By Lt. Col. Kjäll Gopaul, LeMay Center Joint and Air Staff Liaison Office deputy director
/ Published March 30, 2011
DAVISON ARMY AIRFIELD, Va. -- The Airmen, M-16 rifles in hand, crouch and wait silently. They scan the horizon, peering through the crisp air across the landing zone, and anxiously await the arrival of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and the aircrew' s signal to load.
The servicemembers check and re-check their equipment and mentally rehearse their actions. The load of troops, also called a "chalk," hold their weapons at a tactical low-port position and rush for the open doors of the awaiting aircraft. With the howl of the dual General Electric T700-GE-701C turboshaft engines drowning out any oral means of communication and relying only on their training, the chalk boards mutely, secures their equipment, locks their seatbelts and gives a silent thumbs-up. Through the maelstrom of wind that sweeps through the aircraft's cabin, the crew chief methodically verifies the safety of all personnel.
Each Airman gives a thumbs-up to the helicopter crew chief in anticipation of the aircraft's ascension into the skies and, suddenly, they are airborne. Minutes later, as the aircraft hesitantly yields to the force of gravity and descends, all eyes are on the crew chief. With the urgency of a hair-trigger, the crew chief gestures to rapidly off-load. "Three steps then drop, three steps then drop" is the mantra each chalk member recites silently to themselves as they burst through the open doors and drop to the prone supported firing position to provide security for the departing helicopter. In the receding rotor wash of the rising aircraft, the chalk concludes the earth-bound portion of their training as they sprint off of the landing zone.
Although this sounds like a military operation taking place in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa in support of overseas contingency operations, it was actually part of a deployment readiness exercise on March 25 with 99 Airmen from the Air Force District of Washington and Soldiers from the 12th Aviation Battalion at Davison Army Airfield on Fort Belvoir. For the third time in as many months, Airmen from the National Capital Region trained with an Army aviation unit on live air operations to master the tasks of tactical troop movement by helicopter. The aircrew from C Company, 12th Aviation Battalion, consisted of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matt Fountain, pilot-in-command; Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeremy Turner, co-pilot; Sergeant Ryan Vredenburg, crew chief; and Sergeant Michael Smith, standardization instructor.
"In the morning, we formed into our chalks of 11 Airmen each and the aircrew personnel gave us a safety brief - what to do, what not to do, hand signals, and the importance of following instructions. They covered the proper way to approach the aircraft -- from the 3 and 9 o' clock, not the 12 or 6 o'clock -- and explained how to load and egress a Black Hawk helicopter." said one of the trainees, Staff Sergeant Wesley Walker, 744th Communications Squadron cable maintainer on Joint Base Andrews. "After that we went to the flightline for our dry-run rehearsals. The crew chief taught each chalk how to load, put on their seat belts, hold a weapon, unbuckle, exit the aircraft, and go into prone position using the 'three-steps then drop' method. Training with dummy rifles really improved the realism. Without them, it would have been like playing an air guitar -- it's not the same. The crew chief showed us how to handle the weapon - placing it between the legs, muzzle down, so that if you have an accidental discharge, it avoids hitting the engine and the blades."
"After our dry-runs, it was time for the real thing. We boarded, took off, went around the base and landed. It was awesome! I eventually flew two times and noticed the improvement in our performance. The first time, I had trouble with the seat belt, and the second time I felt a lot more comfortable, and I was able to board easier. While I haven't flown on a helicopter during my previous times in the Area of Responsibility, I have been in some combat take-offs and landings on airplanes. Nowadays, Airmen are deploying in joint situations with the Army more often; because of that, the chances of flying on a helicopter are increasing and that makes this training valuable."
"To be honest, I didn't expect the training's combat on-loading and egress; I thought it would be more relaxed. When we trained with a combat scenario - that surprised me. But it was good -- war is brutal. It's necessary that we're ready."
The ground-based training also covered the communications systems of the aircraft - with selected Airmen being taught how to operate the helicopter's intercom system to talk to the aircrew, or use the radios to talk with troops on the ground or in other aircraft. They also learned how to bring their own radios aboard the aircraft and connect it to the troop commander's antenna to maintain communications with their units, if the situation required it.
