Heroes at HAATS | VailDaily.com

Heroes at HAATS

However, I think there’s something else makes helicopters fly – heroes! Our pilots flying choppers in Afghanistan are heroes, and so are the men who train them.

High in the mountains of Afghanistan, America’s armed forces are relying on helicopters to move soldiers, weapons and supplies. But the rugged environment presents fundamental challenges to flying rotary-wing aircraft safely. While not common knowledge, the number of helicopter accidents in Afghanistan has been alarming. To redress the situation, the Army’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS), located on the north side of the Eagle County Airport, has stepped up its high altitude training operations, which have been going on for 15 years.

Flying at altitudes between 6,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level, engines suffer, rotor blades don’t produce enough lift and controls become less responsive. Plus there’s always the added element that someone may be shooting at you.

Flying in the thin air around mountain peaks and valleys, aviators must constantly be alert for violent and unpredictable air currents and winds. These winds curl over crests, bounce off valley walls and can drop aircraft a thousand feet or more in seconds, all without warning. When these meteorological events occur, a pilot might ask his helicopter for its full rated power, but at altitude he’s not likely to get more than 60 to 70 percent – a recipe for catastrophe.

In combat situations, military pilots tend to push the envelope and go beyond peacetime operating restrictions because accomplishing the mission is their priority, especially if the mission is to rescue a wounded soldier from a 11,000-foot-high landing zone.

An Army safety expert recently said: “Historically, when deployed to combat theaters, U.S. Army aviation has suffered more losses to accidents than to enemy action.” As a Vietnam era helicopter pilot myself, I can attest to that statement. Between pushing the envelope and the fog of war, our air group lost more aircrews and aircraft to accidents than we did to enemy fire.

The HAATS facility is currently shut down for five weeks during rifle-hunting season because hunters believe that the helicopters frighten the deer and elk herds. So during this down-time, I decided to spend a morning with several of the instructor-pilots to learn a little about their operations.

Most significantly, this is the only high altitude helicopter-training center of its kind in the world. As of this writing, no pilot who has been trained at HAATS has been involved in a “power management” accident anywhere, not just Afghanistan. That’s a truly remarkable legacy and outstanding contribution to the war on terror.

HAATS trains foreign nationals as well as U.S. pilots. The Germans comprise the largest foreign contingent because environmentalists there have booted them out of the Alps, and it seems that some environmental groups would like to see HAATS shut down as well.

What a travesty if our pilots were unable to use Deep Creek Canyon and Red Table Mountain, which are unparalleled training areas. It would be tantamount to restricting Navy and Marine pilots from training aboard aircraft carriers before sending them to the Persian Gulf to land on them – it’s ridiculous!

When exposed to machines over a period of years (see the chairlifts on Vail Mountain,) animals adapt, and the deer, elk and other wildlife now take little note of the helicopters flying overhead. These pilots are not strip-mining our mountains and valleys, and in this writer’s opinion, any attempt to restrict or stop the Army from conducting this critical training is an egregious mistake.I’ll withhold further comments about the issue of training our pilots versus “protecting” wildlife for a later commentary, but one might think that properly preparing our aviators for combat would be a high priority.

When I inquired about the political support to retain the facility, the names most frequently mentioned were Rep. Scott McInnis (unfortunately he’s been lost to the redistricting process) as well as Commissioners Tom Stone and Mike Gallagher. I salute each of them. I also had the opportunity to speak with Sandy Hume, one of the candidates for the 2nd Congressional District. He indicated that he, too, is in favor of retaining the facility.

I prefer not to endorse specific candidates. However, I’ve flown helicopters in combat and feel passionately about this issue. It’s my hope that the voters will factor in the positions of these candidates on Election Day.

Finally, I want to thank the commanding officer of HAATS, Col. Joel Best; the instructor pilots Mike Moore, Matt Dorram, John Ogburn, John Such, Carl Gray, Tom Ryan, Dale Jensen, Troy Brown; as well as the mechanics and techs, Kory Kipferl, Jim Wright, Nick Frenze, Tom Castillo, Chuck Whaley, Dave Jackson, Rusty Craig, Duane Rogers, Stanton Walker, Jeff Chambers, Bradley Harrison an Ryan Baugh for their enormous contribution to the safety of our pilots and soldiers, and to the defense of our country.

The men of HAATS are preserving the lives of American soldiers. I extend my whole-hearted gratitude to them, and ask each of you to do the same.

Butch Mazzuca of Singletree can be reached at bmazz@centurytel.net

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