In the Clouds
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 DWAYNE WILLIAMS
Bravo Company, 3-1 Assault Helicopter Battalion
Fort Riley, Kansas
For those unfamiliar with the term, a sucker hole refers to an opening in a cloud layer through which an aviator may descend. I’ve heard of sucker holes throughout my time in Army aviation and always wondered why someone would fall for it. But on one flight, I nearly ended up falling for one myself.
My unit was departing Fort Polk, Louisiana, after a month-long Joint Readiness Training Center rotation. I was co-pilot of the lead aircraft in a four-ship formation of UH-60Ms. I had 1,100 hours of flight time, and the pilot in command (PC) had 800 hours. Our first leg would take us from Self Army Airfield to Texarkana Regional Airport in Arkansas. Takeoff was delayed for nearly an hour and a half as we waited for a low cloud layer to burn off at Fort Polk. The weather briefing that morning forecasted a broken layer about 7,000 feet above ground level (AGL) and a bottom layer at 1,000 feet at points en route to our location. The flight was scheduled to take one hour and 40 minutes.
After departing about 10 a.m., the flight leveled off at 1,000 feet AGL. Everything was going well and we were on our way home. I was on the controls for the entire first leg. About 30 miles north of Fort Polk, we began to encounter a very sparse, low-level cloud layer at about 700 to 800 feet, so we climbed to maintain clearance. As the flight continued north, the cloud layer below us slowly increased from few to scattered and finally to broken. We talked about the increase in clouds throughout the flight, and no sooner than I realized we should make a decision about what action to take, the radio came to life.
The company standardization pilot was in Chalk 2, and the company commander, who was also the air mission commander for the flight, was in Chalk 3. When we were about 20 miles southeast of Barksdale Air Force Base (BAFB), the decision was made to contact approach and proceed to the base. The radios in my aircraft were sketchy at best. We had trouble contacting approach control despite attempts on both the VHF and UHF radios. After several minutes of no contact, Chalk 2 was able to reach air traffic control. At this point, we heard half of the radio transmissions (Chalk 2), which only added to the confusion in the cockpit.
As we a turned west toward BAFB, my PC established communication with approach, but I had pulled up my pin switch on COM 2 to try to better hear Chalk 2 talking to approach. My PC was unaware of this, and I should have announced the fact to the crew that I had pulled up the pin switch. The flight was closing in on BAFB airspace, and with the confusion due to the lack of communication, I considered descending through a sizable break in the cloud layer that I spotted in front of the flight.
I started to slow and lower the collective. At the same time, I announced this to my PC, who replied, “Don’t descend!” I quickly realized it was a terrible move and readjusted the flight controls to maintain the previous parameters. I noted that I had slowed nearly 20 knots indicated airspeed during the deceleration, which was a serious hazard to all aircraft in the flight. The flight continued and every aircraft safely completed an instrument landing into BAFB.
I realize that if we had actually been in the clouds instead of between the layers, I would have handled everything per the standards. We always practice inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) procedures, but I had never actually flown in between layers. The factors that led me to attempt to descend below the layer are no excuse for actually trying it. I was trusted with the duties of flight lead and nearly let my commander and unit down in those duties. When confronted with IIMC, the key is to commit and stay committed, regardless if you are “in the clouds” or “over the top.” And beware of sucker holes!