"As the [pilot-in-command], I am ultimately responsible for the entire airborne portion of the operation -- managing safety and accountability for all of the personnel, mission planning, and execution, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matt Fountain, C Company, 12th Aviation Battalion. "The group today was very well organized, and there was a lot of training value in learning the loading procedures for a hot insertion. It's always nice to do joint forces training with other branches of service. Army aviation provides the vast majority of air transportation inside Iraq and Afghanistan, so their familiarity with our procedures will help them when they get down range. It's a good experience for the aircrew members as well. Most of us will go back to places where we'll carry tactical troops, run ring routes, and conduct insertions. As you hone a task, repetitive training is good when there is a consistent critique of safety and technique to ensure improvement. Staying current on those skills has long-term benefits for us. "
Senior Airman Scott J. Mullin, 11th Civil Engineer Squadron, power production journeyman, at Joint Base Andrews, elaborated on the relevance of training.
"After each turn, I found myself getting better. Our chalk stayed in our positions, knew what to expect, and knew what to do. Still having a weapon makes it tricky -- you have to keep track of it while adjusting your own body position and handling the seat belts. I never expected the seat belts to be such an issue. In combat, under fire, you don't want to fiddle around with seat belts. While it can feel clumsy, the extra training is valuable. I know of many instances where Airmen had to fly on a helicopter for the first time while deployed, and they weren't really expecting that as an Air Force servicemember. With training like this, it wouldn't be such a shock before they deploy."
Afterward, Sergeant Ryan Vredenburg, crew chief, C Company, 12th Aviation Battalion, commented on the smooth execution of the event. "The group was eager to learn and motivated to be there - everyone was very attentive and receptive to the safety brief, training, and run throughs. The training was very well organized - and everyone continued to improve as we practiced. At first, some folks were hesitant tactically exiting the aircraft, but after the first run everyone was a lot more comfortable -- they were faster getting on and off, helping out their buddy, adjusting belt buckles, and avoiding getting snagged up on their gear. Seatbelts take the most time to get used to, but they are also the most important for safety and staying secure." Sergeant Vredenburg noted the mutually beneficial nature of the event, "This is also good refresher training for the members of the air crew. If it's been a while since one of us has had a combat tour, this type of exercise keeps those tactical troop movement skills current."
The training also incorporated a squad of Security Forces Airmen from Joint Base Anacostia Bolling Security Services. Forming a single chalk in flak vests, the Airmen integrated the airborne operations with their small unit tactics to improve the team. Staff Sergeant Joshua J. Fehringer, Installation patrolman, military working dog handler, JBAB Security Services spoke at length about the need for this training because of expectations in the AOR.
"When I was in Kuwait, a Chinook came to pick us up and everyone just figured that we knew how to load ourselves and our gear. I'd never been on a helicopter or had this kind of training, so it was a little unnerving to suddenly be told to get in a helicopter with 3 rucksacks, a kennel, and a military working dog. If I'd had this class prior to going downrange, I would have known that I would have needed someone to help me with the bags, how to approach the aircraft, and how to secure my gear inside the aircraft. If there is any chance that you'll be forward deploying downrange, this training is vital."
Major Stephen Woodside, operations officer, 12th Aviation Battalion, explained the how the training exercise benefited both the Airmen and the Soldiers.
"The mission of the 12th Aviation Battalion is to conduct contingency operations for the NCR and to provide aviation support for the nation's leaders. Training servicemembers from the NCR on tactical boarding procedures supports that mission and allows our unit's Soldiers to stay current on their essential tasks."
Staff Sergeant Carlton L. Dixon, 744 CS, NCOIC Enterprise Information Management Operations, at Joint Base Andrews summarized the exercise by underscoring the "train as we fight" value of the class.
"When we flew, we went 'live' through everything we had learned -- it brought it all together. Because of the earlier training, I felt prepared and I had no problems whatsoever. I actually did better than I thought I would do, and I felt myself getting better with each turn. I gained a little confidence from that. But most importantly, I felt a huge sense of team building. A helicopter is different from an airplane... you are all right there -- in touch with one another and not all spread out. We had a team of 11, and we had to work together so that everyone was strapped in, safe, and our weapons positioned right. We were counting on each other to get it done. Because when you're in the field, that's all you have - just you and your team."