RETIRED CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 BERNARD HIGDON
Fort Wainwright, Alaska
While deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq, with Blackfoot Troop, 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, as an OH-58D pilot, our troop was tasked with conducting different missions in Baghdad, Balad, Ramadi, Al Asad and areas in between. Flight crews would show up about the same time before their missions to ensure the paperwork was completed and there weren’t any changes to the schedule. Changes to the flight schedule were a common occurrence during our deployment due to pilots getting hurt, sick, tasked with other duties or just running out of duty day. You could bet there would be at least two or three name changes per week.
On this particular day, I was on the night shift, scheduled to fly right seat trail with one of our troop instructor pilots who was the air mission commander (AMC) for the flight. Both of us had been flying in the AO for at least six months and were very familiar with the area. Our lead ship was crewed with one of the squadron’s staff aviators — who was the pilot in command (PC), call sign “Dakota” — flying right seat and one of our new platoon leaders in the left seat. Both had been flying in the AO for some time, but not with each other.
We received our S-2 briefing, and the AMC conducted a thorough team brief. As the norm, lead would communicate with all air traffic controllers (ATC) and ground units, while trail would communicate with Baghdad radio and higher commands. Prior to our takeoff, I had some doubt in my mind about the crew mix for our flight. Even though the staff aviator had several thousand hours in the OH-58D, the majority of the knowledge for the AO was in the trail aircraft. However, I figured that since the AMC was OK with the crew mix, then I would be as well.
We completed the first of three missions for the night and all was well. We then decided to conduct refueling operations at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) so we could get maximum station time for the next mission. To get to BIAP from the southeast of Baghdad, we had to fly through three different controlled airspaces: Embassy, Liberty and BIAP. All had different control points for ingress/egress; however, the AMC wanted to keep it simple and fly around them. We were briefed that a team of AH-64s would be working the south/southwest area of BIAP, which made sense because approaching from the north via “Dakota CP” would allow for airspace separation and deconfliction.
En route to BIAP, I noticed we were taking a different route than what I usually took to maintain flight outside of the different controlled airspaces. I brought it up to the AMC, who must have been reading my mind because he had jumped on the radio and asked lead where they were going. A few seconds passed and, due to our location, lead requested to enter BIAP from the east. The only way to do so required a transition from 1,200 feet mean sea level altitude that would allow us to fly over the civilian side of the airport without affecting traffic. We were currently flying in Liberty airspace at about 700 feet above ground level. The AMC granted the request and lead initiated the climb.
I initiated my climb and watched Liberty to ensure no other aircraft were departing the airspace. At the same time, the AMC was looking to the left to see if he could find the AH-64s that were flying to the south of BIAP. Once I looked back to the front, I was in shock. I had an Apache, no more than a few rotor disks away, conducting a dive and banking right in front of me. I immediately pulled more power and banked to the left, hoping the other Apache was not flying nearby. Lucky for us, it was not. We continued with the transition, and the AMC had a long talk with the PC of our lead aircraft.
The rest of the night was uneventful. We completed our missions and returned to Camp Taji. After debrief and a thorough team after-action review, we decided to get in contact with the AH-64 pilots to find out what happened and how we had a near midair collision. After talking with them, we found out there were multiple mistakes made that could have been costly.
The AH-64 pilots had completed their mission and were conducting reconnaissance in an area that was different from what was in the S-2 brief. There was also confusion when our lead aircraft requested to conduct the transition into BIAP using his Dakota call sign. The AH-64 pilots assumed we were entering from the Dakota CP from the north, which we had originally planned to do, and not entering from the southeast. Due to the overlapping airspace of BIAP and Liberty, both flights were switching between ATCs and didn’t hear, see or realize what the other team was doing.
When all was said and done, I felt the biggest mistake happened before takeoff. With the majority of the experience being in the trail aircraft, that meant the possibility of task saturation for the PC of the lead aircraft. There could have been at least four lives lost and two aircraft destroyed that night, plus possible civilian casualties on the ground. Crew mix plays a big part of flight planning and should never be taken lightly.