Andrews helicopter squadron '1st,' only of its kind

  • Published
  • By Capt. Anna Carpenter
  • 316th Wing Public Affairs officer
Anywhere she hears the klaxon on base, Capt. Kate DenDekker jumps and is instinctively ready to run.

She is one of the more than 40 UH-1N Huey pilots of the 1st Helicopter Squadron who, along with more than 20 flight engineers, have their ears fine-tuned to the distinctive alert signaling it's time to run out to the waiting helicopters and fly to Washington, D.C.

On the far north end of the flightline, the 1 HS trains for and performs its mission to provide airlift to White House, Cabinet, Congressional and Department of Defense leadership with immediate response to National Security incidents.

The 1 HS has crews on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a number of different high-level missions. Besides distinguished visitor airlift, the crews are equipped to provide medical evacuation during public events such as the Andrews Joint Service Open House, or assist in maintaining Air Force District of Washington's continuity of operations.

The 1 HS landed at the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001 to evacuate senior DoD leadership, which cemented its role as invaluable transportation for government leadership in emergencies, said Lt. Col. Michael Lightfoot, 1 HS commander.

The squadron's constant readiness and mission requires capabilities that set them apart from other helicopter units.

"We are the only unit in the Air Force with the training and capability to conduct remote operations with a single pilot with night vision goggles," Colonel Lightfoot said. Since 1 HS is on-call day and night and does not have the manpower to always have two pilots available, each pilot is trained to safely operate in all conditions, he said.

For crews, which usually consist of one pilot and one flight engineer per aircraft, training extends to staying physically fit for top performance during long shifts and the need to sprint out to the aircraft and fly to their landing zone with near immediacy.

"We can't run to the helicopters and be out of breath, unable to do our job just because we had to run a short distance," Capt. Michael Ryan, 1 HS pilot and unit fitness program manager, said. "The squadron ensures incorporation of a cardiovascular workout during physical training sessions. We do this by running, circuit training and team sports, like basketball."

The aircraft must also be kept in top shape, since the helicopters entered the service in 1969 with a life expectancy of 3,000 flight hours. The 1 HS's Hueys flight hour average is 11,000, Colonel Lightfoot said. Contractors from DynCorp International, LLC are responsible for the aircraft maintenance and contribute to the squadron's rotary wing record of more than 245,000 flying hours without a Class A safety mishap.

The DynCorp crew is up to the challenge of taking care of these 40-year old helicopters since most of them were previously assigned to the squadron as Airmen, Shelton Lacy, Helicopter Maintenance Branch Manager, said.

"Though we no longer wear the uniform, we come in the hangar everyday with the same mindset and determination to be the best at what we do," he said. "This attitude has been infectious and, in turn, spreads throughout the team."

A much smaller team of three Airmen take care of the people going into the helicopters as Aircrew Flight Equipment, formerly known as Life Support. Captain DenDekker leads this team to support the flyers assigned to the 1 HS and their passengers. They maintain, service, and inspect the protective equipment the flyers use, including aircrew helmets, survival kits, and night vision goggles, she said.

When it is her turn to sprint to the Huey and fly her mission, whether real world or drill, Captain DenDekker knows the team that is the 1 HS has come together to meet the needs of our nation's leaders, and that is music to her ears.