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News > Feature - Eye of the storm (Part 1): Shaw Rapcon brings the calm for Army Apache pilots
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Eye of the storm
U.S. Army Maj. John McElveen (left), Delta Company 1-151 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion executive officer, and U.S. Army Capt. Adam Sarver, Delta Company 1-151 ARB maintenance company commander stand in front of an AH-64D Apache “Longbow” helicopter, McEntire Air National Guard Base, S.C., Jan. 24, 2013. McElveen has 18 years of piloting experience, seven of which was in a Black Hawk, Sarver has five years of experience primarily in the Apache “Longbow.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Daniel Blackwell/Released)
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Eye of the storm (Part 1): Shaw Rapcon brings the calm for Army Apache pilots

Posted 1/29/2013   Updated 1/29/2013 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Daniel Blackwell
20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

1/29/2013 - SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Editor's Note: The U.S. Air Force air traffic control career field is separated into two different aspects: air traffic control tower and radar approach control. This article is part one in a three part series on Shaw's RAPCON and the Airmen who make the mission happen. The Shaw RAPCON is responsible for all air traffic operations - military or civilian within 50 nautical miles of Shaw AFB, S.C.

Blue skies fade to grey as fog descends on the horizon. The tail lights of the vehicle in front of you melt seamlessly into the looming mist ahead. Light rainfall adorns the windshield, as you turn your headlights on. You pass into the veil of grey, your car enveloped by the fog. The muffled sound of thunder rolls across the sky, lost against the rhythmic beat of the wield shield wipers and heavy rainfall. Sporadic lightning bolts slice through the fog revealing distorted silhouettes on the surrounding landscape. You realize you can't see more than three feet in front of your car as you struggle to stay in your lane and on the road. Your passenger shifts nervously in their seat. . .

Weighing the risks, you decide to pull over until the storm clears and the roads can be safely navigated.

Many motorists have experienced conditions such as these at one point in their life. Few however, have experienced such circumstances thousands of feet above the ground.

On Jan 3, 2013, U.S. Army Capt. Adam Sarver, Delta Company 1-151 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion maintenance company commander, and U.S. Army Maj. John McElveen, Delta Company 1-151 ARB executive officer, experienced similar adverse and unexpected weather conditions while flying an AH-64D Apache "Longbow" helicopter as they returned to McEntire Air National Guard Base, S.C., on a routine flight.

When flying an aircraft, waiting out adverse weather is not an option. During such conditions pilots must trust and rely on three things, McElveen explained.

Rely on the training they've received. Trust the accuracy of their electronic instruments within the aircraft, and trust and rely on the nearest radar approach controller to guide them to safety, he continued.

Shaw Air Force Base's RAPCON Airmen who guide aircraft through allotted airspace and assists pilots with navigation when needed, did just that for Sarver and McElveen.

McElveen later expressed their sincere gratitude via email.

"I'm not sure the unit or who the Airman was," McElveen wrote. "But on Jan. 3, 2013, my copilot and I found ourselves in very bad unexpected weather. Without many options left we called Shaw's RAPCON section."

"Thanks to the quick and professional response of the controller on duty, we received the clearance needed. This was a situation not many Apache pilots ever want to see themselves in," he continued. "We were fortunate to have such a well trained controller on duty at the time."

That well trained, professional controller on duty was Senior Airman Benjamin Marconi, Operational Support Squadron air traffic controller. He spoke with McElveen and Sarver on that day and helped guide them to safety in their time of need.

"It felt good to get appreciation like that from a pilot because it doesn't happen often," Marconi said.

"But truthfully I was just doing my job," he continued. "Without the Air Force training, I would have had no idea what to do."

Similar to Marconi, McElveen and Sarver's training played a large role in the successful flight.

"We train to fly off our instruments," Sarver explained. "But sometimes as young pilots we tend to want to use our sight rather than trust our instruments. But when everything is white around you, you really have to trust your instruments and guidance from RAPCON."

"I've experienced bad weather before," McElveen explained. "What made that day different was that we went inadvertent IMC (Instrument meteorological conditions or "bad weather")."

"What that means is that we didn't plan on going into the clouds or experiencing that type of weather. We usually have time to plan ahead for such weather."

"Going into that storm was kind of like driving down the road, then someone puts a blindfold on you and you have to keep driving," he continued. "Then you have to listen to them direct you where to turn and when to stop and go."

"From looking out the aircraft and being able to see that horizon, to not being able to see a few feet in front of you and having to trust your instruments is a skill set you really have to train for."

At extreme depths or altitudes (especially under adverse environmental conditions such as storms) the human body may experience spatial disorientation. This results in the inability of an individual to determine their true body position, motion, and altitude, relative to the earth or their surroundings.

For pilots, this can have life threatening results. If a pilot fails to trust his instruments and becomes spatial disoriented they run the risk of stalling their aircraft flying at angles it's not meant to operate at, accidently nose diving toward the earth thinking they are flying straight or potentially flying into high rising structures or land masses such as buildings or mountains, McElveen explained.

"Your body might tell you one thing when flying," McElveen continued. "But your training will tell you something else. It's always best to trust your training."

Pilots are briefed on adverse weather conditions before each flight and modern aircraft are equipped with tools to combat such conditions. However, sometimes these tools and precautions are not enough and RAPCON assistance is needed, McElveen explained.

"When we first hit the clouds we changed to our infrared system, which helped us see through the clouds initially. As we got close to Camden," McElveen said. "The conditions became worse and the infrared became ineffective."

"Seeing that we'd need some assistance, Adam tuned up Shaw's RAPCON to get IFR (instrument flight rule) clearance."

Shortly after making radio contact, Marconi was able to locate their aircraft, assign it an identifier and give them the necessary clearance to fly confidently in the storm.

Unprompted, he also gave them the weather for their destination so they could begin to prep their equipment on their approach.

"Another thing he did, which was one of the reasons I contacted Shaw, was he immediately gave us the weather at McEntire." McElveen explained.

"That's not part of their job," he continued. "Their job is not to tell us what the weather is but to control and direct the aircraft through the airspace. Knowing the weather helped out a lot. When you're in conditions like that, the cockpit gets very busy so anything that can help you plan ahead is greatly appreciated."

Due to their mutual cooperation and trust, with Marconi, McElveen and Sarver were able to safely land their aircraft.

"I believe it was a combination of great communication and great training on both ends that made this a successful flight despite the weather," Marconi said.

"In my 18 years of flying I've never encountered a situation like that day," McElveen said.

"Going through an experience like that really makes you appreciate things a bit more," he added. "Needless to say I hugged my wife and kids a little tighter when I got home that day."

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