Hats off to HAATS

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral

GYPSUM — As Gypsum Mayor Pro Tem Dick Mayne was talking to the HAATS crowd about growing up in Gypsum, a Blackhawk helicopter lifted off across the airport.

Mayne recalled a youngster saying, “Helicopters are loud.”

“That, my young friend, is the sound of freedom,” Mayne replied.

The Colorado Army National Guard dedicated its new HAATS buiding, a 101,600 square feet of state-of-the-art training and maintenance facility. Helicopter pilots from around the world learn how to fly in mountains at high altitudes.

Col. Joel Best was the commander. He’s now Brig. Gen. Joel Best.

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Before crews deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan they spend some time training in Gypsum.

When Gen. Joel Best was deployed to the Middle East, he saw most accidents come lack from power management – how their helicopters behave in mountainous terrain at high altitude. If these crews had the training they might not have been injured, or they might still be alive.

“The best thing you can do with your knowledge and experience is to give it away,” Best said. “HAATS is America’s highest level training.”

HAATS history

To know where you are, it helps to know from whence you came.

HAATS was founded in 1986 in a trailer and a Quonset hut on the north side of the Eagle County Regional Airport. The helicopter they used is now mounted as a monument on a rock outside the new building’s front door.

“It’s a dream when it starts. It takes persistence and diligence to make it come true,” said Gen. H. Michael Edwards.

Best is just back from the Middle East where HAATS was all the representatives from Oman wanted to talk about. Denmark’s military aviation director is a HAATS graduate.

Dick Gustafson was an Eagle County Commissioner in the 1980s, when the region mired in the oil bust and recession. The Eagle County airport was short on operations – takeoffs and landings – to get any money from the federal government.

So Gustafson flew to Washington, D.C., for a Pentagon meeting with Gen. Herbert Temple, the guy in charge of the National Guard. Sen. Bill Armstrong set up the meeting, for 5 p.m. Friday.

Gustafson strode into Temple’s office, extended his hand and said, “I’m from Eagle, Colorado!”

Temple barked, “Where in the world is Eagle, Colorado?!?”

“It’s up near Vail,” Gustafson said.

Temple had heard of Vail and after a little more bluster, they got down to business.

“How many of your enemies have mountainous territories?” Gustafson asked.

“All of them,” Temple answered.

“And how many of your pilots are trained to fly in the mountains?”

Temple’s shoulders slumped a little as he answered, “None of them.”

They talked about it for a while and Temple began to see the wisdom in a mountain training center.

“What do you need?” Gustafson asked.

Temple thought about it and answered, “land and $300,000.”

Gustafson put in on the commissioners’ agenda Monday and the commissioners approved it that day.

George Gillett, Vail Associates owner at the time, came up with the $300,000, Gustafson said.

Before long there was enough happening at the airport to get $25 million from the FAA. Not long after that the FAA had spent $40 million at the airport. That’s about the time local reporters started calling the airport, “A hole in the sky through which money falls.”

Royal Air was the first commercial carrier, followed by America West. American Airlines was the first big name carrier.

Bigger than the Benjamins

It’s not all about the Benjamins

Brig. Gen. Dana Capozella was the first to call the facility a “schoolhouse.” She wasn’t the last.

“This schoolhouse makes it possible for us to protect our most precious resource, our sons and daughters,” she said. “Power management is safety, and safety saves lives.”

Vail Mountain Rescue’s Dan Smith recalled the time a skier crashed near a backcountry hut. A HAATS crew flew a Blackhawk to the scene and 12 minutes later the skier was in the hospital.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935, and

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