Fluid and Adaptable
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
Author’s note: In May 2021, my National Guard unit was conducting annual training at Fort Pickett, Virginia. I was given a UH-60M multi-ship air assault mission to plan and execute at night under night vision goggles (NVGs). The mission was to take off from Blackstone Army Airfield, pick up Marines from Farmville Regional Airport (about 30 nautical miles northwest of Blackstone), fly back to the Fort Pickett training area, conduct a false insertion at landing zone (LZ) Randolf and, lastly, take off from the false LZ and drop off the Marines at LZ Brick. The time-on-target landing at LZ Brick was 2230 hours.
Having just recently made pilot in command (PC), I was tasked with flight lead duties. While conducting the mission, our two-aircraft, multi-ship flight encountered an unexpected degraded visual environment (DVE) scenario. The situation took us by surprise, causing both aircraft to brownout. In the end, everyone conducted themselves appropriately and we all made it out without any injuries or damage to the aircraft. Many lessons were learned, and I hope sharing my experience will help current, new and future generations of aviators.
Having thoroughly planned and briefed the air assault, it was time to execute the mission. We departed Blackstone Army Airfield to the northwest, flying along the planned route. I left the flying to my competent pilot (PI) so I could focus on managing the flight and navigating. We arrived at the pickup zone (PZ) and loaded the Marines into our aircraft. We then departed, climbed to 1,000 feet and remained at that altitude until we were no longer above any developed housing areas.
I was using our flight management system (FMS) to calculate our required groundspeed to meet our time-on-target. At the beginning of the flight, the required groundspeed was displaying that we needed to fly slower than what we planned, indicating we had a tailwind. This also correlated with what the remembered winds indicator displayed on our primary flight display (PFD). As we descended to terrain flight, the required groundspeed was matching up with what I planned for, indicating to me that the tailwind had subsided.
We approached LZ Randolf for the false insertion, arriving slightly earlier than our planned time. From there, we departed to LZ Brick. Everything was looking good. My PI and I had a good visual of the LZ and our intended point of landing. I looked at the clock one last time and felt confident we were going to land exactly at 2230 hours with his perfect approach.
About 15-20 feet above the touchdown point, our crew chief said, “Dust forming at the tail.” Before he could make any other calls, we were engulfed in a huge dust cloud, completely browned out. The PI announced he lost all visual references to the ground and was transferring his view to his instruments. Everyone collectively said, “Go around, go around, go around!” I immediately went on the controls with him and we pulled in power on the collective.
I saw a small opening in the dust cloud and noticed the aircraft was drifting in a right bank. I put in some left correction with the cyclic to level the aircraft as we continued to climb out. Having regained visual references, the PI stated he had the flight controls and continued to climb out and make a slow right turn as we briefed from our mission packet. I asked my crew if they were all right and was ensured everyone, including the Marines in the back, was OK.
My crew chiefs kept a good visual on Chalk 2 and relayed to me that they had followed us with the go-around. I took the flight controls and knew we had to land in the grass, perpendicular to our initial planned point of landing. The air mission commander (AMC) in Chalk 2 calmly asked me on our internal frequency, “What’s the plan, buddy?” I quickly responded, “We’re going to land in the sod next to the LZ. Follow me.” He acknowledged my radio call and understood the plan. As we circled the LZ, we could still see a huge dust cloud over where we just attempted to land. I made my approach to the sod area, where we all landed safely. The Marines got out of both aircraft and we took off back to Blackstone Army Airfield.
Ultimately, I felt responsible for the dangerous DVE situation that occurred. The tailwind we had at 1,000 feet had subsided, but it was still very much present when we dropped down to terrain flight and attempted to land at LZ Brick. The tailwind exacerbated the effects of the dust landing, causing us to brown out at a much faster rate. Additionally, there was some confusion regarding the regulations for operating in the Fort Pickett training area. Many of the pilots believed we had to have our landing light on at all times in the training area at night. However, you only needed to have it on when you were in the established corridors. Having our landing light on worsened the effects of the brownout.
Reflecting on the flight, we did not expect the possibility of anything remotely close to a dust landing occurring. Earlier in the week, we’d landed at LZ Brick during the daytime in a three-aircraft, multi-ship flight and picked up absolutely no dust or dirt. In fact, I thought that strip was a paved road. The only explanation I came up with was that earlier in the week there had been a lot of rain, so all the dirt was really packed in. When we flew our mission at night, the weather was a lot warmer and dryer, loosening all the dirt and dust.
I attribute the safe outcome of our mission to every crewmember performing their duties as they were trained in a swift and calm manner. Nobody panicked in either aircraft. One of the lessons we learned was to not get hyper-focused on one aspect of the mission — in my case, the time-on-target. I had tunnel vision on the time-on-target to the point I wasn’t thinking too much about other aspects of the flight, such as the wind when we were on short final. Additionally, you can’t plan for every possible contingency, but you still have to expect the unexpected. In this case, the possibility of a dust landing was not on my radar; however, everyone used good crew coordination to get ourselves out of a dangerous situation.
Aviators need to be willing and able to deviate from any plan when conditions change. My unit conducted a thorough after-action review (AAR) to discuss the mission and what my PI and I jokingly referred to as our “traumatic training event.” After the AAR, one of the senior aviators in my unit pulled me aside and gave me a lot of good advice and mentoring. I’ll close my story with a quote from him that summed up how aviators need to be fluid and adaptable to any situation thrown at them, regardless of how well they have planned for a mission: “A plan is nothing more than to deviate from.”