Bird on a Bush
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
In the summer of 2017, my unit headed out for a rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, in preparation for a deployment the following spring. This would be the first time since flight school that I would be taking off, flying and landing in actual dust conditions.
One evening, we received a simulated 9-line medevac call. My crew headed to the aircraft to launch into the desert to pick up the patient and bring him back to the hospital. I remember it being very dark, which, as a junior pilot, made me uneasy. We had a trainer in the back of the aircraft grading our every move, and she criticized how slowly I was flying. She thought I was just trying to rack up extra flight time, but, in reality, I was just nervous because I had never flown anywhere so dark, dusty and with almost no contrast.
We landed safely at the makeshift landing zone, picked up the patient and dropped him off at the hospital. While returning to fuel and debrief our mission, we got a call on the radio that the base was “under attack” and we should loiter until further notice. As instructed, we loitered, burning big holes in the sky until we hit our bingo fuel. By now, everyone was dog-tired and we still had to go in for fuel.
We started our descent into the black and green sea under night vision goggles. The pilot on controls told me where he was landing, I confirmed and followed him on the controls. His dust landing technique was spot-on and we were planning to land next to a small, black dot in the desert, using it as a visual reference. When we got close enough to the ground, we lost our visual cues outside the cockpit and continued our slow forward descent, riding the shutter and waiting to pick up the first grain of sand on the ground in the chin bubble. The next thing I saw was the black dot. However, that black dot was a bush the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
The only thing that came out of my mouth was, “Bush!” as we set down right on top of it. I thought for sure the blades were going to contact the sand or we were going to have a dynamic rollover. Meanwhile, the cadre was shooting flares at us because we were still under “attack.” When we smelled the flares, we thought we were on fire, so we ended up conducting an emergency engine shutdown.
In the end, nobody got hurt and we only bent a small antenna on the bottom of the aircraft. I think fatigue was a big factor on the crew that night. I also believe we should have done a low recon before attempting to land next to that black dot in the desert. Nowadays, when I’m doing a night landing — even if it’s perfectly clear outside — I still conduct a quick high/low recon beforehand. I also always verify that the medic is seat belted in a seat and not just on their monkey tail for takeoffs and landings. Oh, and I try to remind myself to never outfly my conditions and to remember that a go-around is always free.