CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — The Army helicopter pilots were ready to fly, and the USS Stetham and USS John S. McCain were ready for their landing Tuesday and Wednesday.

Unfortunately for them, nature didn’t give final approval for the extensive exercise planned between the Navy and the 2nd Infantry Division’s 3rd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment.

The Black Hawk helicopter pilots, whose primary missions include medical evacuation and travel with high-ranking officials, had been practicing how to land on a moving ship for weeks — something Army pilots don’t get to do much.

Instead, the landings became an exercise in restraint and safety when visibility near the ship plummeted to half a mile Tuesday.

“That’s like driving a car with your eyes closed,” one pilot in a crowd of others remarked at the medevac hangar.

In an actual war, the level of acceptable risk changes dramatically, officials said. But poor visibility and choppy seas make flight too risky for an exercise.

Rough sea conditions can change the movement and angles of a ship in a hurry, said crew chief Sgt. Leon Eldridge of Company A.

“Anytime you’re dealing with Mother Nature … the roll and pitch can always throw you off,” he said.

In the past few weeks, the pilots landed their helicopters on decks in flight simulators and on patches of land designed like the ship. Pilots had to land their craft in small areas, a skill that avoids damaging the ship or missing it altogether.

The helicopters would have to land quickly in a roughly 40-foot by 20-foot space while the ship moved, said Company A’s 1st Lt. Jerrett Tynes.

“We can’t hover around waiting for a landing spot because … the ship will slide out from underneath us,” Tynes said. “We also have to be cognizant of the fact that the ship is moving away from us as we take off.”

Each pilot must land and take off five times to receive deck qualification.

The training preserves qualification for 180 days, and then pilots can be re-certified either in a helicopter or in a flight simulator.

“The simulated ship is pretty real in every aspect,” said Maj. John McMahan. In some ways “they make it more difficult in the simulator than in real life.”

Pilots recognized the importance of their crew chiefs and “backseaters” during real flights. They must communicate with sailors on deck and the pilots up front to coordinate the landing.

“It’s pretty much a big battle buddy group out there,” Eldridge said. “If you don’t have your buddy’s back, there’s no reason for you to be on the aircraft.”

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