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Posted on Oct 20, 2009 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 042 – Air Movement Plan

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

"Strategy is the art of making use of time and space.  I am less concerned about the latter than the former.  Space we can recover; lost time never."
 Napoleon Bonaparte


In our last article, we continued keying on the inter – linking plans of an air assault operation with a focus on the landing plan.  As with all the phases, the landing plan must be developed to support the ground tactical plan.  To achieve this, it must sequence tactical units into the objective area at the right time and place in order for them to accomplish their assigned task and purpose.  In our discussion, we went into great detail on the three critical components of the landing plan – sequencing, timing, and location.  Always remember — A brilliant Ground Tactical Plan will fail if the Landing Plan is poorly conceived. 



In continuing our dissection of an air assault operation, we will delve into the air movement plan this month.  In our discussion, we will address both the art and science of the air movement plan.  This will include ensuring you understand the terminology, highlighting the key control measures utilized in air movement, and providing you some keys to success in executing air movement.  Let’s begin!



Of the five air assault plans, the air movement plan is the one most tied to science, tight timing, and technical precision.  An air movement plan brings Soldiers and machines together in a precisely choreographed sequence of events that picks up and delivers combat power to the battlefield.  These processes usually require the use and coordination of multiple pick up and drop off points and multiple routes for dispersed units to take to get to the birds.  It’s rare when all the helicopters can line up alongside all the troops.  Even when this is physically possible it is usually not advisable.  That large a concentration of troops and helicopters would draw the attention of enemy reconnaissance. 

Usually there is a precise sequencing of troops, equipment and birds that takes place over  time in one or more confined spaces—troops and helicopters must be ‘racked and stacked’.  Helicopters and units need to be separated in both time and space so that a unit can hit the LZ, clear it and deploy while the aircraft move out…all before the next group of birds arrives.  If there is a logjam at the LZ, the incoming groups have to go into circular patterns awaiting clearance to land.  This obviously telegraphs the LZ and objective to the enemy and exposes the troops at their most vulnerable — when they’re packed into birds in the sky.  The air movement plan must be precise.  It merges the technical science of the aviation planners with the tactical art of the ground operations planners. 

The air movement plan is similar in principal to Von Moltke the Elder’s railroad planning which gave birth to the technical expert staff officer.  If troops could be mobilized and marched to the right railhead which, in turn, delivered them to the correct assembly area along the border, then victory was half way in the bag.  It’s the same for the air assault use of helicopters to insert troops into the battlespace; if you get it right you’re not guaranteed victory, but if you get it wrong you’re almost certain of defeat.      


The air movement plan is based on the ground tactical plan and the landing plan.  The air movement plan dictates the schedule and provides instructions for the movement of troops, equipment, and supplies from the pick-up zones (PZ) to the landing zones (LZ).  It outlines the instructions regarding air routes, air control points, and aircraft speeds, altitudes, and formations.  The air movement plan must also address the employment of attack helicopter escorts.  Security and linkup locations, if different from PZ, are also included.  When operations involve multiple lifts from the same PZ a lift table is prepared to ensure proper organization.  The air movement plan is normally developed in coordination with the AMC, or the aviation liaison officer, who provides technical assistance and recommendations.

With an understanding of the purpose of an air movement plan, let’s review some basic air movement terminology.  As we continue to stress throughout the series – we must all talk the same language!



Lift.  A lift is one sortie of all utility and cargo aircraft assigned to a mission.  One lift is completed each time all assigned aircraft pick up troops and/or equipment and set them down on the LZ.  The second lift is completed when all lift aircraft place their second load on the LZ.

Serial.   Usually there are too many aircraft in a lift to fly in one formation.  When this happens the lift is broken up into multiple serials.  A serial is a tactical grouping of two or more aircraft under the control of a serial commander that are separated from other tactical groupings within the lift by time or space.  Serials are used to maintain control of aviation assets. A lift of twenty aircraft may be broken down into five serials of four aircraft in order to decrease the likelihood of their detection and to improve command and control.  Serials may also be required when PZs or LZs have limited capacity—obviously; a twenty ship lift cannot land on a four ship landing zone.  The Commander may choose to use serials to avoid concentrating his force on a single route.  If the Commander wants all his forces to land simultaneously in a single LZ, he can have multiple serials cycle through a common Release Point (RP) before landing.

Load.  A load is one aircraft and its assigned cargo of men and equipment.  Each aircraft is called a load.  A lift of four helicopters contains aircraft loads 1 through 4.  Each successive lift also numbers its aircraft as loads 1 through whatever. All aircraft are accounted for within each lift.  A load can also be called a chalk.  Loads are also designated within serials, within lifts.  

