Colorado popular place for helicopter pilots to train |

Colorado popular place for helicopter pilots to train

Associated Press Writer

DENVER – Hundreds of pilots from around the world come to Colorado to learn how to fly helicopters in the thin air and shifting winds common in high mountains.

A high-elevation training program near the resort town of Vail, founded for Colorado’s own Army National Guard, has grown in recent years to prepare pilots from across the U.S. and from allied nations who fly missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site – HAATS – is based at the Eagle County Airport, about 30 miles west of Vail.

Maj. Joshua Day, the site’s commander, said the area has the full range of terrain a pilot needs to be familiar with – from pinnacles to land on to bowls and ridge lines.

“Anything a pilot might encounter, we can get there with a 15-minute flight,” Day said.

It also has predictable winds. On nearly all days the wind is blowing from the southwest and instructors have learned how those winds will shift as they interact with the varied terrain.

Day said it’s the only Defense Department school in the United States where pilots can practice flying in the high-altitude conditions they see in Afghanistan, although pilots aren’t required to train there. In the past few years, the school has been filled to its maximum capacity of 400 pilots, he said.

The Black Hawk from Fort Campbell, Ky. that crashed Wednesday on Mount Massive was not participating in training at the school. Day didn’t know how common it is to have units independently doing their own training in Colorado.

The HAATS school was started in 1986 to train Colorado’s National Guard members to respond to emergencies within the state, home to over 50 peaks that are over 14,000 feet high. A year later, an out-of-state unit that was deploying to Central America asked to use the site for training and word continued to spread, Day said.

Training is done 38 weeks out of the year with pilots both from National Guard and active duty units as well as abroad. Helicopter pilots from countries including Slovenia, Norway, Denmark and the Republic of Georgia have graduated from the program, either to prepare for Afghanistan or as part of their training to fly in their home country.

Day said people hiking around the mountains might occasionally see one of the training helicopters overhead. No flights are conducted during deer hunting season in October or November under an agreement with state wildlife officials.

The school’s location near spots popular with recreationists has helped save lives because it is sometimes called to assist in the search for missing and stranded hikers, kayakers and others. Since last fall, its pilots have been on 18 search missions and rescued five people.

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