Eagle County dad training son to fly helicopters
GYPSUM, Colorado – Col. Joel Best has been to war and seen war come to him.
The man who helped build HAATS and trained hundreds of helicopter pilots is helping train his son this week.
Warrant Officer Chris Best, 23, is sharpening his skills as a helicopter pilot at the High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site in Gypsum. Among his instructors is Col. Joel Best, his dad and this week his commanding officer.
A quick story: Chris was in Army flight school a year or so ago and his instructor showed him a maneuver he’d learned at “that HAATS school up in Colorado.”
“Are you familiar with that?” the instructor asked.
“Yes, I’ve heard about it,” Chris answered.
Chris graduated Eagle Valley High School in 2005. He joined the military in August 2007 as a combat medic, but like his father the ground couldn’t hold him. He started flight school a year later and graduated April 1, 2010.
Now he’s in HAATS, learning to fly in the mountains.
“I grew up around it, and it’s a big deal,” Chris said. “I didn’t realize how big it was until I was out in the world with the military. I saw and heard people talking about it, about how important it is.”
Joel is proud, as any father would be. The kid can fly.
“If you’ve flown with one of us, you’ve flown with the Best,” Joel smiled.
Joel is trying not to be one of those dads who rides his son, but says there are times …
“If anything is out of balance, it’s me being too hard on him,” Joel said.
“I gave him his first evaluation ride,” Joel said, then he looks at his son. “He has been a very, very good student.
Like so many American sons, Chris expects to be deployed to the Middle East soon. Joel teaches as many as he can as much as he can.
These young pilots are at HAATS for one week. So much to learn, so little time. And if you’re a helicopter pilot, so many ways for you and your crew to die.
Joel and the HAATS crew have one overriding goal: To be able to look every pilot’s mother in the eye and tell her they did everything they possibly could.
“I have 30 years and 6,000 hours of experience I’m trying to pour into their brains,” Joel said. “They’ll be going back to the theater of war in the near future. They need to be prepared to handle any eventuality.”
In Afghanistan, 87 percent of the helicopters that go down crash because of the environmental conditions, Joel said.
“They’re learning how to defeat the environmental enemy,” Joel said. “The mountains and wind here do the same things as their mountains and wind.”
Trail Gulch looks like several places there, the Gore Range looks like a mountain range there … it’s why HAATS is so important, Joel said.
“It’s an austere environment,” Joel said. “It’s fairly common for pilots to wake up, look outside and break out in a sweat because they think for a second that they’re back in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan is an aviation and infantry war. Helicopters transport soldiers, supplies to and from wherever they’re needed – and it’s often a matter of life and death. Enemy fighters, rock slides and other disasters can trap troops, who need help immediately.
“The mission is getting people on the ground and getting them what they need,” Joel said. “Helicopters leap in and leap out.”
He knows what war looks like when you go to it, and when it comes to you.
As a battalion commander, he was across the street from the Pentagon on 9/11 when terrorists crashed an airliner into it.
War has changed in Joel’s 33 years in the military. For example, in Afghanistan the military is trying to be as green as possible. Among other things, it keeps close track of how many tires get chewed up because it uses them to build roads.
Roads and other infrastructure make it easier for villages to connect with one another, and harder for the bad guys to cut them off and isolate them.
Warrant officers are technical experts. Commissioned officers have to do a bunch of other stuff and much of it isn’t fun. Chris gets to fly helicopters for a living.
“My job is to fly my aircraft,” Chris says smiling out the window at the aircraft he will soon be flying. “I get to focus on flying. That’s the beauty of it.”
Warrant officers set Army aviation apart; they’re the military’s only branch that lets non-commissioned officers fly.
The National Guard isn’t supposed to be this involved with war in the Middle East. Units are supposed to be deployed for a year, followed three or four years home while they train. Their deployments run a year and they’re home for a year.
It’s tough for soldiers and their families.
Supportive employers are a big help. Colleges and universities are good to take credits for military training. Chris is getting 45 credit hours from Embry-Riddle University for his flight school training.
The changing of the guard is almost complete. As Chris launches his military career, Joel is winding his down.
Col. Joel Best has been in the military for 33 years. In less than two years, he’s done.
“I’m ready,” he said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com