Flight Routes.   Tentative flight routes are developed to control, protect, and sequence aircraft movement out of friendly territory, over, through, and into enemy territory.  Careful consideration must be given to the terrain and enemy forces enroute and in the vicinity of the landing zones.  The Air Assault Task Force (AATF) Intelligence Officer (S2), Operations Officer (S3), and Air Mission Commander (AMC) collaborate to assist the Air Assault Task Force Commander (AATFC) in developing the flight routes. The method of developing tentative flight routes is by map study or by photo review when time permits. Certainly, technology has greatly assisted in this endeavor.  Friendly and enemy locations and air defense placement are plotted and avoided or suppressed.  Each flight route includes a start point (SP), a release point (RP), and a path between the two often dotted with check points that can be easily identified from the air.  The latter give the small unit leader geographic reference points he can compare to his map as he ‘flight follows’ the air movement.  The air movement plan is augmented by a fire support plan that includes planned fires along the flight routes.

SP and RP.   The first step is to identify tentative Start Points (SP) and Release Points (RP).  The distance from the PZ to the SP should be no less than three to five kilometers to allow aircraft to achieve the desired airspeed, altitude, and formation after lift-off. The distance from the RP to the LZ should allow the flight leader to reconfigure the formation and execute a tactical formation landing. SPs and RPs need to be within three to five kilometers of the PZs and LZs.  This allows two to three minutes flying time for coordination of the flight’s en route procedures.  They also are planned to allow lift-off and landing into the wind.

Flight routes are developed based on both tactical and technical factors.  A route may have to pass through an adjacent unit sector.  When this is the case, coordination and approval from that unit is required.  

A flight route should:

  • Should maximize terrain masking to reduce exposure to enemy observation, direct fire, and radar acquisition. 
  • Should assist in navigation by identifying terrain that can be observed from the air, day and night, that can be used to reference location. 
  • Avoid masking friendly fires while evading known enemy locations and air defense positions. 
  • Avoid flying over built-up areas.  A flight route is highly restrictive—you must not deviate from it without coordination.
  • Be as short as possible in order to minimize exposure while in flight.
  • Avoid turns in excess of 45 degrees in order to maximize control of the aircraft formation. 

Flight Corridor.   A corridor is a variation on the flight route.  When there is competition for airspace; it may be necessary to modify the flight route and designate a less restrictive flight corridor.  The corridor reserves airspace around a flight route and prevents artillery, tactical air, and other elements from firing or flying within it while it is in use.  Flight corridors are coordinated and ensure that the designated airspace is not violated.  The size of a corridor varies from 200 to 300 meters on either side of the flight route and 500 feet above and below the route altitude.  A corridor provides space around the route to allow minor deviations off, above, or below the route.

Flight Axis.   A flight axis is another variation of the flight route. It is a flight route that has width like the corridor, but does not have airspace reserved to a specific altitude like a corridor.  The flight axis permits deviation laterally along the route, but does not restrict the employment of other assets.  It gives the Air Mission Commander the choice of selecting en route formations and freedom to alter direction without coordinating a new flight route.  An axis is the least restrictive air movement control measure allowing the commander the ability to make significant deviations off the route.


Control measures assist in navigation and provide control to ensure the AATF arrives in the LZ on time and in the designated sequence.  The first and most common control measure along the route is the air control point (ACP).  ACP’s designate points where the flight route changes direction.  They are built around readily identifiable topographic features or points marked by electronic navigational aids.  You should plan as many ACP’s as required to maintain control of air movement. SPs and RPs are considered air control points. 

ACP’s can double as communication checkpoints (CCP).  A CCP is a point along the route where the Serial Commanders report to the AMC.  These transmissions are made only when necessary and are kept short by using codes.  "Four One Cobra," could mean that the fourth serial of lift one is crossing CCP Cobra.


We have talked about how to pick a path from friendly positions to landing zones in enemy territory and how to select control measures that allow the commander to track progress and sequence the delivery of combat power.  Now we have to discuss ‘how to fly’.   Pilots use one of three terrain-flight modes as dictated by the threat.

Nap-of-the-Earth (NOE).  This mode is the most exciting, most dangerous, and is typically the slowest.  When flying NOE, the pilot flies at varying airspeeds and altitudes and stays as close to the earths surface as possible.  The weaving flight path remains oriented on the general axis of movement.  He ‘hugs’ the natural contours of the earth in order to maximize terrain masking.  This mode is used when the threat is high. 

Contour.  Pilots flying contour fly at a low altitude generally following the contours of the terrain.  A contour flight moves faster and flies higher than an NOE flight.  It faces a less definite threat and therefore can fly higher and faster.  Never the less, a danger does exist so the flight is characterized by varying altitudes and airspeeds.

