Vectors to Nowhere
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 DANIEL CRUZ
B Troop, 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Author’s note: The following incident took place sometime around spring 2014 in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, while I was on a nine-month rotation with 4-6 Attack Reconnaissance Squadron out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
The day’s flight started out like so many before: mundane paperwork-related tasks, a brief oral evaluation, aircraft preflight, etc., and it was now instrument evaluation time. This would be my second Annual Proficiency and Readiness Test (APART) since Readiness Level Progression, and I was feeling much more confident this time around. I was proud of my performance on the oral evaluation and “parts-and-pieces,” and I was determined to knock the flight portion out of the park as well.
About an hour into the flight, things were still going well. I was comfortable performing the required maneuvers and usually had answers for the instructor pilot’s questions. As a Kiowa driver, instruments weren’t exactly where I spent the majority of my studying on a regular basis. It was APART season, though, so I had brushed up. Therefore, I knew when it came time for the Precision Approach Radar (PAR) that I would need to hear from the ground-controlled approach (GCA) controller at least once per minute while on vectors to final, and every 5 seconds while on final. I had completed multiple PARs on this exact approach in the weeks leading up to the evaluation, so I felt I had built good habit transfer.
An aberration on this flight as opposed to those in the weeks prior was the volume of rotary- and fixed-wing traffic present in both our home pattern at Desiderio Army Airfield as well as at Osan Air Base abutting our airspace to the north. As a mid-grade CW2 hoping to be nominated for a pilot in command checkride sometime in the next year, I was trying to stay keyed in to the traffic and build my situational awareness. I knew there were several FA-18s operating up at Osan, another Kiowa in front of us in instrument traffic and at least two Black Hawks and a Chinook in closed traffic at Desiderio. There was also a fire helicopter outside of the airspace to our 12 o’clock, but GCA indicated it was well below our present altitude. I was heads-down with instrument training goggles on at the time, so after we discussed the above traffic, I asked my IP to continue scanning to try to gain intervisibility.
As we followed our instructed vector outbound for our turn to the inbound final course, I realized it had been a while since we heard from GCA. I hadn’t started a timer, but I was confident it had been well over a minute. Right as I was about to send an interrogative, GCA began vectoring the aircraft in instrument traffic in front of us onto final. While they were busy, my IP began asking some instrument-related questions. Both of us became distracted and failed to send our interrogative.
In retrospect, I can say that it was likely five minutes or more before we really started questioning whether GCA had forgotten about us. At this point, we were about 10 miles from the airfield, which was also an unusually long outbound vector. I told my IP that I was going to ask GCA to verify our vector, but at nearly the same moment he yelled, “Dive, dive, dive!”
I did as instructed and began looking under the goggles for threats. I immediately saw the white underbellies of two FA-18s flying in close formation as they zoomed past us. I would estimate that they were 300-500 feet above us, maybe less, which was extremely unnerving given the speed they were traveling. We both concluded that GCA had indeed forgotten us, and the 18s were on approach to Osan. At the distance we were from our home airfield, a straight-in approach to Osan would easily intersect our course.
After contacting GCA, we received new (correct) vectors to line up for our long ride in on the final approach course. The cockpit was mostly sterile for the remainder of the instrument approach, as we had agreed to discuss the incident once we were safely on the ground. The flight concluded without further incident, but both of us realized how close we had come to disaster, not only for us but for the FA-18s as well. Neither we nor the 18s filed an Occupational Hazard Report. I don’t think they even saw us given the angle they approached from and their limited visibility. We didn’t file one because we knew it would also implicate us in not following PAR procedures.
I can identify four glaring lessons learned from this incident:
- Don’t trust a controlling agency with your life. Always look out for yourself as well, always maintain your situational awareness and always ask questions if there is any doubt about the instructions given.
- Follow established regulations and procedures; they’re there for a reason. Had we followed the one-minute communication requirement for vectors to final, GCA likely wouldn’t have forgotten about us in the first place.
- My IP was known for being chatty in the cockpit, especially once he got comfortable and knew the aircraft wasn’t in imminent danger. There is a time and a place for questions and discussions about “what is required to initiate the approach,” and a questionable scenario necessitating a call to GCA is not an ideal time for that.
- Swallow your pride and own your mistakes. We unequivocally should have filed an OHR or at the very least had an off-line discussion with the GCA controller. Especially in convoluted abutting airspaces with multiple agencies talking to their discrete aircraft, separation through radar is key. What might be considered a minor oversight by the controller could have easily resulted in four deaths and the loss of three aircraft in one fell swoop. One’s pride is not worth one’s death, and especially not the deaths of others.
Needless to say, I have completed countless PARs throughout the intervening five years, all without incident. This is one mistake I absolutely learned from, and I have made it a point to share this lesson with others I fly instruments with. It is easy to see how small mistakes and oversights can compound and quickly build into an unsafe situation. My only hope is that I can learn other vital lessons by listening to others’ stories instead of writing my own.