Forecast for 'Light Snow'
October 31, 2012
We refueled and got an update on the weather from the Air Force meteorologist at Camp Humphreys. The METRO observer reported snow falling over the ocean, adding that in an hour and a half we would receive light snow that would pass over our area quickly. Heavier snow was forecast later in the afternoon, but we'd be back several hours before its arrival. Army Regulation 95-1 states in section 5-2, "destination weather must be forecast to be equal to, or greater than, VFR minimums at estimated time of arrival through 1 hour after ETA."
The forecast we'd received gave us legal weather for the last hour of our flight. We had several medics in the back needing to complete their live hoist qualifications, so we headed out to LZ Elbow, which was in the maintenance test valley, about a 10-minute flight south of Camp Humphreys.
Once at the LZ, we set down and let Sgt. Blass, our flight instructor, set up the 100-pound cement block to reseat the hoist. This procedure ensures the hoist's cable is wrapped tightly around the internal reel. Once ready, we hovered at 250 feet to begin the reseat procedure. That was when the snow started to fall. We completed the reseat, but now the snow was much heavier and we needed to land at the LZ.
This weather was much, much worse than METRO had given us 20 minutes prior. The visibility decreased to a one-quarter mile with a ceiling of less than 100 feet. Two mountain ranges separated us from METRO, so we couldn't pick up their signal unless we were in the traffic pattern. We tried unsuccessfully to call them on the radio. Since we could only reach them by calling on a cellphone, we took the aircraft to an idle at the LZ and called METRO. The observer who briefed us apologized for the rapid weather change and said the soonest we could leave and attempt to return to the airfield would be in 45 minutes. He also told us we'd have a large enough window to return to the runway, which was eight miles north of us. I spoke with the commander and let him know our situation. He gave us the approval to wait and return to station when the weather improved. After 45 minutes, visibility improved to a half mile with a 200-foot ceiling.
Before taking off, I asked the crew and they all agreed that they were comfortable returning to base at that time. The crew chief and I had logged 150 hours in the area and were very familiar with the return route. I went over the inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions plan again. I wanted to ensure if the ceiling dropped again and we were in an area where we couldn't set down, we would fully commit to the instrument landing system Runway 32 approach.
I turned on the windshield anti-ice to melt the falling snow. We also turned on the pitot heat and engine anti-ice, verifying they were working. The temperature was 6 F on the surface, which meant we'd encounter icing if approach control took us up to 3,200 feet for the published approach procedure. We advanced the power control levers and did our before-takeoff checks. We had six people in the aircraft and, according to our current conditions, had plenty of power if we needed to do an ILS approach.
I flew the return route by following the edge of a river that led from the LZ to a lake. Then we flew along the edge of the lake to Check Point 3, which was our inbound reporting point to the pattern. Chapter 6 of the aircrew training manual covers aircrew coordination and the interaction needed between crewmembers necessary to safely, efficiently and effectively perform their tasks. Our crew always briefed the different aspects of aircrew coordination before taking off. As we returned, everyone stayed calm and concentrated on the task at hand.
We made it back to the runway safely, thanks to effective crew coordination. Everyone remained calm, fully thought through each situation and effectively communicated with each other. A flight that normally took 10 minutes took 50 instead, but ended successfully because the crew worked together effectively as a team.
After we landed, I went into the weather office, where the forecaster apologized profusely for giving an inaccurate brief. He said he hadn't predicted the cloud layer coming from the west to develop into a line and drop so much snow at lower levels. He realized his inaccurate forecast jeopardized our lives. I asked him to develop a way to contact us (my cell number was left on the flight plan) and to back up his forecast with one from a more experienced forecaster to avoid this happening again in the future.