Mountain Training for Helicopter Pilots

An Army school in Colorado shows military pilots how to master the heights.

A student holds his Kiowa atop a precarious perch about 500 feet above the ground. (Ed Darack)
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“The more weight I can put on the rock, the less the turbulent winds around me can toss the helicopter around,” Nielsen says. He came down to 51 percent power, using the helicopter’s cyclic and anti-torque pedals to keep the Black Hawk level. “That’s when Frosty said the rock was shifting, so I pulled it up to 55 percent.” With the help of the air crew, the rescuers quickly loaded the victim onto the Black Hawk, and once everyone was clear, Nielsen banked the helicopter away and flew down into denser, friendlier air. Later, he and his crew flew back to transport the rescue team to lower ground.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jeffrey Girouard, the chief instructor, recounts an attempted rescue when he flew his helicopter at the absolute limit of its capability for the conditions: “A hiker had fallen 300 feet down a sheer cliff in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. I can’t believe he hit the ledge—it was only 10 feet wide, if that,” says Giroud. Hovering at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, aimed into the wind with no power margin at all, “I simply didn’t have enough space to put a skid on the ledge to rescue the hiker.”

As he and a sheriff who was coordinating a ground rescue effort assessed the scene, the wind suddenly shifted, nudging Girouard’s power margin into negative range. “I developed a slow right [clockwise] yaw, and I had full left pedal in,” he says. Lacking the power at that altitude to stay airborne, he used a technique seemingly counterintuitive for keeping a helicopter in the air in such a circumstance: “I pushed down on the collective, which lowered the angle of attack of all the blades of the main rotor system to reduce their drag, allowing the main rotor system to pick up speed. If you are operating with just a one or two percent power margin, you have to make the approach perfect, and slow. You have to take full advantage of the winds, to try to find the updraft points, and you have to have a way out, an escape route.”

Before coming into a hover to get a look at the climber, Girouard had determined not only what would keep him in that position but where he could go should conditions change, and how to regain stability of his helicopter. Since the situation changed for the worse, Girouard was forced to nose the helicopter away from the cliff into lower, denser air. (The ground team made the rescue.) With more than 7,000 flight hours over 26 years, Girouard is one of the world’s most seasoned rotary-wing pilots, and his experience mirrors that of aviators throughout the Army National Guard, where pilots often continue their careers after finishing years of active duty.

Darren Freyer is now serving in Afghanistan as a pilot of a Black Hawk air ambulance helicopter for G Company, 2-135th, a Colorado Army National Guard medevac unit based at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. He says that even as U.S. involvement in Afghanistan winds down, HAATS training remains relevant. “Just because we might not be flying in high, hot, and heavy situations next year or the year after that, hypothetically, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared to fly in these situations,” he says. “You never know where the next conflict will flare up.”

Last spring, Freyer sent me an email from Camp Bastion, a British base in the Helmand province, about a recent medevac he flew with his platoon instructor pilot, CW3 Dustin Wehlmann, a Kansas Army National Guard member and a HAATS graduate. With Wehlmann at the controls of the Black Hawk, Freyer and three medics aboard were worried not only about the condition of a British soldier injured in a roadside bombing a 10-minute flight away. They were also concerned about taking fire from the Taliban and, on landing, their engines being damaged by the talcum-fine brown dust of the Helmand.

After landing safely and retrieving the soldier, Wehlmann told Freyer he was going to use 80 percent throttle on takeoff, even though both knew 65 percent would do it. Freyer was pleased Wehlmann remembered his lessons from HAATS. Freyer wrote: “A novice pilot will paraphrase this to ‘I will use the least amount of power always.’ Graduates of HAATS know a more accurate and precise statement is ‘I will use the appropriate amount of power.’ In our case, 80 percent is the appropriate amount of power, as it will ensure a takeoff which gets us up and out of the extremely hazardous dust cloud our rotor system will generate....Thankfully, we do not need to ‘put the hammer down’ flying home, as [one of the medics] tells us our UK soldier has feeling and movement in all limbs. A wonderfully executed power-managed flight, along with a soldier who is going to be okay, leaves all five crew members with a collective feeling of success.”

He hasn’t yet had the opportunity, but Freyer hopes to visit other units in Afghanistan, dispensing advice and encouragement to fellow pilots flying high, hot, and heavy in some of the world’s most hostile terrain.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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