Local base readies pilots for action | VailDaily.com

Local base readies pilots for action

NWS 9.11 story JM 9-9-11

GYPSUM, Colorado – A decade ago, the Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site – HAATS – would train a couple dozen pilots a month in the subtleties of mountain flying in helicopters. Today, the place is buzzing.

When the United States sent military units to Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the mission at HAATS became much more important, especially as helicopter after helicopter crashed. In the last 10 years, the military has lost 220 helicopters in Afghanistan. Nearly 80 percent of those crashes were “non-combat” losses, due to human error or equipment failure.

“It’s really codified the need for what we’ve been about since 1986,” Col. Joel Best said. And what HAATS is about is making military helicopter flight safer and more effective.

Easing losses

Best said the losses in Afghanistan have been dropping since about 2005, good news from both a human and logistical perspective. The cost of human losses is obvious, even if it’s hard to put a price tag on a life.

The cost of losing a helicopter is a little easier to quantify. The latest of the Army’s Blackhawk helicopters cost more than $30 million each. To date, just the equipment losses in Afghanistan total more than $2 billion. And, given the way the military buys equipment today, those machines aren’t just replaced when one is destroyed.

While the latest of the Army’s Blackhawks have mind-boggling automated flight capabilities – new equipment will allow a chopper to hover and land automatically – it’s still crucial to have the best pilots possible.

“You always want a pilot who’s more capable than the equipment he has,” Best said. “When systems go down, the war doesn’t stop.”

With that in mind, the number of pilots training at HAATS these days has just about doubled from the numbers seen a decade ago. Major Josh Day, the base commander said about 60 percent of all students are active-duty members of the U.S. military these days, with about a quarter coming from National Guard and other reserve units. The rest come from foreign militaries. A decade ago, HAATS mostly trained reserve units.

Some of the pilots will train other pilots. But to get a real feel for the training, there’s one place in this country to do it – Eagle County.

Helicopters are amazing machines, but are affected by winds, temperature, and especially elevation. The thin air in mountain environments means helicopter rotors won’t “bite” as hard as they do at sea level. Routine maneuvers can be more difficult – and sometimes deadly – at 14,000 feet.

Best said HAATS instructors and students fly in terrain that varies from the high desert near Gypsum to windswept peaks near Leadville. Best, who’s flown everywhere from the Andes in Colombia to the mountains of Pakistan, said pilots who can fly in this part of Colorado can fly anywhere in the world.

A new home

As the base has become busier over the last 10 years, the old facility was soon stretched to its limits for both classroom and shop space. That’s changing, and quickly.

The federal government recently issued a contract for a new, $37 million facility for the base that will include new classrooms, rooms for visiting pilots and shop space big enough to handle the Army’s giant, twin-rotor Chinook helicopters, the flying equivalent of the Budweiser Clydesdales.

“I’m standing in a giant hole right now, and I’m thrilled,” Day said Thursday.

Day and Best are both happy to talk about the new building – how it will be built to at least LEED “silver” status; how part of the building will celebrate the history of the military locally, starting with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II; and how part of the building will honor the Native American tribes used to name many of Army’s helicopters: Blackhawk, Iroquois, Apache.

The new building is set to open in 2013, but even then, most of the pilots who come will have to bring their own gear, including helicopters.

At the moment, HAATS has four late 1970s-vintage Blackhawks and a pair of Chinooks that are even older. But the base has always worked with hand-me-down equipment. A decade ago, it still had a handful of 1960s-vintage Huey helicopters. Those choppers got so old that the remaining fleet was grounded for a while in the 1990s. Every part on everything the military flies has to have a service life, or period of time between replacements. There were parts on the Hueys that didn’t have a service life – the belief in the ’60s was that the whole fleet would surely be replaced before the unclassified parts needed to be swapped out.

But using old choppers is fine with the folks who fly them – and gives instructors a chance to prove to students that it’s skill, not equipment that matters when you’re trying to pluck a stranded hiker off a 14,000-foot mountain in a gale-force wind.

Students sometimes come back for refresher courses, or to learn to train other pilots in mountain flying.

“We hear our training’s been a good thing,” Day said. “And we get tidbits of things we can do. We try to incorporate those things, but the basic mission is the same.”

That’s because the mountains don’t change much.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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