Why should IIMC happen when we train our crews to avoid it at all costs? If the weather gets bad, crews are trained to turn around and go back or land immediately and wait it out. If trained, equipped, prepared and proficient for IMC and instrument flight rules flight, crews can request an IFR clearance from air traffic control and continue the mission IMC/IFR. The only caveat to that is in the combat theater, the ATC systems are not in place to conduct a real IFR flight with an IFR clearance, so we can't just land and wait it out.
The solution is simple, GPS. We use a GPS day in and day out for conducting missions. Although not certified for IFR flight, we use it as a backup to our certified navigational equipment. The GPS should be required in the combat theater because it is a great tool for training and situational awareness. What we had for our area of operation was "emergency GPS" approaches. This was the only way we could recover, in case we did go IIMC, to a safe location.
As an air mission commander in an air ambulance company deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, I've often received missions in remote AOs for medevac support. The first seven years of my aviation career were in the assault world and it was beat into our heads that mission training was crucial. We took every chance to conduct training flights in our air ambulance company and performed hoist training, pinnacle approaches and landings, dust landings and, of course, emergency GPS approaches.
Our leadership supported this training and the values it instilled in our junior aviators in preparing them for worst-case scenarios in the combat environment. Conducting this training with many junior aviators allowed me to show how valuable it is to set up the GPS for an approach and, in turn, be sure of the system. At first, they didn't understand why we trained on these approaches so frequently. However, during the medevac mission I am about to describe, they saw the benefit of this training.
It was a dark and stormy night with zero illumination when we got a call about 11 p.m. for an urgent 9-line medevac mission to rescue a Soldier who had lost his eyesight. Visibility was below 300 meters due to a dust storm, and the airfield was IFR where the patient needed level-3 treatment. After talking to Air Force weather, our two crews discussed the mission with safety in mind, including using the available instrument approaches if needed.
Everyone agreed we needed to attempt this mission, but only if we took the pilot in command of our chase aircraft and fly single ship with dual PC/AMC. Every crewmember understood if we were not comfortable flying the mission once we flew outside the wire that we could return to the patrol base and end the mission. In the crew brief, we also discussed our return options for this mission and the fact that the emergency GPS approach really could be our last option for a successful recovery.
My new crew jumped in the medevac aircraft and, in a short time, we were on our way to pick up the injured Soldier. As soon as we left the light of the patrol base, the reality hit us that we could not see the ground unless we were below 90 feet above ground level and flying 70 knots indicated airspeed. Focused on the mission, the crew coordination was flawless, with the medic and crew chief backing up the pilots with their scan, calling out altitude and obstacles. We safely landed to the point of injury for patient pickup and the crew agreed we needed to fly to the level-3 treatment facility, despite the IMC conditions.
My co-pilot and I then set up the aircraft for instruments, pulled out our approach plate to conduct an instrument takeoff and got us above the dust storm and recover to the forward operating base where the treatment facility was located. The flight to the FOB was no different from the many training flights we had conducted in prior months.
The mission was a success because of our strong crew mix. We conducted a crew brief thoroughly before each flight. This enhanced our situational awareness and the fact we had often conducted training flights and practiced emergency GPS approaches prepared us for a situation just like this.
Here's proof that training is essential to the survival of medevac aircrews and the missions we conduct on a day-to-day basis in a hostile environment. Effective coordination comes from training to eliminate all unknown variables and to the standards for these emergencies stated in the unit standing operating procedures using aircrew training manual standards. Training not only saved the patient; it also saved the entire crew.