Knock It Off? One Squadron’s Methodical Approach to a Snowy Troop Lift

BY MAJ MATT COLLIER, HMLA-773 One of the hardest decisions as an aircraft commander or flight leader is whether or not to call knock it off and head back home. We’ve probably all seen knock it off calls that were debatable. On one end of the spectrum are the ones […]

BY MAJ MATT COLLIER, HMLA-773

One of the hardest decisions as an aircraft commander or flight leader is whether or not to call knock it off and head back home. We’ve probably all seen knock it off calls that were debatable. On one end of the spectrum are the ones made prematurely or out of laziness. On the other end are the calls made too late or not at all. The right answer lies in the middle somewhere (to paraphrase Aristotle). This is the story of a series of events I believe were a textbook example of operational risk management (ORM), leading up to a knock it off call that was absolutely the right decision. Spoiler alert: nothing bad happens in this story. I know we’re used to learning only from what went wrong in aviation safety, but I think it can be just as helpful to learn from what went right.

First, some background on our unit. HMLA-773 is unique in two big ways: it is a reserve squadron and it is dual-sited. HMLA-773 Minus is based out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB MDL), New Jersey. Detachment (Det) A is based out of New Orleans. Fluid cross-pollination of flyers and maintainers between the two sites is encouraged, and that sets the background to this event.

A formal symposium was scheduled for a January drill weekend at JB MDL to discuss existing and emerging concerns associated with the UH-1Y, which is still relatively new to Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing (4th MAW), having been introduced in 2014. All squadron Huey pilots and aircrew were in attendance, active and reserve from both sites.

Another big event was also scheduled for Saturday of drill weekend. This was a large-scale insert and extract of 1-114, a local National Guard infantry unit. This was the 1-114’s  first helibourne assault attempt in years.

The plan for drill weekend was complex on its own. Throw weather into the mix and things get even more interesting. Storms in the South delayed the arrival of Det A personnel, meaning the symposium slid from Friday night to Saturday. A bigger issue was a winter storm that hit JB MDL Saturday and left five inches of extremely fine and powdery snow. The Saturday flight schedule was cancelled by higher headquarters meaning the Army insert would get briefed Saturday evening, after the symposium, and would be executed Sunday morning.

The flight leader was Maj Jake Olson. As he sat in the symposium with the snow piling up outside, he thought through all the different factors affecting Sunday’s mission: snow, crews not familiar with each other, limited experience with whiteout conditions, an Army unit not familiar with helos, higher gross weight than normal, more aircraft than normal, etc. His conclusion: this mission could be executed safely with proper controls, but it was medium risk, possibly even high.

This brings us to the 4th MAW risk assessment worksheet (RAW). The RAW is a two-sided piece of paper filled out by the flight leader and signed by everyone flying that particular mission. It is designed to help the flight leader apply ORM to the upcoming mission. Low-risk missions require no further action. Medium-risk missions need the blessing of the squadron commanding officer (CO). For high risk missions, the RAW is brought to the Marine Aircraft Group CO so he can review the planned controls and give final approval for the mission. In the past, the RAW has been criticized by pilots (including myself) for being nothing more than a robotic check in the box. This criticism was mainly because the acceptance of risk rarely goes above the flight leader level and the flight leader shouldn’t need a piece of paper to exercise ORM. In this situation, the RAW (rightly) brought increased scrutiny of the mission and made everyone think hard about what could be done to make an unsafe situation safe. It was a good reminder to us about the importance of airtight ORM. The RAW proved its worth.

The mission was ultimately approved on Saturday night. So what day-prior controls had the squadron implemented to set the mission up for safe execution? The primary control was crew construction. With Det A flyers on hand, there was a wealth of knowledge and experience available. Eight weapons and tactics instructors would be spread out across the five aircraft and, of all the flyers, 10 years of experience was the average. Some had landed in whiteout conditions before, most had not. Regardless, these pilots and aircrew were experienced enough to know their own limits and not exceed them.

Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, the squadron, especially the maintenance department, worked hard to overcome the obstacles put in place by the snow. It would have been easy to just cancel the mission and some probably expected that to happen. Multiple excuses were available, especially since a lot depended on external agencies who didn’t care whether we flew or not. But squadron leaders wanted to make sure the final decision remained with the operators and not with, say, the base plow driver who didn’t know which areas of the flightline to plow. The diligence paid off and the crews walked to the aircraft as planned.

One final piece of information was needed by Maj Olson before determining whether or not to execute the mission. He wanted to test the conditions by conducting single-ship takeoffs and landings in the local pattern without passengers on board. With most of the flightline and runway still lying underneath a blanket of fresh snow, pattern work would be a good indicator of what the crews could expect in the landing zone. This was part of the crawl, walk, run approach that had helped get the mission approved.

The initial hover and taxi by Maj Olson’s aircraft sent a cloud of snow covering the entire ramp. It was two or three minutes before the powder settled and the spectators lining the perimeter of the hangar could see the aircraft again. After about 10 minutes of whiteout landings to the taxiway, Maj Olson made a call over the squadron’s base frequency: “Base, Red Dog 11 is taxiing back into the line. Tell 1-114 we’re cancelling the mission.” The crew taxied back in and shutdown. They re-entered the hangar and found members of the squadron who were interested in hearing about the conditions, not upset that the mission was cancelled. There wasn’t any criticism since there had never been any undue command pressure. Everyone understood this just wasn’t the day to push it.

From my point of view in the ASO seat, the system had worked over January drill weekend with no over-controlling. A CO can set his crews up for success by ensuring a safe and legal flight schedule, but the rest is in the hands of their judgment. There needs to be an environment of trust. The CO has to trust his pilots to buy into the system (proper ORM, using the RAW, etc.) and make smart decisions. In return, pilots and aircrew have to trust that when they try their best to do the right thing, the CO will have their back. In an atmosphere like this, you can expect thoughtful decision-making and an overall safer tone.