How Far are You Going to Let this Go
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 STEVENS L. WHITAKER
Army Aviation Support Facility #1
1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment (AA)
Alabama Army National Guard
Hope Hull, Alabama
As a newly progressed counterdrug pilot in command (PC), I was given my first high-risk warrant reconnaissance mission. I was a fairly experienced PC out of the H-60 assault world with some very rigorous OH-58 training with a great instructor in the counterdrug mission. The day was a little ominous with the typical southern weather pattern of thunderstorms in the area that progressively grow worse throughout the day. The mission was hinged on our ability to use the aircraft mission package, including Nightsun and forward-looking infrared, so I was chomping at the bit to make it happen.
This was a two-pilot mission and I had the unit standardization pilot (SP) as my left seater to operate the equipment. Our target was approximately two hours away, and the plan was to relocate, refuel and recheck weather prior to the mission. We took off knowing there was a chance to reach the refuel point if we could avoid the predicted en-route weather.
About 30 minutes into our flight, the weather deteriorated significantly and the decision process began. Our altitude decreased to 500 feet above ground level (AGL) from 1,500 feet, and our airspeed was decreased from 90 to 70 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS). After attempting every logical deviation and alternate planning option, the SP simply asked, “How far are you going to let this go?” At that point we returned to base and scrubbed the mission for the next night. During the after-action review, we decided to predetermine the answer to that simple question — “How far are you going to let this go?” — and make it a part of our planning and briefing process.
In 2015, the National EMS Pilot’s Association began the testing phase of the En-Route Decision Point Protocols. These protocols were designed to give EMS pilots a set of altitude and airspeed markers that would drive them to three simple decisions during periods of unforecasted weather. The end goal is to turn around, land or commit to instrument flight rules (IFR). The results and recommendations for the protocols were decreasing your altitude to 300 feet AGL during day flights, 500 feet during night flights and/or decreasing your en-route airspeed by 30 KIAS. While we in Army aviation use a similar process to make weather decisions en route, we do not have a defined set of protocols that drive us into one of the three desired outcomes before we actually go inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC). Our IIMC training is a standardized reactionary set of steps versus preventive protocols designed to avoid the IIMC scenario.
Sometimes it is difficult for us in the Army aviation world to look around and realize there are civilian and other service entities that might have high-quality tactics, techniques and procedures that could benefit us as an organization in several areas: performance, equipment, maintenance, standardization and safety. I refuse to believe this reluctance to learn or adopt from others is intentional or born out of some sense of pride or ego. It is simply the absence of research into these entities, along with the lack of recognition that they often face some of the same issues we do in Army aviation.
I propose we incorporate the basic En-Route Decision Point template with measurable and easily identifiable protocols into our procedures for crews that are facing unforecasted weather conditions. These protocols and desired outcomes should be embedded in our vocabulary, placed into our standard operating procedures and crew briefings, and incorporated into our governing standardization document (digital aircrew training manual) as a part of our IIMC task and training. I wholeheartedly believe this simple set of protocols embedded into our mission planning and decision-making process will save lives.
So how far are you going to let this go? The answer to this question should never be a spur-of-the-moment decision. The answer should be “to my en-route decision point.”