CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 ERIK T. HERR
S Troop, 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment
Fort Hood, Texas
Nothing will make you reflect on how lucky you are more than escaping a bad situation unscathed and beating the odds that were stacked against you. Predicting weather in Iraq was difficult at best. And even though the Air Force weather forecasters were highly trained professionals, if they gave you a weather brief, it could change quickly.
One morning, my mission was to fly pilot (PI) as Chalk 2 of a flight of two UH-60s conducting a VIP movement from Victory Base Complex to Talil, Iraq. This was a routine mission for our unit, and both crews had flown it several times. The weather brief that morning showed good visibility for the moment but decreasing slowly throughout the day. Our mission window looked good; however, we knew when we got over open stretches of desert, the weather could turn bad quickly.
During our crew brief, we addressed the weather issue methodically, listing alternate GPS-based approaches, fuel stops if maintaining visual meteorological conditions (though visibility was dropping) and even the dreaded “land where you are and stay put until weather improves.” Carrying a general officer and division sergeant major made the last option the least desirable.
I had been a pilot in command (PC) for less than 100 hours, but I felt it was my responsibility to raise several questions. My gut instinct was to oppose flying this mission. However, by the time we finished assessing it, I felt better and agreed we were making the correct choice.
We departed on time with good weather and made our first stop on schedule, but not with the weather we had planned. As we approached Talil, weather deteriorated to just over a mile and was decreasing steadily as we shut down the aircraft. After checking with the weather briefers, we found the conditions were “supposed” to be good for our next leg of the flight. As predicted, weather improved to our re-briefed minimum and we launched to our next destination.
We experienced no en route problems as we proceeded to our next destination, a small combat outpost with tall light poles in the landing zone (LZ). The general and his sergeant major departed the LZ and we shut down the aircraft to preserve fuel. As we waited, we saw dust picking up on the horizon, but it was still not close enough to cause us problems. We launched on time with at least three miles visibility and headed north into open desert and increasing winds.
Visibility began to drop as we proceeded on our route; not bad at first, but it certainly was deteriorating rapidly. Before we realized it, the visibility was less than a mile and worsening with the ceiling coming down to the deck. We deliberately maintained visual contact with the ground. We did not want to execute instrument flight rules or GPS approaches because we had not been practicing those tasks and were not proficient on them. Moreover, we had insufficient fuel for a go-around if we didn’t break out of the clouds.
Both crews decided to fly to the closest secure forward operating base, which was Dywaniah. Lead found Route Tampa and we changed course. Using the classic IFR procedures (I Follow Roads), we headed for safety. Flying lower and slower, the crew’s anxiety escalated in the cockpit and the crewmembers grew more impatient with each other. The thought of landing in the sand and waiting even looked good. Luck brought us safely through the weather and we were able to land at Dywaniah with visibility less than three-quarters of a mile. Fortune seems to favor the foolish.
We could’ve done many things differently or, perhaps, better on this mission. As we all know, being there is what drives decisions, actions and results — good or bad. Pilots, especially PC-rated pilots, want to be in charge and the masters of their own fates. In this case, I was the PI — though a rated PC — flying for a less experienced PC who had less total hours and PC time than I did. I wanted to take over the controls and I knew I could do it better. Or could I?
The PC, while he had fewer hours, was still an excellent pilot. He maintained the controls since he already had them. The best thing I could do was to keep doing my job as the pilot not on the controls. The PC brought us safely to our chosen point to land. I didn’t need to have the controls.
This mission turned into a great example of crew coordination. The PC maintained the controls and the outside situation, keeping us from hitting light poles, water towers, power lines and/or the ground. I kept all distractions inside the cockpit to an absolute minimum. In the end, we made it safely because the entire crew — pilots and crewmembers — knew their duties and responsibilities and conducted proper crew coordination. Stick to procedures; they can save you, even if they can be uncomfortable.