"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Friday, March 14, 2008

The perfect storm

WARNING: for those who'd rather not know just how dangerous our little flying hobby can get, and how quickly a situation can develop where you seriously wonder whether you're coming out of this alive, stop reading right now. I'm writing this because a) I need to do something to get the whole thing out of my system and b) on the off-chance that the handful of aviators and military types who traffic this page might get something useful from these 'lessons learned' to avoid a similar situation. For those who'd rather not read about how close we came to tempting fate, go read about Spitzer's hooker on the Drudge Report. There are probably good pictures too.

Right. So about 24 hours ago, I launched as the dash-2 co-pilot on what would turn out to be, no kidding, the scariest flight of my relatively short career thus far. I'm willing to bet that it will remain the scariest flight until I get out of the Marine Corps. We encountered virtually every meteorological phenomenon you possibly could, all at the same time, in the worst flight regime it could happen. I probably should have known it would be a bad day because I started the morning by taking a spill on my little scooter on the way to work. It rained the night before and the roads were still slick. I quickly discovered that the little plastic wheels on a Razor don't have very good traction under those conditions. So, what was supposed to be a turn wound up being me sliding across a few feet of asphalt. No big deal, though; the only thing really hurt was my pride, since about ten other people from the squadron were watching when it happened and got a good laugh out of it. But it was a premonition of things to come.

Our flight this particular day was divided into two parts: the first was a quick hop to a couple of zones just to our north along the Euphrates, followed by a long leg out west and back. The first leg went without a hitch. There was still a little rain in the area, but we had good cloud ceilings and visibility and encountered no problems getting into our zones and back to home field. We were well ahead of timeline, so we shut down the aircraft for an hour to go get lunch and look at the weather. We already knew that the forecast for the next 72 hours was for poor weather throughout the AO, but after this morning it already hadn't been quite as bad as forecast, so we launched with the intention of turning back around if we ran into anything significant.

Which we did. First mistake: we did not turn around as we should have. At about the halfway point, we ran into a line of rain showers. We had good visibility with the ground, and could see the shower cells ahead of us, so we figured we could 'hunt and peck' our way through to the other side. We seemed to be getting through fine until we started getting hail on our windshield. We called our flight lead, who was just ahead of us, to tell him we were turning back; he quickly responded that he was clear on the other side, so we we came back to the left and sure enough, punched through it in a matter of seconds. And it was clear on the other side, with the caveat that the passing thunderstorms had stirred up a haboob, the other kind of sandstorm we get here (think I had pictures of it up on an earlier post). The haboob is caused when a collapsing thunderstorm blasts up a wall of dust with the downdraft and then pushes it outward in all directions, looking for all the world like that storm from The Mummy. It's intense but over quickly. So, lo and behold, we had a haboob on the other side of the rain showers, which we were forced to skirt for several miles until we got to the edge of it and could proceed back on course to our destination (Iraq must be the only country in the world with enough loose sand left after a pelting rain shower to form a dust storm). We made it to our landing zone without any more weather games, and meeting my fellow co-pilot at the porta-john while we were getting refueled, I commented that the return trip would be "interesting". I was joking, as I figured we had just flown through the worst of it and that getting back wouldn't be as tricky, since it was all blowing away from us. I was wrong.

We gassed up, got our passengers, and took off for what we believed was the last leg of the day. Almost right away, however, things started getting difficult. About ten miles northeast of the zone, we ran into blowing dust that was getting picked up by strong gusting winds from our tail. We tightened up our formation and flew lower and slower to keep good reference with the ground. The dust cleared after a few minutes, and we trucked on for a while with good visibility all around us. At the halfway point, we started seeing some dark clouds ahead of us, at which point we thought, "Here we go again." I gave the controls up to the HAC, who'd flown us through the initial crappiness, and we turned up our anti-collision and position lights so that dash-1 could keep an eye on us (he did the same). We assumed we would encounter a small band of weather like the one we hit on the way out, but this was nothing like the first one.

So we started going into it (second mistake). To our front and right it was getting darker, with brown-red clouds full of dust all the wind behind us was kicking up. To our left and rear, it was still light, and it stayed like that for some time. We were at about 500 feet above the ground, and still had a mile or so of visibility around us. The two HACs in the section were among the most experienced we had, so their 'comfort level' was higher than ours, and they felt confident pressing on so long as we could see the ground around us and each other. It was raining - not just water, but this nasty dirty rain mixed with dust that seeped into our cockpit and coated our instruments with slime - but not heavily. After a few minutes, however, we started seeing flashes of lightning in the clouds around us. Now my spidey-sense started tingling: as a rule, we avoid lightning and thunderstorms to the max extent possible, and here we were pushing deeper into one. But, as the hairs on my neck began standing up, we broke into a lighter area, and we started thinking that we'd have an easier time ahead, as we'd only gone through one line of storms on the outbound leg.

Turns out this clear area was the eye of the storm. At this point we were talking to home field tower, asking them what the weather was like at the field, and they first reported 7 miles of visibility with cloud ceilings at 6000 feet. So, we figured we'd beat out the storm behind us and could still make it home before that junk hit. On we went, but instead of getting better it quickly became much worse. Within five miles of the field, we started getting heavy rain, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see our lead aircraft, lights and all, through the water, clouds, and lightning. And then, as these things usually go, we managed to arrive over the field at exactly the same time as the heart of the storm. We were within a mile of the runway when tower told us that visibility was 1/16 of a mile (translation: you probably couldn't see your car parked in your driveway at that distance). I saw two lights off to our left, and that was the last time I saw the ground for ten long minutes.

