Safe Dust Landings
September 30, 2011
If you're an Army aviator, you're going to fly in the desert. It's just a matter of time. It's important for all pilots to understand dust landings and train for them. I'm not an instructor pilot (IP) or an expert on dust landings, but I did make multiple dust landings in Iraq. I'd like to share my lessons learned.
While Army aviation operates primarily from fixed bases, the Soldier you're supporting doesn't. He is operating from a forward operating base or other type of base; however, that Soldier will be your eyes on the ground. He is your forward air controller and will be a valuable asset if you use him correctly. Remember, the ground Soldier thinks in relationship to what he knows; he is not a pilot. A 10-degree slope for him is level ground, or a landing zone (LZ) clear of all vegetation is a good LZ. Not all boundary obstacles are identified as hazards to flight. The power of your aircraft and the dust it can kick up is usually underestimated. You're responsible for the safety of your crew, passengers and aircraft, so you must adhere to the four C's for flying in the desert.
Before you ever start any type of dust training, know the basics. Know and understand the limits of your aircraft. You should understand what the instruments are telling you. This may seem like a "duh" statement, but it is important. I'm not talking about check ride knowledge; I'm talking about understanding power requirements and aircraft limits. Hot, heavy and in the dust is not the time to hear the low-rotor horn.
I flew a UH-60A in Iraq after many years in the UH-1H and OH-58A/C. When I started flying the Black Hawk, I was amazed with its power. I never thought power would ever be a problem, but I was wrong. I was fortunate enough to have an IP who made sure I understood my aircraft. He stressed that understanding my aircraft is like target shooting -- hitting the target would get me through a check ride, but I needed to aim for the bull's-eye.
Once you understand your aircraft, it's time to train. Training means in a controlled environment as close to the actual conditions in which you will fly. You must push past your comfort zone to get competent in dust landings. If you only train to a requirement, you're cheating yourself. Flying instrument flight rules (IFR) is different from flying in the clouds. Flying in light dust is different from flying in real dust conditions. Train where it's nasty and make sure you help your crew chiefs clean the aircraft afterward. Remember, training is perishable -- train, train and train some more.
Most LZs will have a fixed pad and an accepted approach procedure. Others may have nothing more than an orange marker panel. It really doesn't matter. You still have to understand your landing environment. Do you remember all the acronyms you learned in flight school? This is where you use them. Do a high recon. Know your approach axis, obstacles (in and out) and winds. If you find a more suitable landing area, ask for it. I've even asked for smoke when I couldn't establish winds. Know where the dust cloud will form. Conduct a low recon. Look for trouble spots such as slopes, wadies or even unexploded ordnance. Look for obstacles like boulders, sheep and poles. Are there building materials, tents, tarps or portable latrines that could be blown down or sucked into your rotor system? Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you're landing to an improved area, you won't pick up dust.
Though hardened landing areas are usually better than unimproved ones, they still have the potential for dust. I remember landing to a road that turned into a dust bowl. Know what you're landing into because when the dust begins to billow and swirl, you may momentarily lose visual references.
Do a map analysis. Remember where you land will be your next takeoff point. Keep this in mind when you go in. What will be your obstacles going out? If you're going to refuel or pick up passengers, remember your power requirements will change.
Dust landings are a lot like flying an instrument landing system approach to the ground. You pick a spot, set an approach angle and land with zero to near-zero forward speed. Your world becomes very small, very fast. It's important you have done everything to understand your touchdown point before getting into the dust cloud. This leads us into my next discussion point.
The color of the sand tells a lot about the type you're landing in. Know the difference between dark-colored and light-colored sand. Dark-colored sand is usually a better place to land. Light-colored sand seems to be finer and more likely to form dust clouds.
Vegetation is your friend. When you pick your touchdown point, make sure you have something you can use to judge closure rates and drift. I found a little bush that was no more than 15 feet off my nose at about a 30- to 45-degree angle. If I didn't have that, I would look for a sandbag, a big rock or a vehicle track. Just make sure it lies within your rotor disc area when you touch down. Because of the vortices of the rotor system, you should be able to maintain a visual contact with your reference point during the touchdown phase of your landing. If you're landing using night vision devices, visual awareness of your surroundings becomes more critical. Be prepared to temporarily lose your reference point during the approach sequence.
