SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
From the ground, the sky is a dark void. If it weren't for the rhythmic pounding of the rotors echoing through the inky blackness, there would be no indication a helicopter approaching. From the cockpit of the UH-60 Blackhawk, however, it's a different story. The pilots and crewmembers peer through their night vision goggles (NVGS) and take in the digitized-green-toned view of the terrain below as the aircraft slowly descends and gently touches down on a landing zone surrounded by trees in the midst of the Honduran rain forest. A perfect landing, conducted in the darkness.
For the members of Joint Task Force Bravo's 1-228th Aviation Regiment, flying at night is a job requirement. A mission can kickoff at any hour and being able to operate under the cover of darkness is critical.
"You never know when you may be called out to do a medivac mission," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Juan Canez, a medic assigned to the 1-228th. "There are times you'll be called out in the middle of the night and you have to be able to respond and do the job anytime."
For that reason, the pilots and crewmembers of the 1228th consistently conduct currency flights to ensure all aircrew members are proficient at operating under the cover of darkness.
"We have to train to make sure everyone is comfortable with flying with the NVGS," said U.S. Army Capt. Christopher Morisoli, 1-228th Charlie Company commander and UH-60 pilot. "It's required to have one hour at the flight controls every sixty days to maintain currency, but we try to fly everyone at least an hour at night every time they come on duty, so that can be two or three times a month."
Operating a helicopter during the day can be challenging enough. But flying in the darkness, using the NVGS adds to the complexity of the task.
"With normal vision, you have approximately a 200 degree field of view," said Morisoli. "With the goggles, you have a 40 degree field of view, so it's like looking through a toilet paper tube. You don't have the luxury of peripheral vision. That narrow field of view requires you to keep a good cross-scan going, looking left and right, avoiding hazards and building that 200 degree field of view out of those 40 degree snapshots."
The scanning responsibilities at night don't just fall on the pilots at the controls. Every member of the aircrew plays a role in ensuring safe night operations.
"We talk to the pilots and help paint that picture for them," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kyle Farnes, a crew chief assigned to the 1-228th. "We help them out, especially when they are coming into the landing zone or when we are doing maneuvers like using the hoist to call out any drift so they can correct and get us where we need to be."
The coordination of the aircrew is key to the success of night flying.
"On dark, low-illumination nights, it can be easy to be at the controls and fixate on something outside the aircraft and put the aircraft in a position to contact something on the ground or even another aircraft," said U.S. Army Warrant Officer Zach Lungo, a UH-60 pilot assigned to the 1-228th. "The entire crew has to work together to keep that coordination and communication going to make sure we are all on the same page and backing each other up."
The ability to operate under the cover of darkness also provides a distinct tactical advantage.
"It's a definite advantage," said Morisoli. "It denies a potential enemy the ability to pick us up and track us. It gives us the capability to conceal ourselves and be more tactical."
It's that capability that allows the members of the 1-228th to truly own the night.