Monday, May 30, 2016

New Army helicopter unit stretches imagination

Kathryn's Report:

Pfc. Erik Corona checks the pitch control links of an Apache helicopter in Hangar 5 at Fort Wainwright on Tuesday, May 24, 2016.

Pfc. Tyler Peterson works on the number two engine of an Apache helicopter in Hangar 5 at Fort Wainwright on Tuesday, May 24, 2016.

LADD ARMY AIRFIELD — The briefing delivered in this Fort Wainwright hangar was a mix of imaginary war games and real safety information for a reason: these helicopter pilots need to stay sharp even when they’re not deployed to a war.

None of that makes the briefing sound any less strange to an outsider.

Tuesday was a gloomy day a Fort Wainwright’s airfield. There were isolated showers and 9-knot winds from the southwest, explained CW2 Michael Harms, reading a real weather report. At about 3 p.m., two of Fort Wainwright’s 20 Apache Longbow helicopters were leaving on a training mission south of the Fairbanks. Harms, the tactical operations officer, explained flight plans and radio communication channels.

The briefing took a turn when he got to the part about hazards.

“The Gray Eagle (unmanned plane) reported that six military-aged-men were two kilometers southeast,” Harms said. “They do have shoulder-carried weapons, shoulder-fired weapons. At this time, it’s unclear if they’re RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) or surface-to-air missiles.”

He explained that they were concerned that the men were going to build a roadside bomb on “checkpoint bridge” in order to stage an ambush along “MSR Parks.” The unit’s mission would be to help protect the highway for a convoy. The soldiers discussed contingency plans for what they would do if one of the helicopters was shot down. They identified the terrain around Rex Dome as a good place to hide behind.  

No, the Army is not really investigating roadside bombs on the Parks Highway and the group of ATVers mentioned in the briefing weren’t really going to attack the Army with shoulder-fired missiles.

But in the fictitious campaign, the Army aviation soldiers have been fighting for months; the town of “Tenana” is under attack. The fight began months ago as a conventional war. Fifty training missions later it’s a counter-insurgency

war, the type of combat many of the helicopter pilots know from recent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their imaginary war in “Tenana” just happens to overlay the real, and rather tranquil, town of Nenana and the Jack Coghill Bridge to the Interior on the Parks Highway.

Detailed planning goes into making these training scenarios as realistic as possible, but for obvious practical reasons, it takes some imagination to carry them out. People traveling the Parks Highway are not really enemy fighters, so there’s no pointing of weapons allowed. The helicopters carry dummy missiles and any “combat” parts of the mission take place only in the descriptions of the commander and the minds of the pilots.

“The last thing you want to do is have the American people think we’re spying on them. But at the same time, you have to use the resources that are out there,” explained Lt. Col. Jaysen Yochim, The Battalion Commander for Fort Wainwright’s new aviation unit the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment.

“We need something to go out and look at and we don’t have the resources to send our own things out there,” he said.

In the Lower 48, an Apache unit in training might build a storyline around the routine comings and goings of a busy section of railroad track or interstate highway, Yochim said. In Alaska, the landscape has fewer features that can play the role of threats in training exercises.

There’s been one useful feature of Alaska’s landscape.

“One things you can do a lot when you’re trying to track targets — you’re not tracking people — is here there is a lot of wildlife and moose make pretty good targets to just walk across and keep your sights on it. You’re not going to do anything, you’re just using it as a target,” Yochim said.

Ideally, the helicopter pilots would be training in the military’s 2,490 square-mile Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, where they can conduct live-fire gunnery exercises and defend against simulated attacks from anti-aircraft guns. But the range is in high demand and last week it was being used by Air Force-led Red Flag Alaska training exercises.

New helicopter, new needs

Fort Wainwright’s new aviation battalion was created six months ago. The unit, the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, features two aircraft that are new to Interior skies, the Apache helicopter and the Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle.

Cpt. Richard Packer, a public affairs officer whose background is in the Army’s land-based units, likens Fort Wainwright’s three helicopters to a bus, a sedan and a motorcycle. The Chinook is a flying bus that can lift large pieces of equipment. The Blackhawk is an all-purpose sedan that can be used for medical evacuations or troop transport.

The new Apaches are motorcycles, small heavily armed vehicles flown by two soldiers, one behind the other. They replace an older helicopter at Fort Wainwright, the 0H-58D Kiowa Warriors.

When the attack helicopter battalion is complete, it will have nine Gray Eagles and three companies of Apaches, each with eight helicopters.

In the eyes of the battalion commander — himself an Apache pilot — training an Apache unit is more complex than training a Blackhawk or Chinook unit.

“This is what we do every day,” he said. “We can’t really attack things, but we have to be able to train to attack things.”

At the end of Tuesday’s briefing, the soldiers abruptly stood up from their conference table. Bravo Company Commander Cpt. Jeff Piazza announced that leaders had called for their assistance.

“We’re going to launch right now,” he said, clapping his hands together.

The four soldiers walked briskly out of the conference room and down a flight of stairs to their two helicopters. The Apaches were already in the tarmac and had received their pre-flight inspections and tests. Within about five minutes of Piazza’s order, the crews had climbed into their cockpits and taxied away. Piazza sits in the rear seat of one of the helicopters, the main pilot’s seat in an Apache.

Then they waited with their rotors spinning. The air traffic control tower took no interest in the counterinsurgency war in “Tenana.” The Fort Wainwright airfield was busy Tuesday afternoon with Chinooks, Blackhawks and Alaska Fire Service planes constantly coming and going. The Apache helicopters waited for a small plane to land before lifting off and turning south towards the Jack Coghill Bridge.

According to Piazza, they were returned to the airfield about two hours later and were successful.

“The mission when really well. It went pretty much as planned. I threw a few contingencies at them and everyone reacted appropriately” he said later in the week. Piazza explained before he left that he likes to surprise his soldiers by “calling audibles.”

On Tuesday, the mission deviated from the plan just before they reached the bridge. The helicopter crews got a call from their allies on the ground — in reality Piazza calling them using a slightly different voice and a different radio frequency. The other soldiers stopped what they were doing, made contact with their “friendly forces” in the area and then returned to Fairbanks.

By 5:15 p.m. they were back at Fort Wainwright, safe from the real hazards of rotor icing and pretend concerns about shoulder-fired missiles. The people of “Tenana” were safer and the soldiers had another training mission behind them.

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