I flew more than 750 hours of combat time in Iraq. For the majority of the time, I flew with the same crew chiefs. Though my front-seaters changed, it was the crew chiefs that provided my guidance.
In a dust landing, it takes a crew to reach the ground safely. The key to our success was communications. In our crew, the pilot not on the controls handled the radios, monitored the instruments and scanned for obstacle avoidance. One crew chief would clear the aircraft and keep a visual on the wingman. The other crew chief would clear his side and call the dust cloud. It was important the crew was able to communicate a lot of data quickly. The pilot on the controls would fly the aircraft.
Each crewmember needed to keep a visual reference to the ground. If anyone lost visual, he or she would announce it to the crew, and the pilot on the controls would confirm the communication. If everyone lost sight of the ground, the pilot on the controls would make a go-around decision. All members of the crew had a right to call a go-around. If someone other than the pilot on the controls called a go-round, it might come with directions or a description why the go-round was called. Here's how it sounds:
P: "Before landing check is complete."
P*: "Go-around is to the left, over the wires 100 feet. I have my touchdown point in sight."
CE1: "Wires. Hold your descent."
CE1: "Chalk 2 is two discs 5 o'clock."
P: "I have a ditch 30 meters 11 o'clock."
CE1: "Clear wires."
P*: "Cleared of wires."
CE2: "Dust forming at the tail."
P: "Drifting left."
P*: (Response by control input.)
CE2: "Dust at the doors, I've lost the ground."
P*: "I have the ground."
CE1: "I have the ground."
CE2: "Dust is overtaking."
P*: "Still have my reference."
CE2: "I have the ground. Clear down right."
CE1: "Clear down left."
Then we would land. If a go-around was needed, it would be something like this:
CE2: "Go-around, barbwire."
P*: "Go-around." (Pilot initiates a climb)
P: "Chalk 1 is go-around (to Chalk 2)."
P: "50 feet (AGL), 800 (TGT) climbing."
(TGT limits would be called if TGT was the limiter; torque would be called if torque was the limiter.)
P: "80 feet, 846 stop collective."
P: "100 feet clear the wires, clear to go left."
CE1: "Clear left; Chalk 2 is three discs back 5 o'clock."
P: "Chalk 1 is coming left (to Chalk 2)."
As complicated as it was to land in the dust as Chalk 1, it was, in some respects, more complicated for Chalk 2. In a flight of two, the trail aircraft has to make a decision that doesn't confront Chalk 1 -- whether to land with Chalk 1 or wait until he lands and the dust settles and then come in after him. The right answer is -- it depends. A multi-ship landing is best accomplished with everyone landing at the same time. The trail aircraft should position itself as to maximize the benefits of the wind. If possible, Chalk 2 should position itself behind and upwind of Chalk 1 and try to touch down simultaneously with Chalk 1. If, however, you're flying to an area that is dirty or unknown, Chalk 2 may elect to delay his landing until Chalk 1 is down. This will allow you to gauge the dust and gives room to Chalk 1 if he needs to do a go-around.
This discussion would be deficient if I didn't address go-arounds. Go-arounds are free. As pilots, our No. 1 priority is the safety of the passengers and crews. If a landing doesn't feel right, do a go-around. Will your fellow pilots say something? Probably. I can tell you it took me three attempts to get into one dirty LZ. My co-pilot initiated the first go-around, and the second was by me. My brothers kidded me. I also had my crew chiefs tell me they thought I made the right decision. That was good enough for me. I value the opinions of the folks in the arena more than those watching from the cheap seats.
Army aviation is vital to the success of the mission in the Middle East. In the year I was in Iraq, my troop of eight UH-60A aircraft flew an estimated 28,000 troops. We did every type of mission, including resupply, air assaults, passenger hauling and even reconnaissance. We also provided crews to support VIP missions. In every mission, you could count on certain things: the days were long, hot and tiring and, more times than not, we had to land in dust.
I hope my experience helps those of you who are following. When you go over, please fly safe.