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Best-laid plans.

Following an uneventful, five-plane flight from Whidbey Island to Andrews AFB, and a transatlantic leg into Lajes, Portugal, VAQ-132 was well on its way to the first EA-18G Growler operational deployment. We were headed to Al Asad, Iraq. However, when the five aircraft departed Lajes and one of the assigned tankers went sour en route to Sigonella, Italy, "uneventful" no longer applied.

To deliver expeditionary aircraft into the area of responsibility (AOR), the Air Force provides a delivery control officer (DCO), who manages scheduling, fuel planning, routing and diplomatic clearances. The DCO also coordinates between the squadron and the tanking squadron until the destination is reached. The squadron aircrew are responsible for briefing their flight admin en route to the tanker and for the terminal phase of the flight.

Halfway across the Mediterranean Sea, still hours away from the destination and lacking fuel to make it to Sigonella, the decision was made to turn back and divert into Rota, Spain. After an unexpected night of liberty in Spain, the five crews arrived at base operations to brief the plan to follow a single KC-135 to Sigonella.

As the aircrew crowded around a speaker phone to hear the brief from the DCO, the weather deteriorated to 400-feet broken, with heavy rain and reported cloud tops at 20,000 feet. A standard join-up under the clouds was not an option. Following a coordination brief, the flight lead gave a thorough NATOPS admin brief, covering emergencies and contingencies for a five-ship, radar-trail departure to punch through the weather and rejoin the formation on top.

After climbing into dry suits, the aircrew started their jets and immediately encountered a few problems. Three of the jets had bent radars, which precluded a radar-trail departure. Time also had become a factor, as the tanker planned to take off just before the crews walked to their jets.

After a quick discussion over tactical frequency, we decided that each jet would launch as a single and then punch through the weather. The rendezvous would be above the cloud layer en route to joining on the KC-135. Everyone rogered the plan and took off in order. From there, the best-laid plans for the division rendezvous went awry.

Once all jets were airborne, the seemingly simple plan to join-up at the tanker rendezvous point at 27,000 feet became much more complicated than briefed for several reasons. First, the Spanish departure controller immediately changed the routing for each airplane, clearing them for separate altitudes. Second, the actual cloud tops were at 27,000 feet, and all aircraft were IMC while being vectored to the tanker. Third, the controller was confusing aircraft callsigns. This combination of factors immediately reduced aircrew situational awareness and made us very uncomfortable.

After the change in routing and climb instructions were passed to each aircraft, the flight lead hatched a plan to get everyone joined and on the tanker before fuel became an issue. He directed all aircraft to climb above the cloud tops, establish visual with each member of the flight and conduct the rendezvous. This plan seemed logical but required one crucial requirement: help from the Spanish air-traffic controller.


Unfortunately, we had overestimated the ability of the controller to understand our unorthodox requests. We sensed that his bucket was full. As six jets converged on a single point at unknown altitudes, the controller disengaged from his responsibilities for deconfliction. At this point, clear concise communications on the tactical frequency became the crucial element to our safety of flight.

ONCE THE FLIGHT LEAD ENCOUNTERED VMC, he coordinated an altitude block above the weather, so everyone could rendezvous and press to the tanker. A head's-up aircrew then made a timely call for everyone to sound off with their altitudes to reconcile the deconfliction problems. That call quickly built everyone's situational awareness, and a new altitude stack was established as the tanker reached the rendezvous point.

The lessons learned from our departure from Rota were twofold. The first one focuses on the critical skill of adaptability-flexibility. We tend to rely on aircraft and controller systems for the administrative portions of the flight, but they may not be available or adequate, and contingencies must be in place. We relied on radar to keep us separated, and we didn't brief a backup plan if one or more radars were inoperable. Aviators must consider all the contingencies before a flight leaves the ground. For this flight, weather, systems issues and foreign controllers tested everyone's ability to quickly adapt to a situation that was very different from what was expected.

The second lesson is about communication and leadership, which were indispensible in this flight. The call for everyone's altitude allowed us to take a step back and regain the situational awareness required for rendezvous. Good CRM by all fully enabled the mission and moved us one leg closer to our operational commitments in theater.


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Author:Morris, Thomas
Date:May 1, 2011
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