Surviving the Enemy and More
October 3, 2011
On a dark night in a combat environment, the last thing you want your co-pilot to say is, "Hold on -- the hydraulics just quit!" What now? The enemy is not the only variable on the battlefield.
It was a dark night with almost no illumination. The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior crew was conducting routine reconnaissance and security during combat operations in support of ground forces. An hour and a half into the mission, a collective servo hydraulic fitting failed and the aircraft began losing hydraulic fluid. The controls became stiff and the aircraft pitched violently.
The crew correctly diagnosed the situation and took immediate action to return the aircraft to base. They alerted the tactical operations center (TOC) of their situation and informed the battle captain that they would be executing a run-on landing to the forward operating base's (FOB) bomb-crater-damaged, partially lit runway. The battle captain activated the pre-accident plan and notified the forward arming and refueling point (FARP) at the end of the runway. Despite the FOB having no other crash rescue assets, the crew chiefs, FARP personnel and others collected all available fire extinguishers and moved to the edge of the runway to await the aircraft's arrival.
In the cockpit, the pilots' training and nine months of combat experience translated into precision and calm under pressure. The dimly lit runway came into sight as they lined up for the final approach. The crew knew they had one chance to get this right.
The emergency response team waited in silence and darkness for the aircraft to touch down. The pilot expertly aligned the aircraft on the runway to narrowly miss a partially repaired bomb crater. A small shower of sparks from the skids was the only indicator that this was not a normal landing. The successful outcome of this incident was the culmination of many well-designed systems.
•Training. The pilots were trained and prepared to execute the appropriate emergency procedure. Additionally, the TOC personnel and battle captain understood the urgency of the situation and were trained in the pre-accident plan. First responders realized they lacked the required crash rescue resources to take appropriate steps to further protect the crew in the event the landing was unsuccessful. However, the lack of resources doesn't relieve their responsibility to provide the best possible opportunity for success. Realistic training starts at home station and must be re-evaluated and refined once in the area of operations.
•Facilities. Deployed units face complex hazards that, if not adequately controlled, are likely to cause loss of combat power. Leaders in a combat zone must assess all accidental hazards, as well as combat threats. In this case, leadership assessed the hazards associated with operating from an unlit runway and provided high-quality, solar-powered lights to aid the aircrew in completing a successful approach. Continuous improvements to facilities are required throughout deployment. Failure to make continued improvements or plan for remote emergencies results in an unacceptably high risk. Prioritization of efforts and appropriate allocation of assets and resources is the key to success in this area.
•Operations. The foundation for Army aviation operations is the air mission brief (AMB). The air mission commander makes use of the AMB and integrates composite risk management (CRM). Aircrews should leave the AMB with a clear understanding of the mission and commander's intent. A thorough and detailed AMB ensures crews have the necessary information and guidance to understand and manage the hazards they will face during the mission and ultimately accomplish their goal. The enemy is not the only variable on the battlefield. Aircrews must understand and manage both tactical and accidental risk while performing their wartime mission. It is the commander's responsibility to ensure his or her staff monitors and enforces CRM during mission execution.
Combat operations require managing the hazards associated with both tactical and accidental risk. In a combat environment, the two coexist at all times. My experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom shows that a well-trained and prepared unit can manage both successfully. CRM increases understanding at every level of the dangers associated with operating in a tactical environment. A proactive safety program lays the foundation for success in times of emergency.