Joint Helicopter Exercise Trains the Total Force

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kjäll Gopaul
  • Deputy Director, Joint and Air Staff Liaison Office
Undeterred by inclement weather, a joint, total force team took to darkening skies here at Weide Army Heliport on September 29, as Airmen from the 175th Wing teamed with Maryland National Guard Soldiers from the 29th Combat Aviation Brigade and active duty combat camera Soldiers from the 55th Signal Company for a tactical helicopter exercise with passenger loading and sling loading of High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles.

Capt. Rock Stevens, executive officer for the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) at Fort Meade, described the morning's events. "To start off the day, we surveyed the helicopter landing zone and prepped our vehicles for rigging and inspection. Once the HMMWVs were approved for sling load operations by Lieutenant Colonel Gopaul and the UH-60 Blackhawk crew chiefs, we performed rehearsals. Our ground crews practiced signalman duties for guiding in aircraft, and hook-up man duties for placing the reach pendant attached to the HMMWV into the helicopter's cargo hook for a successful sling load."

After the vehicle rigging, the 26 service members were divided into 3 groups, called "chalks," and began their passenger load training, to include Airmen from the 175th Wing at Warfield Air National Guard Base who were on hand to learn more about helicopter operations. Tech. Sgt. Olen D. Smith, assistant unit training manager, 175th Security Forces Squadron, described his experience. "First off, I showed up excited about the day's events. I served as the chalk leader for my team that boarded the helicopter - I was responsible for personnel accountability, ensuring my team knew their mission and tasks, and ensuring that safety was practiced at all levels. The crew chiefs taught us about safety in and around the aircraft: approach and exit routes, danger areas like the tail rotor and standing in front of the door gunner, avoiding the engine exhaust, and emergency procedures. As the day moved on, I definitely learned some critical skills and it was just downright fun. Even though it rained, we really had a blast. The exercise was fantastic and I look forward to continuing training opportunities. Not only do they increase interservice awareness, it also supports the adjutant general's direction for the Maryland Guard for homeland operations."

Master Sgt. Stephen L. Gray, unit training manager, 175th SFS, noted the potential value of the training for his unit. "It was a tremendous day of training. The exercise demonstrated some relevant opportunities to broaden our skill sets, especially with respect to domestic operations and communications. Having our Airmen proficient on working with helicopters allows our unit rapid access to unimproved and degraded areas for homeland operations, and prepares our Airmen for deployed areas where helicopters are one of the safest and most common means of transportation. The Maryland National Guard has been steadily developing its support role to civil authorities with aviation assets. We can complement those operations with ground-based security forces - for instance, if the civilian authorities request our support to establish a neighborhood cordon or entry control points. The adjutant general is very focused on improving civil-military cooperation, and this would be a step toward that."

The balance of the morning was spent on the landing zone conducting sling loads. With each lift, the ground crew's signal man and hook-up man worked in tandem with the aircrew to attach the HMMWV to the cargo hook. As one troop stood in front of the vehicle and braced against the full force of the helicopter's rotor wash, another troop stood on top the HMMWV as the 11,500-pound aircraft hovered a mere four feet above his head. Confidently, the first Soldier gave hand-and-arm signals to the aircrew to guide the helicopter over the vehicle, while the second Soldier kept his eyes on the aircraft's cargo hook to initiate a successful sling load. With the hookup complete, the howl of the engines drowned out all other sound as the HMMWV-- weighing almost three tons - was lifted toward the sky and became airborne.

Working with the ground crews was Sgnt Nathan L. Bieniek, C Co (Air Ambulance), 1-169 General Support Aviation Battalion, unit non-rated crew member flight instructor, who offered his observations. "For the training exercise, we conducted multiple airlifts with HMMWVs. I had double-checked the sling load inspection of the vehicles to make sure they were rigged correctly, and I served as the ground safety. As the safety, I stayed in communication with the aircrew, and I made sure that everyone on the ground was in the right place at the right time, so that everything went smoothly. The sling load ground crews were very perceptive. Our initial coordination was very good; and once we started flying, we all worked really well together."

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Daniel B. Chapman, state standardization instructor pilot, Joint Force Headquarters, Maryland Army National Guard, pointed out that their aircrews also benefited from the exercise. "This was excellent training. In particular, we renewed our currency for sling load operations for five of our pilots and four of our crew chiefs. We have an assault company and a medical evacuation company, and all of the pilots have to train on sling load operations. We always look forward to training with a unit on a tactical load, rather than self-hooking concrete blocks. Unlike a static concrete block, the HMMWV is a dynamic load that can spin or oscillate. It's good experience for us to maneuver the aircraft to correct the load, as needed, and to use power management since a HMMWV comes so close to the maximum power of the airframe. And the personnel under the aircraft usually find their experience pretty exciting."

One of those ground crew members beneath the helicopter, Specialist Mark L. Salazar, a multimedia illustrator in the Special Missions Platoon of the 55th Signal Company, offered his perspective. "Under the hook, it's kind of a rush. You have a giant aircraft hovering over you, and you feel small. But you stay focused and it goes by fast, because once you hook up you're watching the bird do its thing and fly the load. I was prepared, though. It was definitely what I was expecting after having been to Air Assault School. I personally find it very rewarding to put that specialized training to work." He added with a smile, "I wouldn't mind doing it a couple more times."

Lt. Col. Mark Ruane, commander, 175th Logistics Readiness Squadron, offered his assessment of the value for his unit of sling loading cargo by helicopter. "Observing and participating in today's helicopter exercise was an educational and eye-opening experience. Seeing this first hand helped me appreciate the potential benefits of having this capability. This could be a useful tool to have in the 175th LRS's toolkit for the aerial delivery and movement of logistics supplies. Specifically, I can see potential benefits for domestic response, humanitarian assistance, and working in austere environments overseas."

Sergeant Smith saw the benefits of sling loading for security forces units, as well. "Just observing the sling load phase taught me how involved the procedure is - calculating the load plan for the HMMWV, safety taping the surfaces, calculating rigging length, and compliance with regulations. The effort definitely paid off, though. The vehicles were rigged, the crews performed signaling and hook-up duties, and executed safe and effective cargo retrieval. With our civil response missions, which commonly include movement of emergency personnel and supporting equipment, sling loading external cargo would give us the capability to rig our equipment and move it rapidly over great distances, and give us greater access to unimproved areas."

Later in the day, the 3 chalks put their new passenger skills to work by tactically loading, flying aboard, and exiting a helicopter. Sergeant Bieniek explained, "For the training in the afternoon, I flew as the crew chief for all three assault-style lifts with the passengers. They did everything the way they were supposed to - they listened, were flexible and adjusted to my guidance. It went really well. The combat camera teams got all of the pictures they needed and unloaded and loaded the aircraft just as we had practiced...without a hitch."

Afterward, Capt. David Paolucci, operations officer, Joint Force Headquarters, Maryland National Guard Army Aviation Support Facility, explained the strategic value of the day's activities for the helicopter crew members. "Having people under the aircraft conducting the hook-up, and in front of the aircraft giving hand-and-arm signals, requires our aircrews to raise their level of awareness, maintain communications, and plan their actions very deliberately. And anytime we train with an external unit, like the 175th Wing or the 55th Combat Camera, it exercises our pre-planning and coordination processes to ensure that the mission executes successfully. From an aviator's perspective, that makes the training more valuable and directly applicable to situations we'll face in an overseas contingency operation or in support of domestic response activities."