GYPSUM, Colo. -- Since the Colorado’s High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site opened 26 years ago, it’s never had any injuries or fatalities. In June 2012, a new curriculum will be introduced, which will include a course for enlisted crew members.
This story is the second in a series of three about Colorado’s High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colo.
“It takes about six months to grow a mountain instructor pilot up here – and that’s only if you’ve been through our qualification course and you’re a qualified instructor pilot already,” said High-altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site Executive Officer Maj. Tony Somogyi.
“Not only do we want them to see summer, fall, winter … but each landing zone presents a different dynamic,” he said. “The winds and the environment are so dynamic, and they change so fast, that there’s no cookie-cutter answer to how you do this training. And in order for a pilot not only to be able to grasp it, but to be able to turn around and train that to someone else … It takes a long time and a lot of experience flying in these mountains to be able to articulate what’s happening to the aircraft in the winds.”
And he should know, too. Since the Colorado National Guard opened the school 26 years ago, it’s never had any injuries or fatalities, and it’s had only three major accidents. In two of them, students rolled off the throttle in a UH-1 Huey short on final approach and in another, an OH-58 Kiowa pilot caught a skid and rolled over in whiteout conditions.
“It’s an incredible safety record for the environment – the extremes the instructors teach in – and a testament to the experience of the instructors who truly make the school run,” said Somogyi. “You can dumb (the school) down and not really talk about (the extremes) and hope everything goes well for you, but that’s how you end up crashing a multimillion-dollar aircraft.”
Recovery when necessary
Colorado Army National Guard Master Sgt. Greg Clancy is the production control non-commissioned officer in charge of maintenance management and the school’s first sergeant. He’s also the nation’s resident expert on downed helicopter recoveries, said HAATS Commander Maj. Joshua Day.
“He knows how to rig an aircraft and get it out of the mountains, and unfortunately he’s pretty good at it,” said Somogyi.
Since 2001, Clancy has recovered 13 helicopters. Seven were downed in Iraq in 2006. The rest were here in the U.S. – a Navy aircraft in West Virginia, a Coast Guard aircraft in Utah, an Alaska National Guard Black Hawk in Monarch Pass near Salida, Colo., a COARNG Chinook on Little Bear Peak near Alamosa, Colo., plus three others – he recovered all of them.
“He has more actual aircraft recoveries than anybody in the business as far as I know,” said Somogyi. “He’s a pretty smart Chinook guy, but more important, he’s a pretty smart load guy.”
In 2010, Clancy was recognized by Boeing, in conjunction with the Army’s cargo helicopter program manager, for his ability to recover aircraft, and specifically, for his work on Little Bear Peak.
“It’s all the other people involved who really make a mission like this happen,” said Clancy, who was honored for leading the effort to take the entire COARNG Chinook apart by hand, on the 11,700-foot mountain, in eight days. “Yeah, someone’s got to manage the process, someone has to orchestrate who’s going to do what. I just look at the task at hand and I make it happen.”
Way ahead: enlisted course
It’s Clancy’s experience with downed aircraft that makes him such a passionate advocate for a course for enlisted crew chiefs at HAATS.
“Little accidents – blade strikes, landing gear damage, bottom of aircraft damage – occur because the guys in back aren’t used to mountain flying,” said Somogyi, “and we don’t have staff to put one of our own in the aircraft.”
“My burning desire is to get the enlisted training piece of this going,” said Clancy. “They sit in on the class if they can but they’re kind of the afterthought – the back seat guys – and they’re usually the weakest links. Any of the scrapes we’ve had are because the crew dogs – the enlisted Soldiers – have never been in an environment like this or trained on what they need to do.
“The instruction now is about the pilots, but when we drag the tail through the trees, the first thing we gripe about is the crew chief didn’t clear it. And if he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, who’s to blame? The unit back home didn’t train him right? This isn’t an ‘us against them thing.’ We have crewmembers for a reason.”
Currently, it’s not mandatory for crew chiefs to sit in on the course, but it’s encouraged. However, while they initially get some basics, they normally have to leave the classroom portion in order to prepare their aircraft for flight.
Starting in June 2012, though, that will change. Pilots and enlisted troops will both be in class on Monday morning, going through the specifics of what crewmembers need to know – what the landing zones look like, what mountain flying is like – so that while a pilot’s focusing on shooting the approach, the crew chief can focus on letting the pilot know about obstacles.
“When you educate them on the process – when you give them the information up front instead of just putting them in the back and telling them where they’re going later – it empowers them and helps instill a sense of voice,” Clancy said.
“It’s also one of the reasons crew members sit in on the first hour, so they can generally understand the tabular data piece of it,” he said. “We teach crew members that so they know what numbers mean as well as the pilots. They should be able to articulate and incorporate that. This gets them into the crew coordination elements of flying.
“They can’t picture it until you take them up to 14,000 feet and experience it for themselves. The body is different at altitude. Besides that, they may want to think of hypoxia. ‘Is the pilot silly, sleepy, tingly? Has he missed radio calls?’ You don’t actually have the controls on your hands but you can make a difference. The crew chief is part of a team effort.
“I always gripe about crew members not getting their due, pilots not listening to them, but they should. I’m a big mouth. I don’t care who I’m flying with, if something’s wrong – whether it’s a student or somebody I’ve flown with forever – if I don’t like the way something looks or feels I’m going to speak up.”
Clancy’s bottom line: “Either you’re a witness to a crash or a willing participant in preventing it. Anything mission oriented, everybody should have a say in it. You’re the critical element.”
The two-challenge rule – to be willing to risk admonishment for telling a pilot he’s doing something wrong, or that you might have a solution for it – is what Clancy tries to instill.
“You might get a reprimand, but so be it. You’re going to be alive,” he said. “Be that kind of crew member – whether it’s peacetime, search and rescue, a boring old training flight or a combat deployment – otherwise you’re just a passenger on the bus.”
HAATS is planning to implement a new ground school in June 2012, which will include a half-day ground school specifically for the enlisted crew members.