We lost sight of our flight lead about the same time we lost sight of the ground. What had been a dark smudge with flashing lights on our rain-beaten windscreen had now disappeared into the roiling brown clouds around us. We immediately called out on the radio to them that we were 'blind' and were breaking off to the left and climbing up for separation. He told us what altitude he was at, and we continued our climb to a thousand feet above that. We both switched up approach control and worked on getting radar vectors out of there to a safe field in the east. Approach told us to come left to a southeast heading towards al Taqaddam, but we knew that our lead was somewhere on that bearing to our right and we wanted to get good deconfliction from approach so we didn't run into him. The controllers chewed on that for a second as we continued our turn into what turned out to be the strongest part of the storm. We were completely engulfed in angry red-brown clouds, surrounded by flashes of lightning, and getting lashed by rain which suddenly turned into hail.

Things then got about as bad as they could. Approach had just told us to 'ident' ourselves on their radar screen, and I had just hit the switch that pinged us on their scopes, when the HAC told me to get the speed control levers up because we were drooping turns. This was bad: 'turns' refers to the speed at which our rotor is spinning up top, and when we 'droop turns' it means the rotor is slowing down and losing its ability to provide lift. I looked at our rotor tachometer and saw that our rotor speed was 10% below its normal operating range i.e. bad. I ran the speed control levers full forward to provide as much rotor speed as our engines could give us. I then glanced at our vertical speed indicator to see what that did for us, and saw that we were coming down out of the clouds at about 1000 feet per minute. Approach said something over the radio, but the HAC cut him and declared an emergency because we were rapidly losing altitude. Declaring an emergency gives you immediate priority in all controlling agencies and clears everybody out of your way, not that there was anyone else out there, or much that approach could do for us. Looking at our attitude gyro, I saw that our nose was pitching up between 10-20 degrees, and then I saw our airspeed was bleeding down to 60 knots and getting slower. We had either stalled out or hit a massive downdraft that was sucking us toward the ground. Regardless, we were in the worst possible weather and now in the worst possible flight regime: uncontrolled flight. The HAC had the controls and was trying to stop our plunge out of the sky. All I kept thinking to myself was that we were about to become the combination of two bad previous mishaps, one of which happened to our squadron on an earlier deployment and killed 30 Marines in a bad sandstorm, and the other which involved an aircraft in a sister squadron that entered stormy icing conditions, like us, iced up, and lost 4000 feet of altitude in less than a minute of uncontrolled flight. I started to pray.

All of this happened in less than 10 seconds. We lost about 750 feet of altitude, and then our descent stopped, we got our airspeed back up, and we got our turn back in to the vectors approach had given us. As we turned, I looked down through the clouds and got a quick glimpse of the lights on some of the barracks on the north side of the field. The temptation to try and drop down through that 'sucker hole' and find a place to land was pretty strong; but with the gusting winds, frequent lightning, and horrible visibility, trying to do so would have killed us more certainly than that plunge through the clouds. The ground quickly disappeared again and we were back in the monster that was doing its best to toss us out of the sky. But we were under control and on the course approach had given us. After a minute or two the sky started getting lighter, and a minute thereafter we could pick up the ground again through the clouds. We finally broke out into the clear several miles east of the field, cancelled our radar coverage, and started looking for our lead aircraft so we could rejoin and head east to our divert airfield (somewhere around here our crew chief piped up and told us to pull back the turns on the engines; looking at the instruments, I saw that the engine temperatures were well above standard operating limits after I threw them forward to get our rotor speed up. But, those things are designed to operate out of limits just long enough to give you emergency power when you need it. Well, we needed it, and they gave it to us, and it's an unwritten rule that a 53 pilot will burn the engines off the aircraft before putting it into the ground). We found dash-1, joined up, and headed to TQ.

We (finally) landed, shut down, and inspected the aircraft. Apart from shedding all of our blade tape (heavy tape put on the leading edges of all the main rotors to protect them from wear), the birds were fine, but we now had to tie them down before the storm bore down on our divert field as well. Which it did: we started putting the blade ropes in just as the front edge of the storm hit, and so we were forced to tie the helicopters down in a blinding sandstorm with gusting winds. We were all pretty tired of any and all weather at this point, but we got the birds secured and left them to weather the storm while we went to eat and find a place to sleep. I have never wanted a beer so badly with dinner in my life.

The trip back home was, mercifully, uneventful. Talking it out with the other pilots once everything had calmed down, it was clear that there were several points at which we should have thrown in the towel and turned around well before we got ourselves into what has been universally described by everyone in the squadron as the worst weather they have ever seen, ever. The experience and flying skills of our two HACs probably saved us from becoming another mishap, but we shouldn't have put ourselves in a position to have to use those superior skills. We were extremely fortunate: lesser weather has killed people out here, and we had the worst of everything - heavy turbulence, high winds, freezing temperatures, rain, hail, zero visibility, and lightning all around us. I now have a healthy respect for the weather, not just here, but wherever I happen to fly in the future. I will never put an aircraft that I command in that situation, nor will I allow myself to be taken to a point of no return by someone else in the future.

I'd like to close with a word of deepest thanks and gratitude to everyone who has prayed for us while we've been out here. Between the Lady of Loretto medallion in my flightsuit pocket and the many candles and Aves that have been dedicated to us, your prayers were the wind beneath our rotors. We made many mistakes and wound up smack in the middle of a worst-case scenario where, for the ten seconds we were falling out of the air, I fully expected us to die. That we came out of it with nothing worse than a huge lesson in humility I cannot solely attribute to our flying skills. There were angels beneath our wings because of you, and they saved us.

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