Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Marginal Weather Flying ~ Smooth Sailing

Korea is known as "The Land of the Morning Calm" where ground fog is often found over bodies of water until the sun manages to burn it off.
Valley ViewAs a pilot I was treated to some remarkably beautiful sights involving ground fog especially on early morning flights. I remember once watching a valley full of ground fog overflowing a low spot in a ridge and cascading down like a waterfall into the lower realms of the adjacent valley that was clear.

Another time there was a huge clear cavern through the fog that led to the headquarters of a Korean General I had to pickup for the days mission. It was like flying into a long horizontal cave. Like a cave that gets darker the deeper you penetrate it, the weather got poorer the farther back and closer to the pickup spot we got. The weather allowed us access in and out though.

The Korean Peninsula is divided North from South by the DMZ (DeMilitarizedZone) which is roughly located along the 38 parallel.
Korean DMZ

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Immediately south of the DMZ is a thin strip of land approximately 5 miles wide called the Buffer Zone that requires extensive training to be cleared to fly inside of it as a PIC (Pilot In Command). I became a BZ pilot and later a BZ check pilot that trained others to be cleared to fly the buffer zone.

The Korean Buffer Zone is divided into 7 sectors. We trained aggressively in zones 1 through 4. Any flight in zones 5 through 7 required picking up a ROK Navigator before entering the buffer zone. This was more a formality than anything else. Harry told me that my own personal map navigation better be up to speed whenever I was required to pickup a Korean Navigator because totally relying on the Korean with the lag in our inefficient language communications could get you in serious trouble.

If it was obvious an aircraft was going to overfly the DMZ, the South would fire warning shots in an attempt to warn the pilot away. The North would not shoot at you until you realized your error and turned around in an attempt to get back to the right (south) side of the line. When the North Koreans shot at you they intended to shoot you down.

One of the men I trained in the BZ later returned to Korea for another tour as a Chinook pilot. During that tour he was involved in the recovery of an OH-58 that had been shot down.

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On this particular day I had a mission into buffer zone sector 5 north of Chuncheon. We were scheduled to pickup our ROK Navigator at a small Korean airstrip just to the northwest of Hwacheon. We flew relatively high to the Chuncheon Valley. The Pukhan River connected Chuncheon with Hwacheon. It is a pretty large body of water. When we cleared last ridge obstructing our view of the Chuncheon Valley we were greeted by a large expanse of ground fog.

The area to the north of Hwacheon inside the buffer zone where we needed to go was totally clear, but the Korean airstrip where we needed to pickup our ROK navigator was also covered by ground fog.

It was also clear just to the south of the buffer zone where we needed to go. If I could get into the valley that the airstrip was in we could comfortably follow the rice paddies to the airfield.

In the satellite view below showing the "Ridge Point of Crossing" you can see two valleys. The valley on the west was fog enshrouded. The valley on the east was clear. As luck would have it the airstrip we needed to get to for our navigator pickup was in the valley on the west.

Ridge Point of Crossing

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We descended into the valley on the east very near the green arrow showing the low area on the dividing ridge. The fog was not hugging the ridge tightly and we were able to easily hop the ridge and make it into the bottom of the western valley.

Once in the western valley we air taxied following rice paddies all the way to the airstrip where our ROK navigator was. It was easy and safe traveling to the airstrip over the rice paddies in a helicopter. We flew about 15 feet above the rice paddies at a comfortable airspeed that allowed us to easily see and avoid any obstacles. Also if any aircraft problems tried to beset us it would be an easy matter to simply land in one of the rice paddies. This was a comfortable and fun flight. There was no pucker factor involved. (Pucker Factor is a measure of the stress in any situation. A high pucker factor means high stress.)

AIR TAXI- Used to describe a helicopter/VTOL aircraft movement conducted above the surface but normally not above 100 feet AGL. The aircraft may proceed either via hover taxi or flight at speeds more than 20 knots. The pilot is solely responsible for selecting a safe airspeed/altitude for the operation being conducted.

ROK Navigator Airstrip P/U Point

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Once we arrived at the airstrip, I landed on the grass beside it. We could make out the outline of the buildings housing the Koreans through the fog. Pretty soon our ROK navigator came out with his helmet bag and personal maps. He double timed to just outside our rotor disc before he stopped. Then he put his gear down and simply shook his head indicating that he was not going to get onboard with us obviously because of the weather.

I had a full bird colonel onboard as one of my pax. He saw first hand what I had done to get to the airfield and knew everything was safe and cool, so he volunteered to get out and try to talk the Korean into going with us.

The colonel returned without the Korean shortly after trying to convince him. The colonel said, "He's not listening to me."

I said, "Well I'll get out and give it a try."

The colonel said, "I don't think he will listen, but go ahead and try."

I love languages. Unfortunately I'm only fluent in English. It seems conversations always gravitate to the easiest language to communicate in and so many people know English that it takes a real effort to practice other languages. I knew a little Korean. Most americans seem to focus on learning the expletives. Those didn't interest me. I really wanted to learn to communicate properly in the other language, so I practiced and the older Koreans obliged me and helped me.

When I got to our navigator I flashed him a friendly southern boy smile and told him hello in Korean, "ad-je-shee, ahn-nyong-ha-se-yo."

Then I pointed up the valley from where we came and said, "Cho-gi (There) jo-seum-ni-da (good)!" I followed that with, "ee-di-wa-ka-sip-se-yo (Come on with us)" and nodded with a smile. He nodded back, picked up his stuff and climbed on board with us.

It was a good flight. We air taxied back up the rice paddies and jumped the ridge again at the same spot we previously used. Back in the clear air we then we got out clearance to enter the buffer zone and we proceeded to checkout the things we needed to.

The flight took enough time to allow the sun to melt off the ground fog we had to deal with earlier and we returned the navigator back to his airfield without having to deal with anymore fog. It wasn't quite as fun as picking him up, but I'm sure he had some tales to tell when he got back to his buddies who thought he'd never climb on board with those crazy americans who flew to their fog shrouded airfield.

It was a fun day...


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