Get to Know Your AO
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 SHAUN CLARK
C Company, 3-10 General Support Aviation Battalion
Fort Drum, New York
It was fall 2017 and I’d recently made pilot in command of my HH-60M. I was on installation medevac duty and preparing for a routine training flight. Most of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) was deployed to a rotation in Europe, so our restricted training area was empty and almost always ours. This week, however, an Air Force fixed-wing aircraft was on location conducting aerial gunnery on Range 44. This range is located at the easternmost point of our range and overflies the admin route. When it is active, specific procedures must be followed to keep separation among aircraft. We assume everyone flying in our area understands these procedures. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
I planned to use our training flight to familiarize my other pilot, a junior guy that was still learning the area, with the 10th CAB standing operating procedure (SOP) covering the ranges. Afterward, I’d ask him to brief-back the info and take me on the route, ensuring he did know and understand the specific procedures we follow when Range 44 is active. We’d then continue around the admin route, dropping below 1,000 feet mean sea level (MSL) before reaching Range 44. We briefed the mission as a crew before taking off and again while en route as we descended below the required altitude.
We were flying about 100 feet above ground level (AGL) to ensure we were well below 1,000 feet MSL when my crew chief on the right side noticed an aircraft coming toward us. The aircraft was not supposed to be in this zone and flying way too low. As we broke away from our required route, I announced I was taking the controls because the pilot of the other aircraft was not talking over the air-to-air frequency and was still speeding toward my side of the helicopter.
I descended to about 25 feet above the trees and cut further away from the aircraft, which we identified as an Air Force A-10 flying maybe 50 feet overhead. Obviously, we were furious and frustrated. We notified range control that this pilot was not following appropriate procedures. Thanks to our aircrew coordination and properly briefing and understanding that the range was active, we, being the home unit, were able to keep a catastrophe from occurring.
Fast forward to summer 2018 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and I was now in the visiting unit. We received the installation’s SOPs weeks before flying to the area, but reading them while flying in your own airspace daily was a chore. Once onsite, we conducted a day and night orientation around the restricted area. I felt like I was on a roller coaster the whole time, identifying new points with different names that seemed to be mixed up every time I passed them. The range was much bigger than the ones at home station, with multiple frequencies and changes of altitudes. I had a whole page of notes on my kneeboard to help me keep up. After two laps, we were set free to take a training flight around the range to help further familiarize ourselves with the area. I was thankful for this opportunity because it’s not always afforded to a visiting unit.
The next day, we went full force into our exercise, performing medevac training in this strange, new location. The area was bustling with activity, so we called to ensure the gun line was clear in the zone we were supposed to enter. Everyone on our end seemed unsure of the status but cleared us anyway, saying there were no active restricted operating zones at that time. I radioed range control, knowing they had contact with all the ranges, and was told the area was indeed active. We circled in a lower training area to see guns being fired in the distance, right where we would have been flying had we not double-checked with range control.
I thought back to that A-10 pilot flying at our installation a year earlier. He probably believed he was in the right area too. Now, here I was in his shoes.
As Army aviators, we’re sometimes required to fly in unfamiliar areas with in-depth restrictions and guidelines. We must learn to slow down — not just rush in and get the job done. I believe the extra training flights we took as a crew to further familiarize ourselves with the area helped us tremendously. I’ve talked with other pilots who said they were not given that opportunity.
There should be an established training plan that gives aircrews the time they need to perform comfortably in an unfamiliar area. A hasty brief and two short flights is not always adequate. As demonstrated in the close calls mentioned above, failure to properly familiarize yourself with an area could lead to a catastrophic accident, such as flying into another aircraft or across an active range. Slow down, find your bearings and get to know your area of operations before putting yourself and your crew in an unrecoverable situation.