Somewhere in the vicinity of Baghdad, 4 Navy HH-60Hs lift out of a FOB, their cabins packed full of SOF assaulters. As the birds lift, the engines whine, struggling to perform in the hot summer air. The targeted individuals are all members of an al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) cell, and tonight we know where they are.
The communications net crackles as the flight forms up and calls in to the mission lead. As soon as dash-4 is latched into the formation, the flight speeds up to cruise. The target is a short flight away, so mission lead is busy checking in and coordinating with the other mission players, from the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform that already has eyes on the target building to the Close Air Support (CAS) jet that is proceeding to a holding point a few minutes from the target until we push toward the insert. Everyone is moving into position.
As the comms roll in, we listen to ISR describe activity in the target area, trying to detect anything unusual or unexpected based on the intel. As I man the right door gun, the cabin full of troops is constantly trying to push me out the door as they try to stay comfortable in the limited space. There are 14 grown men wearing body armor and holding rifles trying to cram into a space not much bigger than a mini-van. It is what it is.
As we hit our last checkpoint before the target, and external comms go quiet as each aircraft maneuvers into their lane to line up for the Landing Zone (LZ). In dash-3, my pilots are twisting in the approach heading and verifying that the correct LZ checkpoint is selected. We quickly run through our unit-designed checklist for this stage of the mission.
With no moon out, the world is dark, even on Night Vision Goggles (NVG). “3 minutes!!” I yell at the chalk leader. We each take a few seconds around this point to mentally run through the approach and go back over the abort plan in our heads one more time, just in case. In this business, there is no time to hesitate or to stop and explain the next step again. Every crew member must automatically know their role and responsibility, especially in the event of contingencies.
As a flight crew, we are now scanning for unique intersections, houses, towers, or anything else that stands out on the imagery to help us verify our position in relation to the LZ. Cutting through the cultural lighting on such a low-light night makes this difficult as our night vision adjusts to the ambient light level. It leaves bright blooms of cultural lighting in the goggles with dark spaces in between them, and we are looking for a particular patch of dark space to land our flight of four H-60s in.
“1 minute!!” Now we are low over the building tops, scanning for the expected visual cues of the LZ. I’ve got my hand on my mic to cover it from the wind as I stand up and lean out of the aircraft to get a good view ahead.
“Contact, off the nose” the pilot says.
“30 seconds!!” I yell at the troops after I have acquired the zone visually. We are just a few hundred meters out. As the outline of the LZ comes into view through the cultural lighting, dash-1’s rotor wash causes the zone to explode in a cloud of dust. Just as quickly as our visibility was improving, it gets degraded by the brownout. We are now flying into the cloud.
After a few uncomfortable seconds of blindness, we pass the last structure before the LZ. The left gunner, while looking for threats and scanning the zone for hazards, spots a hazard that’s about to be a factor for dash-4, on our left. He shoots out an infrared laser beam (“sparkle”) to mark it for dash-4. Their gunners respond in kind, verifying that they have now spotted it, even if they can’t see it yet…at least now they know something is there.
At this point, precise communication is paramount. We start to descend into the zone, avoiding the power lines that run along the the edge. We have lost visibility on the rest of the flight by now. If everyone is where they are supposed to be, everything will be alright. A few seconds later, we touch down and kick out the troops. Within a couple seconds of our landing, our wingman, the last one in the flight, touches down.
As soon as our troops are out and running toward the target, dash-1 lifts. “One is out,” he calls over the inter-flight net as he breaks out of the cloud. Immediately dash-2 follows suit, and the process continues until the entire flight is out of the zone.
One by one, we proceed to join up at the rendezvous point. The insert is complete, but the mission is anything but over. Even the join-up can be dangerous, and we follow our unit-developed procedures to contend with those dangers.
After the join up is complete, we circle at the rendezvous point for a couple of turns while preparing to proceed to the next phase of the mission, which is fuel. We are all thinking, “that zone sucked!” The bad news is that we get to do it all over again during the extraction phase. The good news is we get to skip the fuel stop and extract almost immediately because the SOF element has already captured the targeted individuals, and without a single shot fired.
Inserting SOF at night into an urban terrain LZ directly onto the objective has got to be one of the most exhilarating and dangerous things anyone can do in a helicopter.
Given the environment, LZ selection is usually scarce so you have to work with what is available. Often, your LZ ends up being an irregular shaped area between structures and wires just big enough to fit a couple helicopters. Sometimes it ends up being several single-ship landing zones that need to be assaulted simultaneously.
Occasionally, there is no workable LZ and your only option is to insert via fastrope. The risks are high and the margin for error low, especially at night. Safe execution requires thorough planning and precision.
Just finding the LZ on approach while contending with cultural lighting and low light conditions – even with NVGs – is a skill in and of itself. This is something we call “unfamiliar LZ recognition,” a fancy phrase for recognizing the intended point of landing while having only seen it previously on a map or on imagery. Thorough study and memorization of terminal area imagery is critical. There is no time for recce overflights…the first time you get to see the zone with your own eyes is usually within seconds of landing.
