Draw the Line
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 BENJAMIN CUEVAS
U.S. Air Forces in Europe Air Ground Operations School
Einsiedlerhof Air Station, Germany
During Operation Iraqi Freedom V and VI, we faced one question repeatedly: Should we launch or stay on the ground during marginal weather? As all Army aviators know, sometimes mission importance outweighs weather minimums. The question then becomes where to draw the line. In garrison, the answer is simple; you either have weather or you don’t. In combat, however, the line gets blurred.
The first couple of months we stuck to our minimums with little deviation. But as time went on, our command became more comfortable with flexing minimums to meet mission demands. These deviations were due mostly to troops in contact, and we quickly realized flying in marginal weather significantly degraded our capabilities. Targeting, even with MTADS-equipped aircraft, was almost impossible. And flying at lower altitudes caused us to be highly vulnerable to small-arms fire. Our presence, however, still served as a deterrent.
As AH-64 pilots, our primary mission is to save the lives of coalition forces. Therefore, aircrews and our command were willing to accept the increased risk of flying in less-than-optimal conditions. That is where the line began to blur. What was once an exception quickly became the standard. This was mostly caused by aircrews becoming more comfortable flying in adverse weather, giving the command the option to accept more risk and push the weather limits even further.
There were times, though, when our command had little impact on the decision to fly in downgraded weather. If a general had somewhere to go and wanted an escort, “no” was not an option. In these cases, our command was fighting a losing battle because they were the risk-level approval authority.
As time went on, things got worse and we continued to allow ourselves to get put into increasingly dangerous weather situations. New questions began to be asked through all levels of our unit because we were now expected to launch in all weather conditions. There were many times when we were the only aircraft flying in Baghdad. Sometimes we were flying in bad weather without even having missions to support. As aircrews, we asked a couple of questions: Where do we draw the line on weather? How long were we going to continue to push our luck? These questions went unacknowledged and unanswered by a fairly hostile command atmosphere at the battalion level, and we continued to fly further below established weather minimums.
Weather minimums are in place for a reason. In garrison, weather minimums are strictly enforced. Of course, in combat, there are situations where making an exception is pertinent. But those situations should be just that — exceptions, not the standard. The problem is once you make one exception you are expected to keep making it.
It’s easy to sit here and try to blame it all on our command, but aircrews were just as responsible for what happened. We all knew our minimums, but we still chose to launch, mostly due to the fear of possible repercussions. But we still did it. We should have been asking ourselves at what point the mission outweighs the increased risk of flying in bad weather. Answering that question for yourself will let you know when to stand your ground and not launch.