Flash and Burn
LT. COL. WILLIAM G. COX JR.
78th Aviation Troop Command
Georgia Army National Guard
Earlier in my career, I spent two glorious weeks surrounded by frozen earth at a dam site in the northwest corner of South Korea. I was a first lieutenant and the forward support medical team (FSMT) leader in charge of three Black Hawk helicopters and their crews. We were the exercise medevac support to a field-training event involving a brigade-sized force. By the end of the exercise, that unit experienced multiple tent fires caused by heaters. Fortunately for my team, this overshadowed the small forest fire we started.
My medevac team consisted of an officer in charge, noncommissioned officer in charge, instructor pilot, maintenance test pilot, safety officer, aviation life support equipment (ALSE) NCO, assorted medics and crew chiefs. We provided coverage for all training events and evacuated the notional casualties to a Level III medical treatment facility. However, there were designated days of no training, which allowed us to conduct after-action reviews to assess our processes and ability to accomplish the mission. It also provided time for internal training, additional maintenance and other activities.
During the planning phase of one training event, my ALSE NCO and safety officer requested we conduct pen flare training for our crews on the dam by the lake. The pen flares in our ALSE vests were expiring and most of the team had never launched one. This seemed like a great training opportunity and a safe place to conduct it.
As fate would have it, my battalion commander visited us at the training site the day my team was scheduled to launch the pen flares. I gave him a tour of the brigade support area, which concluded at the tactical operations center (TOC). As we exited the TOC, I pointed to my FSMT with pride as they shot off pen flares up on the dam. As we watched, we noticed them suddenly run toward the side of the dam. This seemed odd, but then we saw smoke billowing from the woods in the direction they were running. I looked at my commander and told him I needed to go. I then ran to the FSMT HMMWV and drove to the team’s location.
You may have heard the saying, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and that indeed was the case. We spent the next hour putting out multiple small brush fires that were burning leaves and other tinder atop the frozen ground. We got lucky that day. It could have been a lot worse. We kept a fire watch on the scorched areas for a few hours to ensure nothing reignited, knowing it would not be a shining moment for the brigade exercise if we scorched the Korean countryside.
We’d briefed to shoot pen flares over a lake to mitigate the fire risk. However, because the flares did not have fins, some of them propelled in unexpected directions. This, combined with the wind, resulted in a mishap that, fortunately, had negligible consequences. If you ever plan a pen flare training event, ensure you have an authorized training area to launch and an adequate range fan for any projectile you fire. Oh, and it also helps to have another unit start a much larger and more costly fire that makes your mishap look insignificant in comparison.