HATS looks to land key U.S. Army funding
At risk of losing its funding and being shut down as recently as last fall, Eagle County’s only permanent military installation is now on much more solid ground and en route to being designated a key national training facility.The Colorado National Guard High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site (HATS) at the Eagle County Regional Airport is poised to be funded by the regular U.S. Army as a national training site, with the latest combat helicopters stationed at the facility, according to its commander, Lt. Col. Joel Best of the Colorado National Guard.HATS has trained more than 2,200 pilots over the past 15 years in the nuances and extreme challenges of flying military helicopters at high altitude over mountainous terrain, and that specialty seemed to make it a key component in the war on terrorism after 9/11.But funding woes and “interagency roadblocks” between the guard and the regular army threatened the facility last fall. Since then military helicopter crashes in Afghanistan and last year’s high-profile crash of a helicopter on a rescue mission on Mount Hood have underscored the need for training military chopper pilots in mountainous terrain.”We have an actual fighting mentality at or below 4,000 feet, but if you look at where we’ve actually been fighting, it’s been above 4,000 feet,” Best says. “The environmental enemy is every bit as volatile and lethal as the human enemy.”Best says the national training site designation and the army funding it will include was on a fast track but is now in a “strategic pause” due to the mobilization for a possible attack on Iraq. But he adds that it will happen and it’s critical that it does, because whether the enemy shoots down a combat or reconnaissance helicopter or it crashes because of the altitude and pilot error, the crew is just as dead and the government is out $20 million for a downed Chinook.”It’s a huge bill, and thank God the army is seeing the light and the leadership is saying, ‘This is ridiculous, and we’ve got to fix this,'” Best says of the push to fund his facility. “No one here is looking to build an empire; we just want to make sure that our soldiers, when they go into harm’s way, have the skill sets they need.”Best approached the county commissioners with the issue last fall, and they in turn contacted congressional representatives and top army and national guard brass.”It’s the only place in the free world that teaches helicopter pilots how to fly in high county and mountainous terrain,” says commissioner Michael Gallagher, a Vietnam veteran who flew on numerous combat helicopters during his tour there. “The crashes that have occurred in the Middle East have not occurred because they were shot down.”I look forward to the day that every helicopter pilot in our military and our allies will receive this training and we no longer have to explain to parents how their sons and daughters died in a helicopter crash.”Best is in the process of determining how the new army-focused training mission, requiring all army aviation commanders and instructor pilots to go through training at HATS, will impact his facility. He’s targeting a staff increase of 18, from the current 21 full-time personnel to 39, but he’s says the number of crews being trained in Eagle County likely won’t increase that much.Right now, 300 to 400 flight crews a year, or roughly a thousand people (each aircraft has a crew of at least three) pass through the HATS facility. That number won’t change much, Best says. What will change is the kind of helicopters being flown. Instead of seeing so many older Huey’s and OS 58’s, Best says more modern Chinooks and Blackhawks will be based at HATS.While 40 full-time personnel based at the Eagle County Airport does not mean a huge boost for the local economy, having HATS at the airport does give it increased pull when it comes to procuring federal funding for infrastructure upgrades at the commercial facility.And there are other benefits.”It’s a nice resource to have right next door,” says Eagle County emergency management coordinator Barry Smith, “and when we have utilized them, it’s for search and rescue missions and wildland firefighting, and it’s been very beneficial.”In fact, on Wednesday, Jan. 15, a cold, snowy and very windy day in the high country that shut down highways and ski area chairlifts, helicopters from HATS were involved in looking for a lost skier out of bounds near Vail Mountain.According to Best, it was so windy his pilots weren’t able to fully assist in finding the skier, who was later located on the ground, slightly hypothermic and a bit shaken, but otherwise fine.Eagle County’s Smith says he doesn’t really take HATS into consideration too much when planning for catastrophic emergencies because the facility is somewhat limited in just how much assistance it can render, nor does he consider it a risk for terrorist attacks.”Not really,” Smith says. “HATS is our only real year-round military presence, and in my estimation it would be a low priority target because there’s not that many people there and it’s a training facility.”
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