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Landing zone safety officers trained at austere location

by Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
AFCENT Combat Camera Correspondent

2/25/2011 - FORWARD OPERATING BASE LAGMAN, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- At an austere airstrip here, air mobility liaison officers are conducting landing zone safety officer certification training to U.S. and coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.

Twenty-six students from the U.S. Air Force and Army and the Romanian army attended a two-day class that featured classroom training followed by on-the-job training. The certification culminated with a field training exercise involving the Afghan air force.

"The goal of LZSO training is to teach people how to speak the lexicon necessary to communicate effectively with inbound aircraft," said Lt. Col. Stacy Maxey, a Task Force Krom air mobility liaison officer for Afghanistan. "It's also about knowing how to set up a landing zone properly."

Not only does the training cover how to properly communicate what is on the ground to the aircraft, it explains the habits and reasons behind setting up landing strips and landing zones and brings structure to the process, which transcends branch of service or nationality.

"The training will also help enforce the same standard across the board on landing aircraft on dirt airstrips," Colonel Maxey said. "If you can explain why a landing zone is configured the way it is, you can mitigate certain risks to the aircraft and the mission."

The training covers everything from reading initial survey reports to the length, width and depth of a landing strip required for certain aircraft to airfield marking patterns.

"The class gives a basic awareness of what goes into keeping a runway open," said Capt. Matthew Zahler, the Regional Command South AMLO. "Without knowing how everything fits together, you're blindly feeding information to an aircraft without knowing whether or not it's safe."

Among other things taught during the LZSO certification course, the students learn how to inspect the airstrip for safety. To do this, the airstrip will be divided into sections to identify any stresses to the area. If there are any ruts, ridges, depressions or potholes, they are recorded according to their appearance.

Another detrimental factor to landing aircraft on an unpaved runway is the level of dust created upon impact.

"Dust clouds can be huge deterrents to landing aircraft safety," Colonel Maxey said. "The best way to check this is to run a vehicle at high speed, upwards of 60 miles per hour."

Safety is an ongoing undertaking since the seasons in Afghanistan can determine whether airfield operations are conducted or aborted.

"Seasons play a huge factor in the amount of dust clouds that are generated," he said. "When the rainy season sets in, this is usually mitigated and instead there is a problem with the soil being too wet."

The initial class, which was slated for a dozen students, quickly filled to more than double the estimated capacity with participants from Forward Operating Bases Lagman, Davis and Apache.

"I volunteered for this course," said Army Sgt. Elizabeth Ellison, the FOB Lagman Helicopter Landing Zone movement control NCO in charge. "I wanted to fully comprehend and enhance operations necessary to move passenger and cargo throughout the theater via air."

While the training may not be used on a daily, or even weekly, basis, it's important for the people on the ground to know what the protocol is should a "what-if" situation arise and they need to step in.

"Completing this training will ensure that I know what it takes to get (passengers) onto and off of the base," said Army Staff Sgt. Rodney Jordan, the Forward Operating Base Apache NCO in charge landing zone operations attached to Headquarters Element, 2nd Squad, 2nd Command, 2nd Artillery Calvary Regiment. "You can't be proficient at your job if you don't understand what it takes for a plane to land."

The training is also bringing coalition forces into the fold and explaining the thought process behind U.S. air and ground operations.

"I want to know what the opinion of the Airman is on what they see from their perspective in the air," said Romanian Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Chircu, Squad leader for the 13th Command. "It's important to know how ground and air work together and what their different capabilities are. Each has their own important points in this war, from the air and the ground -- we need each other to operate."

The training will bring U.S. and coalition forces a new perspective on landing zone protocol. It will also give them the training necessary to question an airstrip's functionality. This ability to question the structural soundness of an airfield will ensure the safety of all assets involved.

"It's about knowing what questions to ask to be a responsible LZSO," the captain said. "The training will help people catch a lot of mistakes before they happen rather than just winging it and hoping for the best."

Since many landing zones are not conventional airstrips, LZSOs need to continuously assess the strip to ensure that it is still capable of supporting the aircraft without posing a threat to the crew or the aircraft.

"Without people stepping up to be ambassadors for these outpost airstrips, pilots would be landing blindly constantly putting themselves, the aircraft and the LZ in jeopardy," Captain Zahler said. "A good LZSO is a person who sees all the problems that never happened because they mitigated the risks before they became an issue."

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