• Published
  • By Capt Jennifer Sherer
  • 66 RQS/DOT
In the Air Force, we focus on a lot of fixed-wing safety issues, such as mid-air collision avoidance, aerobatics, and bird control for runway operations. But for helicopters, the safety concerns are much different. Operations for the combat helicopters, such as the HH-60G PaveHawk and the MH-53 PaveLow, focus in the extreme low-level arena--200 feet and below. Threats, ground hazards, and weather are much different animals in their regime. The most dangerous aspect of flying in combat helicopters today, however, has become the task of landing in desert environments. 

Takeoffs and landings are the most dangerous part of flying for all aircraft; they are also the most critical. Helicopters are most useful because they can land in many places that fixed-wing assets cannot. This has always been the advantage of the helicopter. Since beginning operations in the desert, however, helicopters are finding their all-aspect landing capability in jeopardy. In all services, helicopter pilots have had to revamp their landing profiles to accommodate for what is known as brownout landings. These landings occur because of the dust and dirt that helicopter rotors kick up during their last 20 to 30 feet of an approach that reduces their visibility significantly, sometimes causing them to go pop-eye. These are landing profiles that require a lot of skill and proficiency to do well, and possibly the most challenging part of helicopter flying. 

Have you ever had to land in zero visibility conditions? Imagine shooting an approach to an undefined landing area in the middle of the desert on a low illumination night based on GPS coordinates alone. Add to that sandstorms and talcum powder dust that begins to pick up at 50 feet and envelopes your cockpit and cabin at 20 feet above the ground. In fact, the best way to describe a true brownout approach is to ask you to close your eyes at 25 feet above the ground with near zero air speed and try to land. Now you have an idea of what a brownout landing is. 

Because brownout landings are relatively new to the Air Force helicopter community, there have been many adjustments to standard landing procedures and practices. The helicopter community has had to flex a great deal and reattack traditional landing styles in order to accommodate for multiple new factors involved in brownout style landings. This has been especially difficult for the HH-60G community. The placement of modifications made to the PaveHawk, such as the FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) and infrared countermeasure equipment, as well as several radio antennas, create a challenge for executing a brownout. Although one of these modifications, the FLIR, does improve some of the approach visibility, it hangs from the bottom of the aircraft and has proven the most vulnerable to being crushed in a brownout approach. Even the most experienced pilots are not immune from breaking FLIRs or rolling an aircraft due to a brownout approach. But it's not only the helicopter and its equipment that are vulnerable to a bad approach--so is the crew. 

There is no easy or present solution to making brownouts safer. It isn't possible to avoid brownout approaches completely, because of the realm in which helicopters operate. Both the HH-60G and the MH-53 execute operations that require landing to unsurveyed sites during combat that very often become brownout approaches. The community has taken some steps to reduce the risk taken by executing these approaches. The first control that has been implemented is to require helicopters to land to a prepared landing zone (LZ) as much as possible.  Prepared LZs mostly exist at Air and Army bases in the AOR, as well as FOBs. But it isn't very often that the operations helicopters are involved in occur near prepared LZs. Multiple techniques are taught. Sorties focused solely on practicing the approaches are encouraged, and many restrictions have been put on pilots and their crews concerning how brownouts will be executed. But that is just part of the solution. Technology and aircraft modifications must evolve in order to assist our pilots in what has become the most difficult skill to master. 

The recent mishaps concerning brownouts have ranged from broken FLIR balls and severe aircraft damage to crew member deaths. This has really brought a lot of attention to the helicopter community and has forced MAJCOMs to re-evaluate how to improve helicopter survivability in brownouts. There have been ideas from all over. Some have proposed a technique that is used in the Army. Some Army helicopters have found that removing the cabin doors during missions where brownouts are expected have increased their visibility tremendously. The unfortunate trade-off with that technique, however, is a significant loss in protection from threats. The Air Force hasn't adopted that technique due to the desire to minimize threat risk. Other ideas include an updated FLIR that takes pictures of the LZ when the helicopter first arrives at an LZ. This is called the "see and remember" solution. The simple explanation is that a camera on the aircraft takes a series of 3D topographic pictures while the helicopter is airborne. If a brownout occurs, the image can be synthesized onto a heads-up display to help the pilot safely land the helicopter. Another engineering idea is to create a radio wave system that can "see through" the dust cloud. One final idea is to add a system to the helicopters that will spray potential brownout LZs with liquid to dampen the earth. This system has been patented as "Rhino Snot" and has been getting mixed reviews. The idea behind it is that a ground vehicle in the intended landing zone area can spray a polymer solution onto the ground, and it will adhere to the sand, enough to make it more landable. It is a very controversial idea, but one that some Army helicopters have started to use. All of these ideas at this point are only on the drawing board; our helicopter community has a long wait until the risk of brownout landings is reduced. 

Until helicopters have technology that improves their survivability, the community must focus on good piloting, solid crew resource management, and strong techniques. The only drawback is that brownouts are very dangerous, in peacetime and in combat, and it's hard to have training control measures that won't hamper good crew training for these types of approaches. How does an aircrew train to improve their ability to land in brownout conditions if multiple restrictions are placed on how much they can practice these approaches? Brownout landings have become the number one safety concern in combat helicopter flying. As we struggle to find a way to reduce the dangers of brownout landings, we as leaders must ensure that on every mission, the benefit of the mission outweighs the risk we place on our elite helicopter crews.