Only five days after I wrote the last entry about our real enemies in Iraq, we faced one of them -- poor weather conditions -- and risked the lives of all of those aboard four of our aircraft.
As with every mission, we ran through our checklists, paying particular attention to the weather. Our process is to request current and forecasted weather conditions from several different agencies. While in Iraq, we've noticed weather reports issued are always, without fail, skewed -- or as the pilots say, "Lies!"
We have minimum requirements of a 1,000 foot ceiling and three statute miles visibility for flying at night. Every night we check the weather, it seems that current condition reports and forecasts aren't accurate. Weather professionals aren't always accurate at home -- in fact, they're wrong a lot -- but here you wonder if there is command pressure not to report below the legal limits for us to launch and fly missions.
This time, we checked weather and, you guessed it, the current conditions and forecasts all said we would experience visibility no lower than 3 miles, right at our minimums to fly. Our instincts and the cloudy skies we'd seen on our way in to work told us to consult the weather radar on the Internet to see what was brewing. We saw large cells of thunderstorms moving our way, but the forecasts and current conditions issued by the weather agencies online cited nothing but clear weather for the night.
At the pre-flight briefing, the briefing officer started out with "This is a lie, but I will read it to you anyway," then read the official weather forecast. We requested more detailed forecasts, specifically asking about the activity we were seeing on the radar, and were told weather was not going to be a factor for our flight period. So, we reviewed our flight route and planned weather checks at specific points during the flight. Then, we took off.
The first leg left us with no doubt that the weather was acceptable to make the next leg of the trip. We continued, heading east into Baghdad. As we did so, we began to see lightning flashes through our night vision goggles -- activity that was not visible to the naked eye, but close enough to cause us to request weather updates over the radio before our planned weather check points to the east.
The controlling agency over Baghdad gave a report that visibility remained "legal" and made no mention of lightning or impending storms. "Let's hurry up 'cause something is on its way and these bastards aren't admitting it," the pilot in command called over the radio to the other aircraft as we made our cargo drop and pickup in Baghdad.
We took off and asked the controlling agency what weather they were reporting. Again, nothing significant was mentioned. The passengers had no idea what was transpiring in the cockpit or in the air around them. They trusted that we would keep them safe and do the right thing. But the system was failing.
Suddenly, lightning struck just to the east of our location, about 5 miles away. We called the controlling agency and reported the weather we were experiencing. This would be the first true weather update the system would get, which could then be reported to other aircraft. Knowing that there were several sorties of aircraft in the sky between Al Taqaddum and Baghdad, and that all were at risk, we felt the need to start correcting the weather reporting. But we joked in the cockpit that our reports would be ignored or withheld from the other crews.
We flew west, heading home, thinking that the weather was behind us to the east over Baghdad, but then our goggles picked up lightning to the west. As the pilot not on the controls, I announced the conditions, then took off my goggles to see if the lightning was visible with the naked eye. It wasn't.
Halfway to TQ, we changed controlling agencies and requested a weather update from Al Fallujah. The update went something like this, although I'm not 100 percent certain about the ceiling height:
"Winds from the south at 5 knots, visibility 5 miles with a ceiling of 20,000 feet."
The pilot in command broke squelch and asked Fallujah "What about any reporting of thunderstorms?" Fallujah replied with "Nothing is reported within 40 nautical miles, sir." Over the intercom, the pilot in command asked, "Am I crazy? Doesn't that lightning look closer than 40 miles away?"
Then, keying the radio, he said, "Well, I am not sure what your source for weather is, but it is wrong and if you would step outside and look, you would see there is lightning within 40 miles of here. Thanks for the update. We are on our way to TQ."
With that, we continued on to the west thinking that the worst of the weather was still behind us, until we noticed the visibility dropping. TQ is only a 15 minute flight from Al Fallujah, and 5 minutes west of Fallujah, the visibility dropped to less than three miles. We began preparations for landing when the visibility dropped to almost nothing. The runway was less than four miles from our position and we couldn't see it. Each station in the aircraft called visibility less than a half mile.
This is where sweat began to permeate, and we went into survival mode, communicating and taking actions quickly, with no time for review.
I keyed the mic to check on the second aircraft at our "six." Its crew replied that they could still see us. I talked to TQ tower faster than they could talk back. Three miles out from landing, we declared ourselves en route to the airfield -- but then pulled a 180 degree turn.
"Return to Fallujah!" we radioed the second aircraft. They acknowledged and followed. We called TQ tower, telling them we were outbound, with visibility of a quarter mile. Another aircraft came over the radio approaching TQ from the northeast, where they said visibility was unlimited. Our response was to turn in their direction. I entered the northern point into the GPS, called the tower and got permission to head where visibility was supposedly unlimited. Permission granted. Only the visibility was no better.
Straight down is the only direction where we can see anything. Should we put it in a field right here, right now? Even though we're "across the wire" from TQ? Altitude 200 feet. Map out. Are there towers below us? Or wires? Other structures? No. Open fields, good! Put it down? No. Visibility still no better, we left turn straight in. Tower, we're inbound. Three tenths of a mile, no runway lights. Two tenths, a dim line. One tenth, finally there is a runway, okay, here we are. Tower, we are landing here and shutting down on taxiway Romeo.
Brakes are set, as we park the aircraft. I look at the pilot in command and he looks at me. Smiles on our faces that said, we did it, don't want to do it again, and holy crap let's get out of this thing! The relief was like nothing I have ever experienced. I had a thousand pound brick lifted off of my chest and took the largest, clearest breaths I have ever taken. Shutdown was quick and we started shedding our equipment like it was on fire. We wanted out and to put our feet on the ground. There were three other Punisher aircraft with crews similarly elated to be on the ground. As the crews met on the taxiway, one of the more experienced pilots in command shook my shoulder and said, "Well, you're not a virgin anymore."
As for the weather, I am sure the command has a bigger picture, where maybe more accurate forecasts would hinder the mission of transporting things by air. But my point of view is that the cost is just too great. Next time we find ourselves in a similar situation, I am sure our pilots will stay on the ground. The weather reporting agencies have cried wolf one time too many.
-- Written 5/10/2006
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