The Number One Threat in Iraq: Ourselves
I have flown several times over sections of Iraq labeled dangerous by the Dpartment of Defense. I've flown through tracer fire and what I believe was small arms fire. I've flown over a huge explosion, one that sent a fireball well above our altitude when it detonated about 2 miles (or 30 to 45 seconds) behind us. It generated enough light to make up for the fact there was no moon shining that night.
But I believe the threats I faced in those encounters were trivial compared to three other threats that routinely confront aviation units in Iraq -- and these other, greater threats aren't thrown at us by the insurgents.
Number three on my personal threat list, but still nothing to laugh at, is the desert environment and the loose soil that causes the feared "brown out" landing.
As a helicopter gets close to a landing here, the wind generated by the main rotors wafts the loose dust and dirt into the air. Many times, there is so much material kicked up that pilots lose all visual reference to the ground -- and when the ground is lost, the probability decreases that the helicopter will land right side up. We have already experienced a degree of this with the accident earlier this year.
You're probably imagining this taking place during daylight hours. Try imagining a night landing instead. The dust situation at night can make the situation downright dire, regardless of whether the enemy is anywhere around.
Threat number two bears some relation to the first: It's poor visibility, often made worse by atmospheric dust, combined with a tendancy to ignore common sense.
Generally, we get weather reports of current conditions and forecasts of visibility -- that is, how far away from the aircraft we can see clearly. If visibility falls below a certain minimum, we are not allowed to fly. And if a pilot suspects that the conditions are or will be lower than the official reports or forecasts, then the pilot has the authority to delay the flight.
Since visibility in Iraq is often compromised with blowing dust, we take the weather forecasters' determination of visibility with a grain of salt (or dust) and usually step outside to find the visibility to be much worse than the official forecast. But that rarely leads to a scrapped mission. Sometimes, we fly because of peer pressure. And commanders are often pushy, attempting to accomplish the mission no matter what, even if the weather is sub-par.
Regardless -- when the visibility is poor and we take off, we become our own enemy. As the old aviation saying goes, 'All take offs are voluntary, but all landings are mandatory!' Bad conditions equal difficult, risky landings.
(As if the pot needed stirring with this audience, I pose the question, "How is it that a pilot may decide not to execute a mission for safety concerns, i.e. weather is sub-par, but the troops of 343rd Quartermasters Company, from Rock Hill, S.C., were punished for their protest of mission versus safety?")
This brings us to the number one "enemy" we face in Iraq. It's us, and I mean that literally.
Collisions between coalition aircraft pose the greatest threat to helicopters in Iraq from my point of view -- witness the http://blog.washingtonpost.com/reportingforduty/2006/03/there_i_was_over_baghdad.htmlnear miss (which should really have been labeled a near hit) that I occured on my second mission in Iraq, not to mention the five or six others I've experienced since. As a pilot, my biggest worry is that we will meet some other aircraft traveling at the same altitude, on converging headings, with one of us "blacked outed," that is, with our overt lights turned off.
Since my first mission in Iraq my perception of the biggest threat has changed. I don't worry about getting shot, but about how much of an enemy we are to ourselves.
-- Written 4/30/2006
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