Lack of Communication
January 31, 2012
Our mission was to conduct a "five-year" clearance of an aerial bombing and gunnery range located north of the base. This would require additional temporary manning support. The clearance would last a month and involve a border-to-border clearance.
Many support issues needed resolution for the mission to be successful, not the least of which was how to conduct a clearance on a very busy range used by active duty, Army Reserve and National Guard forces. Previous attempts to clear this particular range had failed due to mission requirements, and the clearance was rescheduled several times. Therefore, sorely needed range maintenance had been allowed to slide. Sound familiar?
To address the maintenance issues, we coordinated with range maintenance personnel. We cleared critical target areas first, allowing personnel on the range to repair and build targets in these areas while we conducted clearance operations in other sections of the range. Due to terrain features (deep canyons, ravines, mountains) and the size of the range, this option was believed to offer the most safety for personnel and still allow necessary maintenance actions to be accomplished.
Good radio communications were a key element of this operation; personnel were required to be under cover when disposal detonations were executed. A range control section attached to White Sands Missile Range controlled access to the range we were clearing, which was about 60 miles from the base. WSMR conducted radar surveillance of the airspace and cleared aircraft onto and off the range.
At the beginning of the operation, we set up a base camp and emergency evacuation helipad on a bluff overlooking the airfield target complex. We set up an antenna, aligning and adjusting until we could get reliable communications with range control. Communication with range control was via handheld FM radios, truck-mounted radiotelephones and tactical radios. We also had manual signaling devices (signaling mirrors) and red and yellow smoke for emergencies.
As the airfield target complex was the highest priority for clearance and maintenance, we cleared this area first. By the second week of the clearance, we were able to allow range maintenance to conduct their operations, repairing and rebuilding this target complex. They were in constant communication with my unit and range control, and although we had to put them under cover several times, they were able to accomplish the mission a week ahead of schedule. As they were clearing off range, they told range control that range maintenance was completed. Range control marked this statement on their status board and cleared them off range.
At this time, my unit was in a ravine, pulling out 500-pound practice bombs, and out of communication range. Range control continued to attempt to contact us and at the end of our extended duty day, when we climbed out of the ravine and were on the way back to the base camp, we were asked to confirm that maintenance activities on the airfield were complete. We were tired and looking forward to the end of the day and the cold beverages that were waiting for us. Without clarifying what they were asking, we confirmed maintenance was complete. We then proceeded back to base camp and secured our equipment for the night.
The route we took to exit the range for our billets meandered through the airfield target complex. As we were about halfway through, our vehicles were "buzzed" by a flight of four F-15s. We attempted to contact range control, but radio communication on the FM radio was intermittent, and the phone number that we were to use, when dialed on the radiotelephone, did not go through. The aircraft flew out of sight and we decided to exit the complex back to the base camp.
As we turned our vehicles around, we heard a detonation on the far side of the complex and saw an aircraft pulling out of its bombing run. We immediately popped red smoke and abandoned the vehicles, seeking cover. The second aircraft, which was on approach, saw either the red smoke (or one of his wing mates did) because he aborted his run and initiated an emergency climb. They reassembled formation and did a flyover of our position. We again popped red smoke and used our signaling mirrors. They departed the range and we evacuated back to our base camp. We were able to contact range control from that location and found out that when the shift changed, the oncoming technician had not been properly briefed. When we confirmed maintenance was complete, range control assumed all personnel had left the range and cleared the flight of F-15s onto the range.
Range safety depends on reliable communications and a complete understanding of terminology and procedures to operate on ranges. Because this was an aerial bombing and gunnery range, one might assume we would have a means to communicate with aircraft. We did not. It was not listed on our table of allowances as required, and we assumed procedures to communicate with range control were adequate. After that incident, it became standard procedure not to go on range clearance operations without a means of direct communication with overflying aircraft.
My unit and I were lucky; there were no injuries or deaths resulting from this incident. Several things bear emphasizing so this doesn't happen to you, including:
• Know your range procedures; get the required training from your range control officer.
• Conduct a hazard analysis of your operation; identify and mitigate all hazards.
• If you are unfamiliar with the types of operations that can be conducted on your range, ask questions.
• Communications, both for daily operations as well as in emergencies, must be reliable and tested every time you go on the range.
• Ensure your communications with range control are understood and that you both are operating with the same terminology.
• Do not conduct operations without the proper equipment or training.
In addition, when all else fails, make sure you have a "backup" plan in place.
w/ info box below"
The Army Range Safety Program provides procedures to enhance safe, realistic
live-fire training, enabling the Army to train as it fights; enhance combat readiness; protect personnel and property; avoid injuries; and prevent fratricide in combat. If you want to know more about this program, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone the program manager at 757-878-0484 or 757-878-0516.
The link for the Sustainable Range Program website is available in the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center's Range & Weapons Safety Toolbox at https://safety.army.mil/rangeweaponssafety.