High-altitude missions: A balancing act
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Andy Druilhet brings his UH-60 MEDEVAC Black Hawk in for a landing in a precarious location. Due to the slopes of the mountainside, Druilhet had to perform a 2-wheeled pinnacle landing in a dusty patch at 7,000 feet in the mountains of Afghanistan.
“I had my crew in the back leaned out the windows informing me of obstacles in the landing zone and my co-pilot on the radios communicating with the ground forces,” said Druilhet, 3rd Forward Medical Support Team standardization pilot, 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Gunfighters, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, originally from San Antonio, Texas. “As we touched down, we had the parking brake set so we wouldn’t roll away. I applied some forward input on the cyclic and held the collective in place so the tail of the aircraft would not fall. It was really a balancing act.”
Safe performance of high-altitude missions cause pilots to focus on a variety of variables. These variables include: the temperature at the landing zone, the terrain of the LZ, the dust kicked up from the rotor blades, winds around the LZ and the thin air at the altitude. The two major factors for high altitude missions are the winds and thin air.
“When flying high in the mountains, the winds are unpredictable,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charlie Mock, Company B standardization pilot, 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, TF Gunfighters, 25th CAB, originally from Enterprise, Ala. “All landings in high altitudes are challenging all the time. Throw a gust of wind in during a one or two-wheeled landing at 8,000 feet and things tend to become complicated.”
The winds go hand-in-hand with the other main factor for aircraft performance at high altitudes – the thin air. The thin air of the mountains causes a significant decrease in aircraft performance. Because turbine engines operate from air flow, the thin air causes less proficiency from the engines.
“You have to have a skill set when flying at high altitudes,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Stephen Lodge, standardization pilot for 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, TF Lightning Horse, 25th CAB, also a native of Hilo, Hawaii. “For OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, we cannot hover from 6,000 feet or higher due to our small power margins. Our engagement and reconnaissance missions are challenging due to the power limitations of the aircraft at those altitudes.”
Another aspect of the aircraft that is affected by the thin air is the lift capability. Like the engines, the thinner the air is, the less efficient the rotor blades are at producing lift. The allowable margin of error decreases with the increase in altitude.
Prior to flying in these conditions, the aviators and crew members conducted High Altitude Mountainous Environmental Training on the Island of Hawaii.
“I believe HAMET is a good tool to teach [flight crews] about the winds, terrain, relations between the two and power management of the aircraft,” said Mock. “It is a good asset for training Army aviation. All pilots and non-rated crew members should go through the training prior to coming to Afghanistan.”
Upon completion of HAMET, aviators and crew members have the necessary skills to safely and successfully complete high-altitude operations while engaged with the enemy. The flight crews of the 25th CAB have conducted more than 500 air-assault operations and moved at least 30,000 Soldiers across the battlefield at altitudes above 7,500 feet in the past 10 months.
“I went through the HAMET training in Hawaii,” stated Druilhet. “I felt better prepared this time. Because I did the training before I deployed, I was more prepared for flying in these conditions.”
HAMET offers unique training specifically designed to dramatically increase individual and crew situational awareness on aircraft power and limitations. HAMET gives pilots the knowledge, confidence and proficiency to operate their aircraft routinely and safely at max gross weights in any environment. HAMET training also teaches aircrews to conduct high-altitude operations as a team with multiple aircraft to include multiple aircraft types.
HAMET was developed to ready experienced pilots for success in combat operations and adapting it with training that individual Army CABs have been conducting as part of their regular training operations for the past several years.
“I believe HAMET is a great foundation for deployment training,” Mock said.
“The training on pinnacle landings, lack of power, altitude and temperature makes [HAMET] very applicable for all of our flight profiles,” said Lodge. “The [HAMET] training has been a major factor in our success here in Afghanistan.”
In addition to conducting HAMET training, the 25th CAB also conducted several training rotations at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Island of Hawaii.
“I believe we are well rounded for high altitude operations because of all the training,” Lodge said. “When we conducted our aerial gunneries at PTA, we were training between 6,000 and 7,000 feet there.”
Both high-altitude training events made the pilots more comfortable and confident in their abilities to perform operations at high altitudes in mountainous terrain.
“We do pinnacle landings all the time during training,” said Lodge. “For OH-58D pilots, we only perform pinnacle landings for precautionary landings and during training. At 7,000 feet using [night vision] goggles with limited power to land in a small area is challenging for every aviator. When performing a pinnacle landing, the approach angle is critical with little to no margin of error.”
For UH-60 pilots, pinnacle landings are performed regularly and require the use of all crew members.
“Because I sit in front of the main landing gear, I rely on my crew chiefs to call where the wheels will touch down at so I can focus on the controls and power of the aircraft,” said Mock. “Because the mountainous winds swirl and change repeatedly and quickly, our main goal is to land, unload or upload soldiers, and then take off again in as little of time as possible.”
Due to the training of aerial gunneries at PTA and HAMET on the Island of Hawaii, 25th CAB aviators and crew members were more prepared to conduct high-altitude flight operations safely and successfully during their current deployment to Afghanistan.
Article by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade