For a defense journalist, there is always something unique about attending the Association of the United States Army’s (AUSA) Institute of Land Warfare (ILW) Aviation Symposium and Exposition, regularly held in Washington, D.C., and its bigger brother, the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A), held all over the country but often in Nashville, Tenn. The spread and depth of senior Army Aviation commanders, program executive officers and generally people who control what is going on in Army Aviation is unmatched anywhere else in the world. The last time as many British senior commanders with such wide areas of responsibility last faced anything approaching a general audience was probably during the celebrations at the end of World War II (although I still have my doubts).
Sometimes you hear things that you don’t expect to hear, but which add into the overall picture of how Army Aviation works and progresses. BG William Wolf summarized some key training and safety messages. He said that while the accident rate and fatality figures are some of the lowest recorded by the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Safety Center (USACRSC), there were still a couple of worrying trends. Privately owned vehicles accounted for 64 percent of fatalities with off-duty fatalities rising, and there was a disturbing number of young leaders involved in accidents who didn’t seem to be ‘getting’ the safety message. Wolf called for a ‘band of brothers/sisters mindset’ at home as well as on the frontline.
Examining Class A accidents during helicopter training, there were still four major areas to address: overconfidence and complacency; aircrew coordination failures; assumption of low risk missions; and inadequate mission planning. All in themselves subjects which are regularly adhered to when flying around the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. But back home, after several months of resetting not only equipment but minds, ‘old hand’ crews can be guilty of adopting a ‘been there, done that’ attitude towards some flight safety procedures. Not wilfully, but being back home with no ground threat and in conditions and weather that they are very familiar with, accidents are happening—even to experienced guys with several tours of duty.
“When crews don’t talk to each other, ugly things can happen,” added Wolf, a timely reminder not only for crews who may be exchanging an older model helicopter for a newer (and significantly more capable) version, but particularly for aircrews in many nations outside the U.S. who are transitioning from old platforms where the pilot is ‘the man,’ to much more complex aircraft where the front seat crew may not have access to vital information that could be mission critical (not to mention life-saving).
Accidents also continued to occur in the war zones, said Wolf. Hot and high altitude operations retain inherent dangers, together with very low light, NVG operations—“51 percent of Afghanistan missions are in support of black/grey special operations”—challenging geographic and climatic conditions, frustration, tiredness and even repetitious tasks.
Several initiatives, some practical and some that are ongoing, are being put into practice to reduce the risk. These include ensuring that the Aviation Task Force trains as a team throughout its reset/training cycles, so that there are no operating clashes or surprises downrange. The aircrew coordination training program was being enlarged and the lessons of power management and gauging wind currents were all essential elements of each deploying unit’s High Altitude Mountain Environmental Training (HAMET). Finally, the modernization of the fleet continues to add more capability into platforms, while the caveat remains that crews need to train and fully understand those differences.