By Chief Warrant Officer 3 Wesley Burrell, Hunter Army AirfieldJanuary 7, 2013
HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, SAVANNAH, Ga. - Sometimes you come to the end of a mission and realize you owe your life more to luck than smart decisions. But Lady Luck is a fickle spirit. She may not treat you so well the next time.
It was nearly 3 a.m. and we were in the last third of our duty day. A flight of three Chinooks had just landed at Tallil Airbase, Iraq, to pick up a group of passengers and fly them to Baghdad International Airport. While all three crews were waiting on the passengers, we gathered to discuss the flight route to BIAP and the weather for the last leg of the night. Our lead aircraft was crewed by a 500-hour pilot in command and a low-time pilot. Chalk 2 contained our standardization pilot, who was serving as the air mission commander, and a pilot just out of readiness level progression training. The trail aircraft was flown by a 1,000-hour PC and a 500-hour PI.
During the update brief, we found out a dust storm forecast to arrive later that day was actually arriving in the next two hours. Since this was our last run and the passengers were being dropped off at BIAP - which was our home base - we decided to go ahead and depart. The flight back would take about an hour and a half.
On the flight back, I began to get a little nervous about the dust storm. As we approached Forward Operating Base Kalsu's airspace, I called Kalsu Metro and requested an update for the Baghdad area of operation. The briefer told us the dust storm was south of Taji and moving toward BIAP. I updated the rest of the flight and we discussed the possibility of landing at FOB Kalsu to wait out the storm. However, we didn't want to deal with the problems of securing our aircraft and locating a holding area sufficient for the more than 100 passengers and crew. Also, there was no maintenance support for Chinooks at the FOB.
We decided to attempt to beat the dust storm to BIAP, but lost the race. Just south of BIAP, visibility dropped to less than a quarter of a mile. As we continued inbound, I lost sight of lead, so I concentrated on Chalk 2. After about three minutes, I noticed Chalk 2 was climbing, so I climbed with him. By the time we leveled off, I was at 1,000 feet about a mile from the airport. It was then I lost sight of Chalk 2, so I started slowly descending at 40 knots toward the airfield. When I saw the fence line for BIAP, I realized I was on the civilian side of the airport. The approach lights finally came into to view and I landed on the runway.
We contacted the other two birds on our internal frequency, and they reported they were ground taxiing over to the passenger terminal. As we taxied, I finally saw them ahead of me. We dropped off the passengers and taxied back to parking.
Motivated by "get-home-itis," we chose to ignore the dust storm warning and continue to BIAP. Our excuses for doing that would have never stood up in court. Sure, we were fatigued and didn't want to extend our duty day by stopping at FOB Kalsu. We also didn't want to deal with securing our aircraft and a holding area for the passengers and crew. Also, we never initiated the instrument meteorological conditions breakup we'd been briefed to do when entering dust storms.
Looking back at the mission, it's clear we should have accepted the delay and landed at FOB Kalsu. We should have scrutinized the -1 (weather briefing) more closely when we got word the storm was arriving earlier than previously forecast. That information should have been enough to switch our plans and land at FOB Kalsu. Our succumbing to get-home-itis could have lead to the loss of three aircraft and more than 100 lives. That's a huge price to pay for being in a hurry.
So what about you? How will you balance the risks versus the benefits of hurrying home when faced with dangerous weather? Lady Luck may not be smiling when you try it. Can you afford the consequences if she isn't? Weigh the options and ask yourself which means more - saving time or lives?