Widen Your Training Plan
CAPT. GARY CARTER
Headquarters and Headquarters Company
2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division
Iowa Army National Guard
Ask anyone who has attended an iteration of training at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and they will tell you it was one of the most stressful exercises of their life. JRTC is built to test units at all echelons on their ability to apply doctrine and standing operating procedures (SOPs) to the war fight. Teams from all over the country assemble at this hot and humid location to apply their specific skills in the combined arms fight.
As a company commander during JRTC Rotation 18-007, my unit (C Company, 2-147th Aviation), was attached to provide air assault capability to the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from the Georgia Army National Guard. Our 10 UH-60M helicopters would augment the Montana Army National Guard’s 1-189th General Support Aviation Battalion to provide air movement and air assault capability to the combatant commander during this training scenario.
My unit spent many months focusing on individual and collective training in preparation for this JRTC rotation. In order to build combat power, we needed to train and evaluate many new pilots and crew chiefs through various levels of readiness progression. This included training on all base and mission tasks during the day and under night vision goggles. Drill weekends and additional flight training periods were devoted to tactical mission planning, aerial resupply, multi-ship air assault missions and pre-deployment activities.
Although our unit had a good mix of individuals with multiple deployments, only a small number had ever experienced a JRTC iteration. The transition to a peer-to-(near)-peer conflict while operating in austere conditions presented many challenges. Due to several factors, I brought my unit to JRTC unprepared for the conditions we would face while operating in a tactical assembly area (TAA) after making our jump into “the box.”
Our TAA contained all of the personnel and equipment to support the aviation tactical operations center (TOC), 10 UH-60M (Iowa), eight UH-60L (Montana), eight AH-64E (Washington), a medical tent, a forward arming and refueling point (FARP), and field maintenance operations. This wide-open clearing surrounded by trees was just large enough to fit our aircraft and vehicles with little room to maneuver. Through the center of the TAA was a road that was frequently used for vehicle and foot traffic. This road was also the landing point for all incoming aircraft that would then transition to refuel or parking.
Our prior training was never this complex or had so many compounded risk factors. Typically, we would remove many of those risk factors, such as close proximity of aircraft, parking on uneven/unstable terrain, vehicles and personnel moving in the aircraft landing/operating area. Rather than removing risks as the primary mechanism for risk management, it would have been more beneficial to focus on other control measures to allow for safe execution with those risks still present.
It is the commander’s responsibility to ensure his Soldiers are trained and equipped for the mission assigned. My approach to risk management and failure to focus on all necessary mission tasks left my unit ill-prepared for this incredible training opportunity. As the company commander, I failed to identify a gap in our training program. Because we operated out of an airfield 100% of the time, our unit had not been exposed to the rigors of Task Number 01-CO-9028, Occupy an Aviation Tactical Assembly Area (TAA). This lack of preparation would lead to several unacceptable mishaps, including a Class D incident that nearly took the lives of several Soldiers.
I wish we were able to showcase the tactical and technical proficiency achieved through hours of practice conducting mission planning and air assault operations. Instead, while departing the FARP and returning to parking, my aircraft rotor downwash knocked over two portable toilets that were next to the refuel vehicles. One of the toilets was occupied at the time, and the E6 inside was coated in blue goo up to his armpits. Both toilets traveled down a grassy hill and into a deployable rapid assembly shelter (DRASH) that was a dual-use Army logistics operation center (ALOC) and medical tent. This removed one of the only air-conditioned assets from use while also exposing several Soldiers to chemical and biological contaminants.
Less than 12 hours after the toilet incident, one of my aircrews suffered a Class D mishap while conducting an approach to the landing area parallel to the road crossing the center of the TAA. After performing a missed approach and go-around due to vehicles moving within the landing area, the aircrew conducted a second approach. The pilot on the controls was focused on speed and avoiding blowing dust while failing to account for the soft, silty terrain in the TAA. Upon touchdown, the aircraft tailwheel and strut sheared, and the aircraft began to roll left, nearly impacting the ground with the main rotor system. The pilot in command was able to level the aircraft and resume a hover. The aircrew then repositioned to Polk Army Airfield, where a pallet was built to support the aircraft tail to avoid further damage upon landing. Luckily, all aircrew and ground personnel escaped without injury, and the aircraft damage was not as severe as it could have been.
I encourage all leaders — especially commanders — to widen your training plan to include atypical situations and environments that challenge your personnel and help to refine your SOPs. Do not always try to avoid risk in training. Rather, find a way to mitigate and operate safely with certain risks still present. Doing so will help ensure your aircrews are always trained and equipped for the mission assigned.