CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 CHRIS SPRUNG
C Company, 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment
1st Air Calvary Brigade
Fort Hood, Texas
It was my first deployment to Afghanistan, and I was involved in a nighttime mixed-aircraft, six-ship air assault to insert troops for a cordon-and-search for a high-value target. It was also my first air assault of the deployment.
Flight lead and Chalk 4 were CH-47s, while Chalks 2, 3, 5 and 6 were all UH-60s. I was the 700-hour pilot in the Chalk 2 UH-60 with a 2,000-hour pilot in command (PC) in the left seat. The conditions were virtually perfect, with unlimited visibility and not a cloud in the sky, combined with about 50% illumination. It was not my first air assault, but as I stated earlier, it was my first in Afghanistan. I was a little anxious, but with a PC check ride in the near future, I was also more than a little confident that I had things under control.
We took off and had a one-hour flight to our refuel destination before the insertion. Everything was going as planned, and we were all ready to complete the insertion and get back home to put the finishing touches on the preparation for the exfil the following night. All six ships would be landing in a large landing zone (LZ) that looked well-suited, according to the imagery we had.
As we neared the LZ, it was confirmed that it was going to be more than large enough and well-suited for all of the aircraft. The lead CH-47 announced the winds were calm and lined up for final. I had never flown behind a CH-47 before, but I knew how much rotor wash they were capable of creating. Because of this, I was going to be sure to give them more than enough room since the LZ was so large. However, I didn’t anticipate the amount of dust that was kicked up and covered the LZ.
The lead CH-47 literally browned out the entire LZ. I immediately called a go-around because we were engulfed. We couldn’t see in any direction and were pretty much in inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions. My mistake was I was so busy searching for the other five aircraft that were also doing a go-around that I didn’t look inside at my instruments to see what I was doing.
I had absolutely no frame of reference to use outside the aircraft, and, by this time, the dust was well above 100 feet into the air. Unrecognized spatial disorientation happened. By the time the PC took the controls, I had so much forward cyclic input that the vertical speed indicator was entirely black. I had no idea this was happening and was entirely consumed with trying to avoid a mid-air collision.
We eventually cleared the dust cloud and managed to avoid all of the other aircraft. Now the problem remained of having to do it all again. The wind was calm and the dust was just hanging there over our LZ. Eventually, all troops were inserted and we made it back safely.
There were many lessons learned that night. My confidence as a pilot was badly shaken, being that I could have easily killed everyone onboard my aircraft. It was by far the most humbling experience of my life. Looking back, I can honestly say that I’m glad that it happened. I believe that I am a better pilot today having lived through that experience.