Inserting to an LZ a few kilometers from the objective is often desirable, both to the SOF element and the aircrews. There are several factors that go into making this determination, but that type of insert is not always an option.
As the versatile mantra goes, “Aviation is hours of boredom punctuated by a few moments of shear terror.” Helicopter Assault supporting SOF certainly doesn’t disappoint. These few moments of high stress and high risk are what our crews endlessly train for. It is critical that crews be able to execute their piece of the mission safely and in a timely manner.
Hundreds of flight hours are spent conducting single and multi-ship tactical approaches and brownout landings to the worst LZs anyone can find to build proficiency in order to mitigate the risks down range. When you do this operationally with a dozen SOF assaulters onboard, mistakes can have drastic consequences. Even somewhat “benign” LZs can present risks at night on NVGs.
Landing in hazardous environments, even as a single ship, is a challenge. After being a split second away from crashing while training on only my third NVG brownout landing, I quickly gained an immense respect for the phenomenon that is inherent in desert environments. If not for the experience and skill of the Aircraft Commander, things would have turned out very different. You get what you pay for and that day he was worth his weight in gold. I was amazed how quickly the landing went from controlled to chaos (about 1/4 second), but that is what can happen when a crew isn’t properly trained and proficient at this particular skill set. The only way to achieve this proficiency is through training.
In addition, many of our landings had to be done visually because until recently our aircraft didn’t have sensors to provide instantaneous drift cues to warn the pilot of lateral drift prior to touchdown.
As a side note: As a result of numerous mishaps over the years, Naval Safety Center investigators concluded that upper echelon commanders were administratively to blame due to their failure to install adequate equipment to provide drift cues. Ironically, within months after OND they finally provided the necessary upgrades – after about 7 or so years of asking for it. Bureaucracy at its finest!
The incident mentioned above highlights one of the things I want to emphasize: you have to take risks to train for this mission in order to execute at the level required to do it operationally. You have to practice ad nauseum.
Pilots are required to make hundreds of landings prior to mission qualification using our tactical profile approach so they can execute from muscle memory. In addition, it is necessary for the entire crew to master several non-standard approach methods to fit unique landing situations, such as those required for confined areas. Crews must be capable of performing these under the worst conditions.
After their extensive training, squadron gunners know the landing profile so well that they can immediately sense deviations and verbally direct the pilot to correct. The entire landing phase is very much an exercise in Crew Resource Management (CRM). As a pilot, maneuvering your aircraft during a brownout landing or fastroping situation, when you have limited or no visibility, based on the verbal cues of your gunners brings a whole new meaning to the word “trust.”
Gunners routinely make critical verbal inputs due to their visibility and vantage point, which is often better than the pilot’s. Often, they must fine-tune the position of the aircraft in the zone using verbal cues to the pilot to avoid hazards and obstacles (trash bins, posts, fences, wires, bongo trucks, etc), allowing the crew to salvage the approach and landing instead of having to abort and go around to try again, which costs valuable time.
There is a saying in aviation: “Wave-offs are free.” This means that aborting the landing and taking it around for another attempt comes with no cost. No doubt there is some truth to this phrase, particularly in the training environment. However, operationally there are, in fact, costs associated with wave-offs in this mission. This is why proficient aircrews try to avoid them – safely.
Firstly, waving off, even just a single ship out of several, adds to the risk borne by the assaulters. At a minimum, this means less troops on the ground for the initial assault or a loss of tactical surprise. This can and has resulted in mission failure and puts lives at risk. Put simply, if aircrews fail to get their assaulters on the ground on the first attempt, it forces the assaulters to flex their plan, pick up the slack, and absorb risk.
Secondly, wave-offs present risks to the aircraft and occupants. Aborting a landing in the limited visibility of a dust cloud while you are surrounded by other aircraft (sometimes multiple) and hazards (poles, wires, towers, buildings, etc) is anything but safe, even though crews develop plans to mitigate this risk.
When faced with a wave-off in these environments, often the wave-off is just the least-worst option available, and sometimes it isn’t an option at all. When you become “committed” to the zone, something that happens when you no longer have the engine power to abort, the crew has no option but to find a landing solution and do it fast.
Without a doubt, the best solution is for the crew to get the aircraft into the zone on the first attempt. Of course, you also should try to do this without bending any metal on the aircraft. This is where experience and CRM are critical to success.
The challenges in training a pilot or gunner to fulfill this responsibility cannot be understated. The training syllabus developed by our community over decades is designed to prepare crew members while providing relevant experience and instilling confidence. Training a young 20-something-year-old to have the confidence to make a snap decision based on his ability to analyze the risks of a dynamic situation with over a dozen lives in the balance is a daunting task. To be sure, producing consistently high-quality pilots and gunners requires a mission-oriented organization with an intimate understanding of the mission and associated risks.