Safety before Glory
June 28, 2012
One of the infantryman's mottos is, "Close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver." There is no mission we cannot conduct, no piece of high ground we cannot secure and no objective we cannot conquer -- by any and all means necessary. Sometimes these thought processes overextend our abilities. As leaders and Soldiers, we educate ourselves to recognize and ensure we do not put ourselves in vulnerable situations. We must adhere to our knowledge and training and the experience of those around us to ensure we accomplish the mission while taking care of Soldiers. It's an age-old thought, I know; however, this way of thinking has helped us create the most feared military force on the planet.
As with all air assaults, there's a ton of planning that occurs prior to the aircraft reaching the RP. Many different planning techniques and procedures have surfaced over the years. Most factors can be controlled or overcome with some thought and creativity. However, some factors simply cannot be changed. We cannot control the weather, illumination or landing environment. We can engineer better aircraft, night vision goggles, weather reporting equipment and tools to help mitigate risks and ensure crewmember safety and mission accomplishment.
Mitigation seems simple; all we have to do is change times, move our location or change techniques. We hold extensive planning and coordinating meetings to ensure missions are prepared with the expectation that no individual or equipment will be harmed, killed or destroyed. There are times in planning when some risks just cannot be mitigated; these instances require the approval from appropriate levels of command. However, most risk factors can be mitigated in the planning process. We cannot eliminate the risk, but we can definitely reduce the level of severity.
Composite risk management was used extensively during the planning of the aforementioned mission. Great aircraft, global positioning systems, improved NVG and superior imagery enabled the mission to be conducted very close to an unfriendly border. External load training while using NVG was completed in the months prior to execution. This training allowed the pilots to perfect their skills for this extremely difficult long-line external load. Long lines allow the aircrew to increase the distance of the aircraft from the load that hangs below. Hovering over 100 feet while the load remains at 10 feet above the ground increases the difficulty of the maneuver and the need for superior-skilled pilots.
This leaves the weather, illumination and environment to be mitigated. The weather forecast for this particular night was great for aviators, with visual flight rules and visual meteorological conditions. The LZs were chosen with top-notch imagery and overhead video, with few, if any, hazards expected. Lastly was the factor of illumination. All aviators know that it's easier to see with larger percentages of illumination. This night and the time of insertion was a zero-illumination night. Easy mitigation, right? Just move the insertion time later to increase the illumination. Wrong! Based on that exact recommendation, the planning officer in charge decided to execute the mission while the illumination was zero percent.
Thankfully, all that was lost that night were two HMMWVs. With zero illumination, the damages could have been a lot worse, including crashed CH-47s, dead or injured aircrew members and/or dead or injured infantrymen.
Once back in the PZ, I contacted the crew that jettisoned the load and asked how they felt. The crew assured me all was good and they could continue the mission for the second trip to the LZs. The second insertion went without an issue. By then, 30 minutes had passed and the moon had risen, allowing for 60 percent illumination. It's too bad that a simple and legitimate recommendation was denied for a one-hour time change. We all want success and victory, but don't let the glory of your idea get in the way of safety!