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HAATS pilots count Gypsum as one of their holy places

James Blatter

The Vietnam War-era helicopter is used for pilot training at the Air National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site, or HAATS, at the Eagle County Regional Airport.

The terrain around the Eagle Valley provides aviators with unique flying conditions. No other training site in the U.S. affords pilots both the environment and elevation this area does. Those conditions are much like those they may eventually have to fly in overseas.

“I learned more about the management of power and control in the last week than at any time before,” said 2nd Lt. EJ Feld of the Netherlands Air Force.

Power management is the use of engines, rotors, air collectors and lifters to maintain a helicopter’s power and altitude. At this elevation or higher, power management is the most important thing aviators learn. Pilots spend five days of training that includes a day in the classroom learning the intricacies of power management in mountainous terrain. The other four days are spent flying in and out of the ragged peaks of the area’s mountains with altitudes ranging from the airport at 6,500 feet to peaks of 14,000 feet.

They also use a variety of aircraft, including the modern Blawkhawk helicopter and the Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter. During the training, novice aviators take their turn at each machine, ending with the old, reliable Huey.

Few Hueys are flying these days. They’re simply too old. A few remain in service, though, and they’re greatly loved by those who fly them.

Lt. Col. Joel Best, commander of the HAATS facility, has compared the Huey to an old pickup truck. Newer machines may be better overall, but when a job simply must get done, he wants his old Huey.

Helicopters like the one used at the base began arriving in Vietnam in 1963. Before the end of the conflict, more than 5,000 of the aircraft were introduced into Southeast Asia. Hueys were used for medical evacuation, command and control, and air assault, as well as to transport personnel and materiel. Hueys were also used as gun ships.

Using both modern machines and the old warhorses, students learn about the close flight contours of canyons and gulches and the unique wind and pressure formations of the mountain environment.

“Anywhere in the world a pilot will encounter these issues,” said Chief Warrant Officer Michael Moore, a training pilot. “Here, pilots learn about pressure zones with sharp winds and what to plan for in a critical moment.”

Moore has flown helicopters since 1968 and is one of the main instructors at the facility.

A critical moment in a mountain landing, Moore said, could begin with a strong updraft that hits the tail or the collectors, causing the vehicle to move in sideways or be forced down in an unexpected way.

Training is taking novice pilots out to perform reconnaissance and landing in these unfamiliar conditions.

On a recent flight, attempting to negotiate a route to a landing spot on a mountain saddle northwest of the airport near the Flat Tops, Feld began compensating for what he believed to be a rolling downdraft from the winds. He missed the exact location by a few feet.

In Moore’s analysis of Feld’s landing, he pointed out the trees and how they were creating a block with a low pressure system and that there was no down draft.

Feld redid his approach twice more and showed Moore what he was feeling through the controls. Moore helped Feld through a glide 10 feet off the ground explaining that rather than a downdraft, the worst of what Feld was feeling was a crosswind coming from behind the trees.

Moore explained that this site is easily misjudged by a novice.

“There’s turbulence, wind carving above through and around trees,” said Moore. “You need to keep your escape options open and plan for that on the reconnaissance.”

After Feld completed his landing and takeoff to Moore’s approval, 1st. Lt. Jorik Ter Veer, also of the Netherlands, took over the controls.

Ter Veer’s training was for a pinnacle landing in a heavily forested spot. Scouting the landing zone took five trips around the site to determine the conditions, and appearance of the landing zone and the surrounding terrain.

Each pass came in closer to the spot, but at a different elevation. Ter Veer came in at a high angle, then dropped suddenly to close in on the site.

Even with careful scouting, Ter Veer overshot his landing the first time, concerned about the winds. He reconnoitered the position again and then came in at a lower speed. This time, the approach and landing were successful.

Landings produce great visual conditions to measure the environment. The rotor blades pull up dust within 20 feet of the aircraft. By watching where these dust particles blow off, it’s easy to determine wind direction and which way the pressure zones are spinning.

Small pressure zones and pockets exist in the mountains, setting up behind ridges, rocks and trees. Winds then seek out the “vacuums” created in these zones, creating sometimes-confusing conditions.

This affects the way an aircraft functions and where it can land or complete its pick-up or drop.

Moore says the most important thing he teaches is how to use the aircraft’s limited power to prevent accidents. He provided a description:

“If you don’t adjust right you can drop 100 feet below crest of a pinnacle, then your main rotor blades will impact the ground, followed by the fuselage.”

While Feld and Ter Veer were a bit disappointed in their performance, Moore said they excelled because the most important thing one can take from training is reflexive judgment.

“You did good,” Moore told the trainees. “As your experience and training continue and increase so does your level of reference. Every moment you fly adds to what you can recall. Things like this go a long way in preparing you for the moment you are relied on in the field. Judgment is the exercise of using past experiences and applying them to a current situation, and you gained some of that today.”

Ter Veer agreed with Feld’s endorsement of the training he received, and will encourage all his colleagues to enroll in the class.

“I requested this straight out of training,” said Ter Veer. “This is the best course a flyer can take to advance their skills.”

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.


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