection until the weather cleared. That same day, our sister company had a supply and transport mission from Kandahar to Bagram in which the crew went IMC, over-controlled the aircraft and crashed into the side of a mountain, resulting in 18 fatalities.
As you can see, weather in any environment can be just as dangerous, or even more so, than the enemy we are fighting. Weather may be different than what is briefed by the controlling agency. Depending on the given situations, sometimes you have to revise or abort the mission, and there are times when you have to wait until the weather conditions improve before taking off.