Does This Seem Routine?
June 1, 2011
The extreme environmental flight conditions in Afghanistan present aircrews with challenging conditions in which to execute the diverse set of missions. Most Soldiers in today’s Army have already experienced the Afghanistan area of responsibility and are aware of the hazards associated with flight operations. Yet, after several months and 100 to 200 hours of flight time in the AOR, these same Soldiers may look at flight operations as just another day at the office. The attention to detail applied to earlier flight operations have blurred into a “Groundhog Day”-type routine.
The question, “Does this seem routine?” may be your last words. There are several ways to avoid falling into the “routine” ambush.
Pre-deployment Training: While pre-deployment training has evolved greatly over the last seven years, it still tends to lag behind the accident trends. Current accident trends have pinpointed power management, dust landings and controlled flight into terrain as the leading mistakes. Simulators can be used to emphasize power management techniques, practice one- and two-wheel landings in mountainous environments and combat maneuvering flight and limited visibility landings (brownout). Initial experiences in the high and hot Afghanistan AOR revealed an issue with power management. However, the High-Altitude Mountain Environmental Training Strategy is addressing this problem through training at Fort Carson, Colo.
Crew coordination, standard terminology, landing zone evaluation of dust and wind conditions and proper scanning techniques are reinforced in all phases of pre-deployment training and cannot be stressed enough. Pre-deployment environmental training must be followed with tailored environmental training programs executed upon arrival in the AOR and reinforced throughout the deployment.
Crew Mix: Commanders, standardization pilots and aviation safety officers involved in training must have an intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of individual crewmembers. Augmenting that knowledge with tools such as a quick reference spreadsheet detailing crewmembers’ flight experience in all flight modes, allows Leaders, SPs and ASOs to assign appropriate crews to each mission set. When an assigned flight crew contains two pilots in command (PC) who are both qualified crewmembers, the mission briefer must clearly identify the air mission commander (AMC) and PC, eliminating any question of who is in charge of the aircraft. Consider designating someone other than a PC as the AMC. This will allow them to focus on the mission while the PC focuses on flying the aircraft and working with the flight crew. Non-rated crewmember and door gunner selection requires the same scrutiny as rated crewmembers.
Mission planning: Centralized accident investigations have shown the Army has improved in its mission planning processes, which have undeniably prevented accidents and loss of life. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment is a prime example that covers contingencies from the aviation, maneuver and enemy perspective. Their mission planning is a detailed process, regardless of mission complexity, and a model for all to follow.
Having a close partnership with supported ground elements is paramount. For example, aircrews requiring ground elements to provide individual Soldier weights to the pound as they develop load plans is critical to accurate performance planning. In-flight mission and environmental changes require aircrews to work tabular data in flight and on the objective. The evaluation of wind effects must be continually trained and enforced. Accurate in-flight evaluation of winds and their effects may be the difference between a successful mission and a Class A mishap. Missions conducted carrying heavy loads under high/hot environmental conditions are accomplished successfully only when detailed pre-mission planning, en route planning and appropriate pilot techniques are applied to complement each other.
Command Involvement: Command involvement at all levels is necessary to “check the checker.” Mission briefers must ask hard questions rather than signing off their portion of the briefing because the crew assigned the mission has a good reputation. Statistics have shown that you cannot base the probability of a crew experiencing an accident solely on their number of flight hours. Everyone is susceptible. You’ve heard it said, “Bring your A-game to all mission sets.” The fact is we are not always capable of bringing our A-game. We must be humble and recognize when outside factors are affecting our or another’s ability to perform. These factors may be as simple as not getting enough sleep, onset of a cold or uncertainty of one’s ability to conduct that specific mission or assuming the other aviator can fly the aircraft and complete the mission without help.
In summary, every mission has its unique set of hazards that, on occasion, the controls put in place will not mitigate below a high or extremely high level of risk. In the end, commanders must make the “go/no-go” decision based on solid cost/benefit analysis and aggressive risk management. There is nothing routine about any Army aviation mission. Ask questions to clarify any detail, regardless of how minor it may seem. The answer could save your life and the lives of others.