A lumbering CH-47 Chinook loops over a field of wildflowers before gently settling down, rotors kicking up a fine spray of debris.
The Georgia Army National Guard soldiers inside the helicopter have flown days to get here. Now, with picturesque peaks surrounding them, they have arrived at a unique classroom — nearly 10,000 feet up into the Rocky Mountains.
Here and amid other landing zones spread across a 1 million-acre training area composed of public lands and some of the tallest peaks in the lower 48, the Guardsmen are undertaking a weeklong course to prepare to fly in some of the most difficult operating environments in the world.
The High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS) is a Defense Department school unlike any other. It trains hundreds of aviators each year, with students representing active and reserve components from all branches of the military and dozens of countries from around the world.
A small cadre of just over 30 people, most from the Colorado National Guard, staff the school, which is based at the Eagle County Regional Airport, not far from the popular Vail ski area. Much of the learning, however, takes place among the nearly 100 landing zones scattered across the vast terrain, ranging from 6,500 feet to more than 12,000 feet high.
Lt. Col. Britt Reed, the HAATS commander, says his experienced staff helps build on the foundation pilots already have to teach them advanced concepts that could help on future missions. The course is designed to help pilots get the most out of their aircraft. It’s a curriculum not offered anywhere else in the country and in few other places around the world.
“This is a graduate-level course,” he says. “It’s important for us to get them the tools they need to make sure they can accomplish their mission successfully and not bend or break aircraft in the process.”
Those skills, honed in Colorado, have been especially important as the military continues missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo and other mountainous nations, where the air is thin and knowing how to utilize the full power of the aircraft is critical. Officials say they will be even more important as the military continues to prepare for near-peer fights that will require aircraft to be laden with additional troops, armor and defensive technology.
In late August, the Georgia aviators sit alongside counterparts from Arizona, New Jersey, Virginia and the Navy as an instructor pilot holds a small toy helicopter over a terrain model, demonstrating different approaches to landing on the miniscule mountaintop.
Lt. Cmdr. Robb MacKenzie, a Coast Guard pilot who teaches at the Guard-run facility, is explaining how environmental factors can impact an aircraft. It’s part refresher, part introduction for the advanced concepts the pilots will receive hands-on instruction for later in the week. This is the only full day of classroom instruction. For the rest of the week, the pilots will learn midair.
“This should be challenging, regardless of what your background is,” MacKenzie says.
Throughout his lesson, three words are repeated more than most. It’s a common refrain that is inescapable at HAATS: the three H’s of “High, hot and heavy.” They are the conditions that HAATS aims to teach pilots to overcome.
Each pos problems for a helicopter pilot used to operating closer to sea level. As the air thins in high elevations, there is less lift. When the engine works harder in heated conditions, there’s less available power. The same is true when a helicopter is carrying extra passengers, supplies or fuel.
It’s the same concept as the human body, MacKenzie says. That, too, has to work harder in extreme conditions. “The mountain flying is secondary,” he says. “This is all about power management.”
The mountain flying is secondary. This is all about power management. —Lt. Cmdr. Robb MacKenzie, a Coast Guard pilot who teaches at the Guard-run facility
INSTRUCTORS define power management as knowing how much power the helicopter has and how much is needed. In treacherous terrain, such as a deep mountain crag or steep cliff, successful power management can prevent a potentially deadly crash.
And poor power management and other pilot errors, instructors remind students, have brought down far more helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan than enemy fire.
For that reason, Reed says HAATS is one of the best returns on investment in the military. He notes that a full year of courses training more than 375 aviators costs significantly less than the loss of a single helicopter — not to mention the untold costs of losing a soldier to a preventable mishap.
At HAATS, pilots must consider numerous challenges that come with high-altitude, over-burdened or over-heated aircraft. Often, there’s no one solution to overcoming those challenges. Instead, HAATS instructors aim to give aircrews the tools needed to find the best answers for each situation.
“Everything is a jigsaw puzzle,” MacKenzie says as he met with the pilots for the first day of the five-day course. “What may be the best answer today may not be the best answer tomorrow.”
Reed says the key is situational awareness: understanding the limitations and capabilities of an aircraft and allowing aviators to make good decisions in challenging situations.
“We tell them at the beginning ... We’re not going to make them experts just from being out here a week,” he explains. “But we’re going to give them a little bit that they can continue to practice and incorporate into their training and take back to their units.”
Part of that knowledge is how to cope with the impact of severe conditions not only on the aircraft, but on the pilots and crew.
“It can be demanding on the body if you’re not used to it,” Reed says of flying at high altitudes. “Definitely, it takes a toll on you.”
HAATS trace its history to 1985, when Colorado aviators formed what would become the Colorado High Altitude Training Site for OH-6 Cayuse helicopters. Over the years, the school has been involved in high-profile, search-and-rescue operations and has evolved into a go-to resource for units deploying to Afghanistan or Northern Iraq.
MacKenzie says the school has a set syllabus, but can adjust that training for a specific unit or mission, if needed. And often, they pull from real-world experiences. Cadre are among the most experienced aviators in the military, each with thousands of hours of flight time and multiple deployments.
