Danger in a crowded sky

FORT RUCKER, Ala. - It was a cool spring day in Alaska, and my OH-58D squadron was participating in the Air Force's Red Flag operation. Our task was to help certify new Joint Terminal Attack Controllers for the Air Force. We were to fly as a Scout Weapons Team from our airfield to the range operated by the Air Force. Although it was just 20 minutes as the crow flies from our airfield, we rarely operated in this range due to the high use by the Air Force. Prior to this operation, we had conducted a range familiarization flight with communication checks with the controllers.

The range sits in a valley surrounded by 1,500-foot-tall foothills with deep valleys pouring into the range, which is set up to mimic an enemy airfield. During a training scenario, adversary forces were conducting man-portable air defense operations as enemy air defense artillery. The controllers were going to call in German Panavia Tornado jet fighter bombers to make gun runs on the airfield. Our job was to follow up with Hellfire missiles and close-air attacks. Then the controllers would call in F-16s to attack with a simulated joint direct attack munitions drop, followed by A-10 Thunderbolts making gun runs with their 30 mm cannons.

We had removed our doors and were conducting nap-of-the-earth (very low altitude) flights into the target range. Range control cleared us into the range and instructed us to contact the controllers.

Everything went smoothly as we contacted the controllers and were directed to set up an over-watch position. We flew in behind a ridgeline that ran parallel to the enemy airfield and began to observe. I listened as the German pilots checked in and received their target coordinates for their engagement. We slewed our mast- mounted sight to the position and saw their target was an aircraft hangar. The controllers called us and asked for a good target description, and I replied with, "I have an aircraft hangar, three aircraft parked outside and several SA-6 missile platforms surrounding the hangar." The German pilots called the target and concurred with our observation. Then controllers cleared the Tornados hot, advising them to attack the airfield from east to west according to how the airfield was laid out. The Tornados came down and conducted their simulated runs, destroying the hangar along with four of the SA-6 missiles. We were then asked to engage the other two SA-6s from behind the ridge with Hellfires. Quickly going through the checklist with my left-seat pilot, we were locked onto the target, met all of the constraints and destroyed the other two missiles. Everything went flawless. It was a textbook engagement.

Next it was the F-16's and A-10's turn to come in. We were asked to move five miles to the north to clear us from the F-16's JDAM drop. We were south of the target at the time and relayed to the controllers that we didn't want to fly over the engagement area. Instead, we would move two ridgelines over and hold south of the target in a deep valley, one of six or seven that fed into the range. We relayed the coordinates and were given a green light to move there. En route to our holding position, we listened to the F-16s check in and acknowledge the target. The pilots called the time of flight for the bombs and released their simulated ordnance.

Our first mistake was assuming the A-10s would make the same gun runs as the Tornados. We listened as the A-10s were cleared hot to engage from west to east. This caused me to pause and think about how our valley was south of the target, but the ridge turned and fed into the airfield from the west. "OK," I thought, "that's different but shouldn't be a problem. The A-10s would just come straight in from the west and engage."

When we turned and crossed over the ridge into the valley, I suddenly saw four A-10s at my altitude and closing at more than 300 knots. I immediately screamed over the radio to the controllers that we had another A-10 flight coming into the range. We descended as much as we could, considering we were only 100 feet above the trees. The controllers replied that no other A-10s were in the area. I listened to the A-10s call, "Knock it off -- knock it off -- knock it off!" The A-10s flew over us and climbed straight up into the sky.

We all wondered, "Where did these guys come from?" We thought it was another flight of A-10s and that they'd caused the aircraft we were expecting to call off their engagement. However, that is not what happened. They were our A-10s and had picked our valley to use for their approach to the airfield.

Our lack of situational awareness, coupled with no defined engagement line, almost caused us to have a midair collision with the A-10s. The A-10s had several avenues of approach to the airfield. No one anticipated they would use our valley to approach from the south and then turn east to attack the airfield. The A-10s weren't given a hard deck for this mission, which meant they could attack from down in the weeds where we were. All of these factors contributed to a close call.

The margin for error can be quite small when sharing the sky with fast movers. When pilots -- whether they are in jets or helicopters -- start improvising, the sky can quickly turn into a scary place. And when aircraft surprise each other in the same piece of sky at the same moment, the results can be catastrophic.

Page last updated Thu February 7th, 2013 at 00:00