Low level.  A flight using low mode flies at a constant heading, airspeed, and altitude.  This is used when the threat is low and usually occurs in rear areas or over friendly held areas not along the front or over unoccupied territory.  Low level flight allows greater speed and ease of movement while still minimizing detection.

The mode of flight is chosen based on many factors.  These include:

  • The enemy situation—the greater the air defense threat the lower the altitude. 
  • Aircraft must also clear terrain obstacles while minimizing exposure to observation.  It is easier to navigate at higher altitudes, but this must be contrasted to the risk of detection. 
  • The weather has an obvious impact on flight mode; for example fog requires higher altitude flight whereas a low cloud ceiling requires lower altitude flight.  A short distance flight may not allow enough time to climb to higher altitudes. 
  • Surprise requires low altitude and pilot fatigue increases with terrain flying. 
  • Typically a mission will begin flying a mission at low level then transition to contour midway through the insertion and drop down to NOE as the aircraft close in on the landing zones.



Fires are planned along the route to suppress known or suspected enemy positions and air defenses.  Fires should be short and intense.  The fire plans covers the PZs, flight routes, and LZs and includes smoke to hinder detection.  This requires coordination with artillery and mortar fire direction centers.  All available fire support is used to suppress or destroy weapons, enemy air, artillery, and attack helicopters.   Support includes chaff (air-dropped, shredded aluminum foil to foul radar) and other countermeasures that suppress or confuse threat ADA and reconnaissance.  On-call fires are planned along the flight route to ensure rapid adjustment to targets of opportunity and are often associated with in flight control measures for ease of identification and control.  Illumination fire can aid night operations by lighting up LZ’s or providing distant navigation reference points that may also confuse threat recon by drawing attention away from actual flight routes.  Illumination requires detailed planning and, it must be remembered, can interfere with night vision devices.


It is tedious, unglamorous, and is a sure bet to give any planner a headache, yet the science piece of air movement planning is an absolute necessity.  The details must be worked and the nug work must be completed.  If a planner is lax in either the outcome an air movement is almost certain failure.  The repercussions of this are obviously huge! 

With that said, let’s look at the science of air movement planning and one of its’ key products – the air movement table.  Below you will find an old school example of a table.  Do not let anxiety get the best of you.  We will explain what the numbers mean and why they are important.

Before we show you the air movement table; we must discuss the concept that drives the entire table – H-Hour.  In air movement, H-Hour is the time the first aircraft of the first lift lands at the LZ.   All other times are referenced from H-hour.  The air assault H-hour is equivalent to attack time in conventional combat operations.  If weather or aircraft maintenance delays the mission; then the commander modifies and announces a new H-hour.  Now the table:


The times above are meticulously calculated and published in the operation order in the air movement table.  The air movement table is a critical air assault planning and control tool.  The AMC and lift flight leaders use the air movement table to control the mission without resorting to excessive radio communications.

Flight times are computed for the entire length of the route from the SP to the RP.  The length of each route is measured and en route times are computed.  Lift-off time is determined first in order to meet the LZ time.  The total flight route time is determined by adding the time to fly from the SP to the RP to the LZ.  

Loading time is the time before lift-off that is needed to load the aircraft.  Load time is dependent on the level of training the troops have, the equipment to be carried, and the light conditions at the PZ.  Obviously limited visibility operations will require more loading time.  Once loading time is determined it is added to the previously computed times.  Slingloading requires additional time that must be calculated into this plan. The use of slingloads also reduces the airspeed. 

“Some More Science”

The air movement table must include refueling time.  Refueling is planned so that a flight completes refueling before the last serial gets critically low on fuel.  The plan should generate a continuous rotation of aircraft into and out of the forward area refueling point (FARP).  The number of aircraft that can refuel at one time is divided into the number of aircraft in the lift.   


As we can see, the air movement plan requires tactical considerations and technical expertise.  It is the most scientific portion of the entire air assault and, when neglected, is the most likely to cause disaster.  Any operation requiring troops to be transported to the objective over an extended distance using delicate machines is complicated.  The distances involved, departure from established lines of communications, and exposure to multiple threats from the enemy, the terrain, and the weather make air assault more so.  The air movement plan embodies all these complexities and results in a delicate convergence of art and science leaving little room for error.  It is during air movement that the AATF is most vulnerable and visible—it’s a sitting duck if caught.  A well executed air movement will achieve surprise and rapid victory.  When planned and executed wrong, the ground forces may well end up fighting for their lives.   


In our fourth installment of discussing the five air assault plans, we will focus on the loading plan.  Certainly, this is a part of an air assault that may be somewhat neglected.  However, it is critical that the right Soldiers, right equipment, and right supplies get loaded on the right aircraft.  A mistake in this plan always rears its’ ugly head on the ground at the other end.  Our next article will discuss the load plan in detail.


The Coveted U.S. Army Air Assault Badge




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