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Helo pilots learn to fly at extreme altitudes

Jul. 5, 2010 - 10:40AM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 5, 2010 - 10:40AM  |  
High, Hot and Heavy pt. 2
High, Hot and Heavy pt. 2: Soldiers from 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, train for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan at High Altitude Mountain Environmental Training in Ft. Carson, Colorado.
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Chinooks from the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, fly into the mountains for a mission during HAMETS at Fort Carson, Colo., on June 10. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)

FORT CARSON, Colo. As 1st Lt. Richard Clark began to lower his UH-60 Black Hawk onto a scrubby, windswept patch 8,000 feet high in the Colorado Rockies, his pilot instructor decided to make a tricky landing a little trickier: On the tandem flight controls, the instructor held his joystick, blocking it from coming aft.

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FORT CARSON, Colo. As 1st Lt. Richard Clark began to lower his UH-60 Black Hawk onto a scrubby, windswept patch 8,000 feet high in the Colorado Rockies, his pilot instructor decided to make a tricky landing a little trickier: On the tandem flight controls, the instructor held his joystick, blocking it from coming aft.

The move simulated tighter power constraints, as if Clark had been carrying passengers, ammunition and weapons, something he will likely do in the mountains of Afghanistan when the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade heads there this fall. As instructed, Clark hugged cliff-sides conservatively, practiced high-altitude landings and applied lessons about wind currents and the engine-weakening effects of high altitudes.

"The high altitudes are very hazardous for helicopters, pilots and crews," said Clark, of the Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 10th CAB, of the 10th Mountain Division. "We're learning to read the wind and how the terrain affects the wind, because it will come over a mountain and curl down, and if you get caught in it that can be very dangerous."

In Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains, whose highest peak hits 25,000 feet, the air is thin and helicopter engines lose efficiency. Landings and other maneuvers easily accomplished nearer to sea level become more perilous.

"I think many people by now have seen pictures of some the landings in Afghanistan, literally one wheel of a Black Hawk on the side of a mountain; only the ramp of a CH-47 touching down as it hovers in open space while troops are jumping off," said Maj. Erick "Zeke" Sweet, the 10th CAB's officer-in-charge of high altitude training here. "These things are not uncommon, particularly in the area of Afghanistan we're going to."

The Army is working to teach its aviators how to fly confidently in Afghanistan, emphasizing power management and wind current navigation. At the High Altitude Mountain Environmental Training here, and at the Colorado National Guard's High Altitude Army Training Site in Gypsum, Colo., soldiers were getting comfortable in the Rockies, the continental U.S.' closest cousin to the Hindu Kush.

Following the 4th CAB of Fort Hood, Texas, the 10th CAB is the second unit to undergo HAMET. The Army is planning to send at least two other CABs deploying to Afghanistan through the training: the 159th CAB of Fort Campbell, Ky., and another combat aviation brigade that has not been publicly named. Rather than at Fort Carson, the 159th CAB will train at Fort Bliss, Texas, where the terrain more closely resembles the region of Afghanistan where the brigade will operate.

This fall, the 10th CAB is expected to replace the 3rd CAB within International Security Assistance Force's Regional Command-East and serve under the combined command of 101st Air Assault Division and 25th Infantry Division, supporting light infantry combat teams.

"This is like flying your first 10 missions, where you're already seasoned to what's going on in that combat environment," said Col. Jessie O. Farrington, the assistant G-3 for operations and aviation at Forces Command, which is sponsoring the training. "This is very, very valuable and will probably save lives."

Critical need for helos

Afghanistan's poor infrastructure has already made Army helicopters a crucial means of transport for ground forces and supplies, and for air assaults on remote Taliban-occupied villages and cave complexes. More aviation brigades have been deployed in part to correspond with massing ground troops, said Major Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the retiring director of Army aviation in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7.

Schloesser also credited the current administration's willingness to operate throughout Afghanistan, including mountainous northern provinces along the Pakistani border and in the west, where previously only other NATO forces had operated.

