Risk Versus Benefit
March 24, 2011
With our visibility down to three miles, we had to wait for brigade commander approval to launch our aircraft. Time was running out. We knew if we didn't get off the ground soon to evacuate the two Soldiers, they would die.
The injured Soldiers had been hit with an improvised explosive device (IED) blast and were listed as "urgent surgical." Every crewmember onboard the UH-60 medevac aircraft was anxious to get going.
We finally received launch approval and were on our way to the point of injury (POI). It had been 18 minutes since we first received the 9-line medevac request and about 30 minutes since the IED blast occurred. With visibility deteriorating, the pilot in command (PC) in our chase aircraft and I were talking about the weather and possible solutions for our return flight to the combat surgical hospital (CSH).
It was still another 15 minutes or so to the POI. My co-pilot advised me he was going to slow down to 70 or 80 knots due to decreased visibility. I knew slowing down would take us longer to reach the POI; however, it was the best course of action. I acknowledged and reiterated our intentions to our chase bird, and they agreed. I continued to work on a plan for the return flight to the CSH based on our deteriorating weather conditions.
You could sense the stress in everyone's voice within our aircraft and on the radio from our chase bird. The weather was not looking good for continued flight, yet two Soldiers were critically injured and counting on us to get them to the hospital.
We arrived near the POI location 32 minutes after we took off from the base. The visibility had decreased to about one mile. Upon arrival to the landing zone (LZ), we contacted the ground unit to advise them we were a few minutes out. To locate the LZ, the 9-line stated it would have green chemical light sticks on a secured dirt road. We knew we were close to the LZ, but we couldn't see the chem lights. The chalk leader of the ground unit called us on the secure FM radio and said he could see us on the south side of their position. He mentioned the wind was out of the northwest and the dirt road was oriented east and west.
We completed our before-landing checks and I told the crew to make sure they were secured in their seats with seat belts and shoulder harnesses fastened. With the dust, wind, limited visibility and our landing to an unimproved surface, we had a good chance for brownout. As we headed north and started our descent, my medic said he had the chem lights in view at 10 o'clock low. I glanced down from my position in the left pilot's seat and confirmed. My co-pilot made a slight left turn and he also acknowledged seeing the lights.
That's when it happened. We were on short final to the west, and the PC of the chase bird radioed they had lost us in the dust. Both my crew chief and medic looked up and behind the aircraft. Our medic spotted the chase aircraft about two rotor-discs behind and 50 feet above us. He yelled, "They're almost on top of us!" By the time I got to the radio to direct them away, they had flown over the top of us, missing us by no more than 30 feet.
The scenario above is fictional; however, it very well could have happened. Night flying in a combat zone is extremely dangerous and, with limited visibility, presents many challenges. Even with good initial risk mitigation and controls in place, changes in risk due to unforeseen hazards are constantly occurring.
Crews are increasingly called upon to execute hasty risk assessments. Once an aircraft launches and is executing its mission, the "supervise and evaluate" step of the risk management process has to be the PC's responsibility. The PC also has to continue with the process and reevaluate the situation as hazards change and, as necessary, change the controls based on new risks.
There is also the additional weight in the thought process of how your decisions affect others and, in this case, the injured Soldiers. Effective risk management relies upon Leaders not accepting any risk unless the potential benefit outweighs the potential loss. Risk mitigation must be objective and completed at the briefing table with the crew, briefer and final mission approval authority. However, reevaluating risks during a mission takes more than a group of people sitting in the briefing room.
Lessons learned from this scenario can help us plan better and make good decisions when the "real" incident occurs. Is transporting the wounded worth getting an aircraft shot up or having an accident because of deteriorating weather, brownout or threat' Perhaps the ground unit can medevac the wounded to the CSH' Explore all options to effectively reduce risks and apply controls, understanding those risks may change unexpectedly. Commanders, pilots and crewmembers all must ask, "Does the benefit outweigh the risk or is the risk too great for the benefit'"