The school reached its class peak in 2010 with more than 450 aviators trained. Today, more than 20% of its students come from allied nations, including Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
The modern schoolhouse comes highly recommended with a reputation as being one of the most valuable experiences for military aviators, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matt Ferguson, a Virginia Army Guard UH-72 Lakota pilot.
Back home, he often works with local law enforcement, flying counterdrug missions “low and slow, with the doors off.” That mission might seem at odds with the type of flying done in Colorado’s mountain ranges. Not so, Ferguson says.
“If you get too low, the helicopter hovering over the house be-comes pretty obvious, pretty quick,” he explains. “So you got to know how to maintain standoff, how to read the wind and position the helicopter where you need it to be positioned.”
Over the course of four days, crews training at HAATS progress to more and more difficult scenarios. From relatively low impact to high stress.
There definitely is that pucker factor. —Capt. Matthew Munoz, the commander of the New Jersey Army National Guard's B Company, 1st Air Assault Helicopter Battalion, 150th Aviation Regiment
THE MOUNTAIN ENVIRONMENT offers a variety of experiences. Weather can be cloudy and rainy on one side of a peak, cloudless and dry on the other. Mornings are generally calm while afternoons are known for high winds.
While a pilot may have ample space for a landing zone at the start of the course, they may eventually land on a rocky outcrop large enough for only a single wheel or on a crowded cliff face.
“We start out big — think football field,” says Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jim Fennessy, an instructor pilot flying with the Georgia aircrew. “Then we work small.”
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steven Reed, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Luke Selph and Sgt. Jameson Little are unfamiliar with the Colorado terrain. Back home, the only peaks they worry about are the tops of pine trees.
“We’re from flat country,” Selph says.
But the crew, from B Company, 1st General Support Aviation Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment, knows this training may help them yet — whether that comes in the mountains of Afghanistan or amid a domestic response mission in their own backyards is yet to be seen.
“This is absolutely important for us,” Selph says. “This is something we don’t experience at all until we are deployed.”
Capt. Matthew Munoz, who also hails from a largely sea-level state, agrees.
He is commander of the New Jersey Army Guard’s B Company, 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 150th Aviation Regiment, a UH-60 Black Hawk unit. While he’s not likely to find similar terrain in his home state, Munoz says there are clear lessons to take home.“
There is a level of stress to flying here,” he says. “It’s important to experience this here in a training environment and learn from your mistakes.”
Munoz said HAATS teaches pilots how to better handle their aircraft, which bolsters not only their skills but their confidence.
“There definitely is that pucker factor,” he says. “You have that caution and fear in that confined space. And there’s the potential for the rotors of the aircraft to strike an obstacle.”
The unique skills of HAATS staff makes them well suited for the school’s secondary mission as a search-and-rescue outfit across much of the state.
Working with civilian rescue technicians, the school has crews on constant standby and is one of the busiest rescue organizations in the Guard with dozens of saves each year.
“Like many Guard units, we have multiple missions,” Reed says, explaining how crews have rescued injured skiers and stranded climbers. “It can be treacherous out there. It’s great that we can provide this service.”
The Guard helicopter crews are able to reach areas where civilian aircraft are unwilling or unable to go, officials say.
But the dual missions have stretched the staff thin. Each aircraft has but one maintainer and the school has relied in the past on help from other states — including most recently Iowa, which sent two helicopter maintainers to Colorado for their annual training to help maintain HAATS aircraft.
Reed says HAATS keeps costs down by requiring units to bring their own helicopters, but there has been pressure in recent years to expand the course to include night-vision goggles and to double the length to two weeks.
“We think of all the ways we could be better,” he adds. “But we’re not manned to a level we could extend.”
But at the same time, Reed says the school’s facilities could sup-port more training, if needed. And it has recently expanded its training for enlisted crew members.
“The capability is there if we need to surge,” he says. “What we have here is not a secret. We’re trying to spread the word and share it.”
Three Other Guard Aviation Training Sites
HAATS is one of four aviation training sites operated by the Army National Guard.
The facilities support Guard training requirements and augment the Army’s overall training capacity for surge and specialized training. Each also accepts student from other services and allied nations.
The other three sites include:
Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania
EAATS conducts aircrew qualification and training with a primary focus on cargo and utility rotary-wing aircraft, including the CH-47 Chinook, UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota. The school was established in 1981.
Fixed Wing Army National Guard Aviation Training Site Bridgeport, West Virginia
FWAATS is the only Army Guard training site for fixed-wing aircraft. Its emphasis is on C-12 and C-26 aircraft and it is the only Army training center offering the C-26 aircraft qualification course, the C-12 and C-26 instrument flight-examiner courses, and the C-12 maintenance test-pilot course. Both aircraft are small transports. The school was established in 1992.
Western Army National Guard Aviation Training Site Red Rock, Arizona
WAATS provides training for UH-72 and UH-60 aircrews, to include maintainers. The site provides much of the Guard’s UH-72 training. It has also hosted AH-64 Apache training and competition. The school was established in 1993.