"By 2007 and 2008, it became more apparent that there were Taliban infiltrating to the north and west, and we've seen the new administration and [former NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal] say they're going to put troops up there and put helicopters there with them, and that's happening right now," Schloesser said.

The requirement for more aviation brigades drove FORSCOM to create HAMET by adapting a combination of HAATS, the National Guard's pre-eminent school for individual mountain helicopter training, and the sorts of ad hoc collective training that combat aviation brigades have been conducting over the last few years.

Col. Pedro Almeida, commander of the 10th CAB said FORSCOM's sponsorship of HAMETS, with instructors and a location, signals the high priority the Army places on it.

"At the four-star level in the Army, they've identified this training requirement, and this program is in place to help brigade commanders get to where they've needed to get to, as opposed to in the past, when units identified the need and figured out ways to get the training," Almeida said. "Now we have a set model ... a program of instruction that's standardized, that commanders can use as a baseline."

Although HAATS has vied for a broader role, FORSCOM concluded HAATS lacked the capacity to train the needed two aviation brigades a year. But the school continues to accommodate unit commanders and trainers, and to provide a model for individual training within HAMET.

"I think it is the premier individual high-altitude mountain training site, and we use that as part of the strategy," Farrington said of HAATS.

In HAMET, students perform classroom and flight simulator work at their home base, followed by a week of individual pilot training at Fort Carson or Fort Bliss, and then a week of multi-aircraft and nighttime training.

The 10th CAB has been cycling soldiers through the training since May and is set to finish this month.

At HAATS, instructors train pilots to understand wind flow in mountains similar to the way kayakers understand water hydraulics over rocks in the rapids, said commander Col. Joel Best of the Colorado National Guard. They learn that updrafts live on the windward side of mountains, and that turbulence and downdrafts lurk on the leeward side.

Pilots who understand the terrain and their own limits can often carry more weapons, food or personnel, Best said. They can also prevent crashes, he said.

"When we crash an aircraft without a shot being fired and we kill a crew, the enemy wins twice," Best said. "We are in the business of preventing their crews from destroying machines and the lives they carry in the back of those machines, to be able to win this war."

Pilots learn "finesse flying," ditching rapid, nose-up, power-draining landings common to Black Hawks for controlled descents, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dann Myers, the HAATS-trained manager of HAMET.

"We're having to break some of them from their old habits and teach new habits," Myers said.

At HAATS, Capt. Andrew Wilson, an air ambulance platoon leader and Black Hawk Medevac pilot, faced a challenging test. As he attempted to land on a 12,000-foot pinnacle, with 1,500-foot drop on either side, his instructor turned on all the aircraft's heaters, diverting power from the engines. The maximum available power called torque was 72 percent. Wilson came through, landing at 70 percent.

"I'm not going to lie, I was nervous and scared," said Wilson, of Task Force 3-10 General Support Aviation Battalion. "It wasn't just training; it was if you screw this up, it could end badly. So it's an incredible confidence booster to take these skills into no-joke situations.

"Coming up as a Black Hawk pilot, that's a powerful aircraft and we have a lot of power to play with, a lot of abilities, but where we get into these environments where we are high, hot and heavy, so a lot of that is taken away from us. So in a sense we are relearning how to walk and do things counterintuitive to what we're used to."

Leading to a 70-man multi-aircraft and nighttime exercise, the Task Force 6-6 Cavalry planned and rehearsed a combined arms mission with a cross-section of infantrymen from the 10th Mountain Division. Pilots stood in for their Black Hawks, Chinooks and Kiowas, and walked alongside flight routes made of twine to three stones that represented the mountain bunker of their make-believe target, Osama bin Laden.

"Air assault planning and training is absolutely critical in Afghanistan," said Maj. Arieyeh Austin, operations officer with the 2-87 Infantry Regiment. "These aircraft are going to be instrumental to the success of this brigade, and being able to integrate with and talk with them proficiently is paramount."

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