Putting Your Training to the Test
NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
It was another moonless, red-ilum night in “The Box” at the National Training Center (NTC) on Fort Irwin, California. If you’ve been, then you know what I’m talking about — stumbling through the dark to find your kit, tripping over sand dunes and bushes to get to your aircraft, and holding your hand in front of your face in the inky darkness and thinking it may as well be a phantom limb. This was my second time at NTC, and I was battle rostered as the pilot for a good buddy (and a sharp pilot) who recently made pilot in command (PC). Two of our best crew chiefs would serve as our eyes and guns in the back. We were all itching to knock out another night of the rotation while getting more flight hours, though dreading the unavoidable dust landings.
It was toward the middle of our night shift, when it was darkest, that we received a call to pick up a Soldier that needed to be flown to Bike Lake. Circumstances required the Soldier be sent home as quickly as possible. We received our grid coordinates, made our way out to the aircraft and, as quickly as we could, got up in the air. As we approached the pick-up location, we knocked out our before-landing checks, reviewed our approach technique and delegated our duties. The PC would fly the landing, and I would ghost him on the controls and call out pertinent information on the approach while paying close attention to our instruments in case of any disorientation.
The crew chiefs picked their dust and drift calls and we were ready to land. However, as we set up the aircraft for approach, we quickly realized the landing zone (LZ) was poorly situated right in the middle of a mess of tents, communication poles and wires, and a massive collection of ground vehicles. The ground equipment was set up far too closely for us to safely shoot an approach and land without running the risk of causing damage to it or our aircraft.
Knowing that we were landing into a degraded visual environment (DVE) and could/would easily lose sight of the ground and all of the surrounding obstacles, we chose to orbit and search for a suitable landing spot. The first approach was met with dust heavier than anybody on board felt comfortable landing in, so we terminated and executed a go-around. As we circled around, we realized the winds were far calmer than expected, and the cloud of sand we kicked up hung in the air. Along with the heavy scintillation on our night vision goggles (NVGs) due to the darkness outside, visibility close to the equipment on the ground was that much worse for the follow-on approaches, pushing us farther away from the intended LZ.
On the second-approach, the crew chiefs called a go-around when they lost all visual contact with the ground after an especially violent kick-up of dust and sand. Those seconds before touching down in a DVE seem to stretch on for eternity, and if your back-seaters can’t make out where you’re headed for an extended period of time, you would be a fool to continue with your approach. Thankfully, nobody on board got frustrated with the situation. We climbed out of the dust, established our third (and final) orbit, and the PC took the time to check on every crewmember’s comfort level. We reviewed the technique we had trained for DVE approaches and verified that our power numbers and before-landing checks were still valid as we prepared ourselves for a third attempt.
As the PC initiated the approach, I ghosted him on the controls and called out power and altitude numbers while our crew chiefs made their respective drift and dust calls. We hit the dust far higher than we expected but had set up ourselves well, communicated as such and committed to the approach. Cutting through the dust felt like an eternity. Each crewmember lost sight of the ground multiple times, but we talked to each other throughout the descent, staying on top of what the aircraft was doing. We finally felt the landing gear touch the ground, took out collective, neutralized the cyclic, set the parking brake and let the aircraft settle. We sat for what felt like ages, waiting for the dust and sand to clear out some before we all dropped some colorful language and shook off the adrenaline while spitting out the grit in our mouths.
The pick-up took way longer than expected due to a series of miscommunications, but we ended up getting that Soldier to Bike Lake. More importantly, our crew had tested the training we received for DVE landings and realized we were truly capable of executing these maneuvers safely and effectively. The combination of low levels of illumination (something every Army aviator with even entry-level experience is familiar with), scintillation on our NVGs, and calm winds leaving the fine dust and sand kicked up from any vehicle hanging in the air all negatively affected our visibility on our approaches to an unknown LZ. We made the necessary adjustments for our situation, but more importantly, we saw the importance of staying calm, effective crew coordination and relying on our training as aviators to keep us safe while effectively executing the mission.