Who is in Charge?
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 IAN GEISSLER
Bravo Company, 1st Special Troops Battalion
1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (AASLT)
Fort Campbell, Kentucky
Unmanned aircraft have many built-in procedural safety checks similar to manned aviation, such as system limitations, environmental factors and airspace deconfliction methods. These procedures are in place to ensure the safety of the aircraft and aircrews operating in the same area of operations. Conducting flight operations in and around the busiest tactical airfield in eastern Afghanistan presented a complex and dynamic airspace. Pilots contended with the opening and closing of restricted operating zones, quickly changing weather, low visibility and congested traffic patterns — each of which had their own procedures defined to mitigate risks. So what happens when the procedures conflict? Which takes priority over another? Who is authorized to make the decision?
I was a UAS technician in a brigade tactical operations center, acting as the mission coordinator for Shadow operations. We were about two hours into a routine counter indirect fire mission that was 45 minutes away from our launch and recovery site (LRS). We received a message over multiuser internet relay chat (MiRC) from our weather operations that other pilots were reporting a sandstorm heading toward our LRS that would be over it in about an hour and a half.
According to our flight procedures, our aircraft must be on the ground one hour prior to forecasted weather that exceeds either our aircraft limits or the controlling ground equipment system limits. Even though the area we were flying in was well away from the sandstorm, we were required to return to base because the high winds could damage the antenna controlling the aircraft. We began weather scans as we were flying back to base and observed the sandstorm approaching from the north. It was about 100 feet tall, moving fast and heading right toward the LRS. Fortunately, it was still far enough away to give us time to make it to the deck safely.
Ten minutes out, we contacted air traffic control (ATC) and requested a direct approach to the runway for immediate landing at the Shadow LRS. ATC informed us that brigade headquarters and headquarters company (HHC) had their demolition restricted operating zone (ROZ) hot at the inbound end of the runway. Now, I don’t know who came up with the idea of putting the unexploded ordnance (UXO) demolition range 100 feet from the flight line and hot refuel pads. I also don’t know why their ROZ dimensions needed to have a radius of five miles and go to 20,000 feet altitude. Their ROZ would shut down air operations in the entire area.
If we were to fly over the range while on final approach and they detonated UXO, we would risk damaging the aircraft. I contacted HHC ops on MiRC and asked if we could enter the ROZ or if they could go cold until we landed. HHC told me they didn’t have communications with the guys at the range and couldn’t help us.
We scanned the range with our optics and did see activity. We continued to try and get communications with the range personnel and HHC to confirm they were cold as we watched the wall of sand approach the airfield. After 10 minutes of trying to get clearance, HHC told us they didn’t mind if we flew over, but it would be at our own risk. After assessing the risk between the potential of overflying the UXO range or the inbound sandstorm, I decided to get approval from ATC to do a final approach from the opposite end of the flight line.
ATC approved the approach and we began to transition to the other side of the runway. We watched the sandstorm approach, realizing it would be close now due to the wasted time spent trying to mitigate the UXO ROZ. The crosswinds were beginning to pick up and the aircraft was crabbing badly, but it was still within landing tolerances.
When landing, there is a decision point (DP) on final approach when the aircraft is 50 feet above the ground. After the aircraft is past that point, it can no longer be waived off and is controlled by automation. Our aircraft continued on final approach and was nearing the DP. Everything was within system limitations and we committed to the landing with the wall of sand only a few minutes away. The aircraft passed the DP and continued along its glide slope, descending to 20 feet above ground level at the end of the runway.
During the landing sequence, a gust of wind hit the aircraft, creating enough turbulence to fool the onboard accelerometer into thinking that the aircraft had touched down. The aircraft software, sensing the aircraft was on the ground, cut the engine while it was still 20 feet in the air. It landed hard at the end of the runway and caused significant damage to the landing gear and payload. The aircraft was repaired and back in service by the next day, but the procedures in place took longer to correct.
That day, I learned to not delay making command decisions over the aircraft when real danger from one procedure outweighs another procedure. In the end, the event forced changes that made the airfield safer for everyone.