Story by Larry Kennedy
Special to GUIDON
While stationed in the Southwest as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, one of our unit’s missions was to clear Air Force aerial bombing and gunnery ranges of unexploded and practice ordnance.
Practice ordnance, while sounding innocuous, contains explosive charges to produce a white marking smoke and can, depending on the particular round, have explosive charges that are equivalent to 5 pounds or more of high explosives.
Our mission was to conduct a five-year clearance of an aerial bombing and gunnery range located north of the base. The mission would last a month and involve a border-to-border clearance.
Many support issues needed resolution for the mission to be successful, not the least of which was how to conduct a clearance on a very busy range used by active-duty, Army Reserve and National Guard forces.
Good radio communications were a key element of this operation; personnel were required to be under cover when disposal detonations were executed.
At the beginning of the operation, we set up a base camp and emergency evacuation helipad on a bluff overlooking the airfield target complex. We set up an antenna, aligning and adjusting until we could get reliable communications with range control.
Communication with range control was via handheld FM radios, truck-mounted radiotelephones and tactical radios. We also had signaling mirrors and red and yellow smoke for emergencies.
As the airfield target complex was the highest priority for clearance and maintenance, we cleared this area first.
By the second week of the clearance, we were able to allow range maintenance to conduct their operations, repairing and rebuilding this target complex.
At this time, my unit was in a ravine, pulling out 500-pound practice bombs, and out of communication range. Range control continued to attempt to contact us and at the end of our extended duty day, when we climbed out of the ravine and were on the way back to the base camp, we were asked to confirm that maintenance activities on the airfield were complete.
We were tired and looking forward to the end of the day. Without clarifying what they were asking, we confirmed maintenance was complete. We then proceeded back to base camp and secured our equipment for the night.
The route we took to exit the range for our billets meandered through the airfield target complex. As we were about halfway through, our vehicles were buzzed by a flight of four F-15s.
We attempted to contact range control, but communication on the FM radio was intermittent. In addition, the phone number that we were to use, when dialed on the radiotelephone, did not go through.
The aircraft flew out of sight and we decided to exit the complex back to the base camp.
As we turned our vehicles around, we heard a detonation on the far side of the complex and saw an aircraft pulling out of its bombing run.
We immediately popped red smoke and abandoned the vehicles, seeking cover. The second aircraft, which was on approach, saw the red smoke because he aborted his run and initiated an emergency climb.
They departed the range and we evacuated. We were able to contact range control from that location and found out that when the shift changed, the oncoming technician was not briefed properly.
Range safety depends on reliable communications and a complete understanding of terminology and procedures to operate on ranges.
After that incident, it became standard procedure to not go on range clearance operations without a means of direct communication with overflying aircraft. My unit and I were lucky; there were no injuries or deaths resulting from this incident.
Several things bear emphasizing so this doesn’t happen to you, including:
— Know your range procedures; get the required training from your range control officer.
— Conduct a hazard analysis of your operation; identify and mitigate all hazards.
— If you are unfamiliar with the types of operations that can be conducted on your range, ask questions.
— Communications, both for daily operations as well as in emergencies, must be reliable and tested every time you go on the range.
— Ensure your communications with range control are understood and that you both are operating with the same terminology.
— Do not conduct operations without the proper equipment or training.
— When all else fails, make sure you have a backup plan in place.
(Editor’s note: Kennedy is with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Safety Office.)