Dancing in the Dark

Night vision goggles can save a pilot’s life or, if he hasn’t had adequate training, take it.

Pointers and illuminators that project infrared light, invisible to the human eye, enable ground commanders and combat controllers in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify targets and designate them for pilots with NVGs. (USAF/Tech. SGT. Scott Reed)
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Widespread use in the military has slowly begun driving NVG devices into civilian aviation; when military pilots retire or finish their tours, they bring their Gen 3 experience to the private sector. Lately, petroleum companies, medical transports, pipeline patrol outfits, and even mosquito-spraying companies are clamoring to certify their aircraft and crews to fly with NVGs.

The FAA, not wanting to duplicate the entire history of NVGs in the military, 10 years ago began developing guidelines for civilian use. Unlike police units, civilian operators must get FAA approval for their goggles, interior lighting systems, and training programs. On tap for next year are minimum standards for goggle performance, in part to prevent pilots from using substandard night vision equipment now available from "Eastern bloc countries," says FAA rotorcraft specialist William H. Wallace. Bell uses NVGs made by Northrop Grumman; that company and ITT Industries are the principal U.S. manufacturers of the devices.

Until the civilian rules are in place, FAA approvals are granted on an individual basis and can be somewhat ad hoc. In 1999 Rocky Mountain Helicopters became the first air taxi company to earn FAA approval to use NVGs for its EMS helicopters. The company later was bought by Denver-based Air Methods, where Fridd is an NVG instructor.

Chuck Antonio, a former Navy fighter pilot and flight surgeon who later helped develop the NVG training programs for various aircraft in the Navy, Marines, and Air Force, leads a government and aviation industry committee that is advising the FAA on formulating the rules. Based on the military's experience then and now, Antonio believes most NVG accidents are caused by inadequate training, poor crew coordination, and flying too fast for the limited contrast and visual cues that NVGs provide. Antonio studied Air Force, Navy, and Marine accidents in fast-moving jets like the F/A-18, AV-8B, F-16, and A-10 and found that pilots would neglect their flight instruments in favor of the emerald world outside and become disoriented.

The military's safety record today is probably better than it was in the early days, but it's hard to tell. From 1980 to 1989, the Army alone had 79 accidents and 32 fatalities involving helicopter crews wearing NVGs, prompting an investigation by Congress, and the Marines had a similar rash of crashes. As a result the military delved into the human factors issues behind the incidents and created specialized night vision training programs starting in the early 1990s. As for the safety record, experts like Antonio say it's difficult to get a feel for trends since the military is conducting more and more complex night operations with goggles. "This undoubtedly leads to more risk and therefore a greater opportunity for mishaps," says Antonio.

A search of the National Transportation Safety Board's accident records for civilian or government-owned aircraft turned up only one accident where NVGs appeared to play a role. A crash of a Bell OH-58A on October 22, 2001, in Bartow, Florida, killed the police department pilot and observer when the helicopter hit the ground in a swampy area one mile from the departure airport. Though the NTSB found goggles in the wreckage and deputies who had flown with the pilot stated that he had "always used" NVGs for night flight, including landings, the board ruled that continued flight into instrument weather conditions and failure to maintain altitude were the probable causes, not the goggles. The sparse accident record may be a result of the newness of NVGs to the sector, or a byproduct of missions that are less sporty than the military's. "We're not flying nap of the earth, just using [the goggles] to avoid obstacles in getting from point A to point B," says Fridd of the EMS community. Baxter, a member of Antonio's advisory committee, says the industry wrongly believes that pilots with NVGs will fly into clouds and have no clue how to get back out. "It gets back to the training issues of how we identify poor weather," he says. "We teach techniques that help you avoid it." (Bell, which has been training police pilots how to use NVGs for years, got FAA approval to teach civilians in 2002.)

Those weather-avoiding techniques emerged in part from experience in combat operations in the Persian Gulf. In 1987, as a new Army pilot with 17 hours of NVG time, Baxter took part in a classified mission called Operation Prime Chance, designed to escort Kuwaiti oil tankers out of the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. The mission called for crews to fly armed OH-58 helicopters at night, 20 feet above the water, to protect the ships from attacks by smaller boats and to deter the Iraqis from laying mines. "It wasn't doable without goggles," Baxter says. Some say Prime Chance, which ended after two years, was the first successful night combat operation performed entirely with NVGs.

The mission gave Baxter 1,100 hours of flying time, 500 with NVGs. That experience was of great comfort when, during my autorotation, I looked in vain for the 407's landing light to strike gold or hit rock.

No sooner had I called out "I have it" (the ground in plain sight) than Baxter, who with his NVGs knew where he was going all the time, yanked the rotor pitch control up just before we plunked down and skidded 100 feet down Bell's practice runway, a landing that looked easy because of the right training, the right equipment, and the NVG's magic emerald image.

Then Baxter, like every good pilot, issued the requisite self-critique. "I coulda used even less runway," he said.

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