CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 ANDREW HUDSON
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment
Fort Campbell, Kentucky
“We’re kickin’ up dust, sir!” is what I heard from my crew chief as I lost sight of the ground. It was about 10 p.m. local in Farah Province in western Afghanistan. I was the pilot in command (PC) of Chalk 1, an assault UH-60L, tasked to provide a medevac escort. At that point, I had about 300 hours of PC time, 1,000 hours of total time and about 200 hours in country. This was our second mission of the day to the same outpost.
About 6 p.m., we got the call, “Medevac, medevac, medevac!” My crew and I jumped into our uniforms and began the launch process that we had cut down to about 15 minutes. I headed to the tactical operations center with the air mission commander (AMC) to get the mission specifics, and our crews headed to the aircraft to prepare for launch. The 9-line/mission brief was pretty standard and the weather looked good, so the AMC and I covered the necessary brief items for multi-ship operations and headed on our way.
The landing zone (LZ) was on a friendly forward operating base (FOB) about a 20-minute flight from where we were based. About 10 minutes into the flight, visibility started coming down. We took appropriate action and slowed the flight to about 110 knots ground speed. The visibility continued to decrease to about 1½ miles at the time we landed at the LZ. The AMC and I discussed the situation and decided I would lead back to our base because his GPS was malfunctioning. We also decided to take an alternate route that was free of rising terrain.
As we made our way back to our base with the casualties aboard Chalk 2, visibility continued to deteriorate to about 400 meters. I decided to slow to 40 knots and follow a paved road that led directly to our base. Going was slow and stressful, but we managed to make it home safely. We reported the unforecasted weather conditions to higher and returned to our rooms.
About 9:30 p.m., another 9-line dropped for us to return to the same FOB. Having survived the unforecasted weather earlier in a day environment, the AMC and I voiced our resignations to higher about accepting this mission. We were told to execute based on a “legal” weather brief.
Having experienced the dust storm earlier in the day, the AMC and I covered inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) procedures in our brief. Once again, we decided I would lead because of the malfunctioning GPS. Our plan was to use the same ingress route we had flown earlier.
As we departed Farah, everything was going well. Visibility was excellent and we had plenty of illumination. At almost the exact point as earlier in the day, however, we ran into the same visibility issues (an unforecasted dust storm). As before, we slowed and pressed on. After all, we were on a medevac mission.
Visibility was decreasing and my PI said he was having trouble keeping sight of the ground. I took over on the flight controls and we proceeded on our way. As I was flying, I started querying the rest of the crew for information regarding altitude, terrain clearance and any signs of visibility decreasing further. About five minutes after I assumed the flight controls, I radioed the AMC and recommended we abort the mission and return to base. He concurred with my assessment. I replied I would be executing a 180 degree right-hand turn and heading back to Farah.
While executing the turn, I slowed below 40 knots indicated airspeed and descended to about 60 feet above ground level (AGL). It was at that point I heard my crew chief say, “We’re kickin’ up dust, sir!” A split-second after his call, I lost sight of the ground. I immediately increased my collective, leveled the wings and placed the aircraft in an accelerative attitude. Once the aircraft was under control, I made a call to the AMC, per the tactical standing operating procedure, informing him I was IIMC. He came back and said he was still visual flight rules and called out his heading and altitude. I deconflicted with him by adjusting my heading so we wouldn’t converge. At 900 feet AGL, I came out of the dust cloud and the visibility was clear. Chalk 2 and I performed an in-flight linkup and returned to Farah.
I learned several things from this experience. First, IIMC is an emotional event which is mitigated through training. Second, it is very hard to choose not to go on a mission even though all of the indicators are present. Most importantly, never let anyone pressure you into doing something you know is unsafe. Fortunately, everything worked out for me and my crew, but it could just have easily gone the other way.