Critical Lessons Learned

  • Published
  • By Capt Jason Hurst
  • 14 FTW/SE
Walking into the briefing room, it seemed like it would be just another combat mission on the EC-130H. I was a high-time co-pilot in the squadron and therefore was teamed with a low-time aircraft commander for the deployment. Due to the long missions, a mission planning team plans, files and coordinates each Compass Call combat mission. Nothing stood out in the brief as abnormal, until they informed us that our bingo back to the deployed location was before our air-refueling control time. That meant if we didn't get gas from the tanker, we weren't going back where we came from. My aircraft commander and I were both concerned about this, but knew there was nothing that could be done at this point, and the mission needed to happen. 

The flight into theater and the several fun-filled hours of orbiting went as expected. Now it was time for the Compass Call pilot's favorite part of the mission, the air refueling. As we headed south into the air-refueling track, the weather began looking ugly -- there was a sandstorm at our admittedly low air-refueling altitude accompanied by up-to-moderate turbulence. Realizing our fuel predicament, we did everything possible to try to get our gas. After checking the entire length of the track for better weather and having the tanker check a little higher, we decided the air refueling was not going to happen. 

This is the part of the story when you start asking yourself how we got so deep in the hole. In this case, our divert field was right on the edge of the distance we could go on the remaining fuel. Heading in that direction, we pulled out the printed approaches we were provided for that field. After calling on all of the frequencies listed for the airfield, we couldn't contact them to let them know we were coming. After several minutes of radio chatter from the crew in the back, we got the word that the CAOC had gotten in touch with the embassy, and they contacted the field. 

Great, everything was set; now, if only this weather would clear up. With every minute that went by, our engineer was doing more calculations with the navigator to find out if we would be landing on concrete or sand. With the turbulence and limited visibility, the aircraft commander had his hands full flying the aircraft. In order to alleviate some of the workload, he asked me if I could read to him the only copy of the approach we had. This would allow him to concentrate on flying and me to back him up on the approach. I agreed that this would be the best way to get us both involved in the approach. The navigator handed me the approach plate, and I stared at it dumbfounded. I had never seen a Jeppesen approach plate until now. In hindsight, it's not rocket science to read a Jeppesen approach plate, but it's not the best instruction method when you're not sure whether you'll be flying it or gliding down on it. Unable to read the plate, I handed it to my now disappointed and very busy aircraft commander. The engineer informed us that we could make it, but there probably wouldn't be enough fuel for a go-around. We were now close enough to contact the airfield. I called over tower frequency, requesting permission to land. The response I got was definitely non-standard. "OK, captain, we wait for you." Now, finding this humorous at a time when humor was hard to come by, I asked my aircraft commander, "How does he know my rank?" I once again requested clearance to land receiving back "OK, captain." By now, we decided that it was as close to "cleared to land" as we were going to hear. 

My aircraft commander flew a textbook approach to a full stop landing. Once again, we contacted tower to request taxi instructions, but received back only a "Yes, captain." We taxied to the largest and closest ramp we could see and found someone standing beside a truck waiting for us. As we came to a stop and shut down our engines, we noticed a truck full of people start to pile out and form a circle around our aircraft. This would be a considerate way to secure our aircraft for us, if those who were surrounding the aircraft were facing away from us with their guns. 

After a short internal conversation, we convinced our young airborne maintenance technician to step outside and take inventory of the situation. It was only a short while later that we learned the airport had been closed all day due to the weather and that the "air traffic control" staff on tower's frequency were actually the crew from the fire department.  In addition, the nice gentleman standing outside waiting on us was the airport manager. After learning that it was OK for us to exit the aircraft, the aircraft commander and I stepped out and began our negotiations for fuel. Part of that included waking the only person who knew how to drive the fuel truck and an extensive call from the CAOC to the embassy. After what seemed an eternity but couldn't have been much more than an hour, we were fueled up and on our way back to the deployed location.
Luckily, there was no mishap involved in this incident, no matter how much room we gave Murphy to make one. On that one flight, I learned several lessons that I still use today. The first is to never assume that nothing can be done to improve a dire situation. During our mission-planning brief, if one of us had brought up the question of such a critical air refueling, the mission-planning team might have been able to make some changes, to include finding a tanker for us on the way out or changing the air-refueling time to slightly earlier.  On top of that, we hadn't given much consideration to diverting. It was all too easy to think, "It'll never happen to me." If I had just reviewed the divert package a little more thoroughly, I might have been able to read that approach when my aircraft commander needed me to. The last thing I learned on that mission is the critical importance of crew resource management. Between the mission crew making radio calls to the CAOC, the navigator and engineer calculating gas, my talking to ATC, and my aircraft commander flying the aircraft, we all played a part in getting the plane on the ground safely. This scenario could have had a much different result if the aircraft commander had decided that he could handle the situation on his own. If that had been the case, I probably wouldn't have been here to write this article.