By Chief Warrant Officer 2 Nathaniel Barnard, Fort Stewart, Ga. March 6, 2013
FORT STEWART, Ga. - On my most recent deployment, I was assigned to Task Force ODIN to operate and eventually provide instruction on the MQ-1B Warrior Alpha unmanned aircraft system. Shortly after reporting to Fort Hood, Texas, each UAS operator was assigned to a small 10- to 12-Soldier element as they attended their airframe qualification course. They were then deployed to their theater of operation. All of these events would occur within a six- to eight-month period, so, for the majority of the personnel assigned, this was quite a unique experience.
Like the rest of the Army aviation world, the UAS element performs its mission planning and receives a mission brief as well as a weather brief. On this particular training flight, we went through the usual routine - mission brief, weather brief, preflight, engine run-up, trainee records review and briefing the trainee on his flight requirements. Finally, we were all ready to go.
We had thunderstorms to the north of us and also in our mission area. Since there weren't any imminent signs of danger in the weather brief, the crew thought nothing of it. After about an hour or so of instruction on the aircraft operator side (which is typically the left seat), we switched sides to the payload operator side (typically the right seat). It didn't take us long to become engrossed in the instruction and the ever-so-interesting tasks of the PO side. We soon realized that for some reason the video quality was slowly diminishing. What we didn't realize was that the grainy video we saw through the infrared lens was actually raindrops. We were so engulfed in looking at the ground that we forgot about panning the camera around to keep an eye on the impending storm!
It didn't take very long for us to realize this had the potential to be a highly dangerous situation. After updating the mission coordinator on our predicament, the decision was quickly made to return to base. It's like the old saying: Better late than never! We asked the MC to get us a storm update in hopes we could get out of it and beat it home. It was a long shot; nevertheless, we needed to take it.
Unfortunately, our lack of situation awareness was to blame for our predicament. After going back and looking at the recording, we saw we'd been inside the storm for up to 15 minutes before we realized we were in trouble. The newly designated readiness level one operator at the aircraft controls got his baptism by fire that evening. He had the challenge of dealing with some extremely intense downdrafts along with a laundry list of other dangers that could have all been avoided.
By the grace of God we were all able to work together to fly the aircraft out of the storm and safely recover it by the time the weather arrived at the airfield. Miraculously, the aircraft came back without any damage whatsoever.
What lesson did we learn from this experience? Being aware of the weather when you're flying a UAS is an essential part of situational awareness. Just because things are calm where you're sitting doesn't mean your UAS is cruising smoothly in a cloudless sky. Think about where you're flying, not where you're sitting.