FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Air Ambulance Detachment "Flatiron" officials continue modernizing their fleet as they phase out Vietnam-era UH-1 Hueys, replacing them with new UH-72A Lakota helicopters, at Cairns Army Airfield.

The contemporary medevac aircraft travel faster, feature a more modern avionics package and a glass cockpit, according to Flatiron Commander Maj. Jim Stanley.

Flatiron members, under 1st Battalion, 223rd Aviation Regiment, received three original Lakotas last July. They recently welcomed another three, and anticipate strengthening their force to eight by next summer while continuing to perform medical evacuation missions.

The transition between the two aircraft takes several years, Stanley explained, due to additional training pilots, crew members and mechanics must undergo.

Hueys, beloved by many long-time pilots, are currently being retired throughout the Army. The aircraft was first manufactured in 1956, according to www.army.mil information, and the Army began using the helicopters in 1959. About half of the 15,000 Hueys produced were flown during the Vietnam War.

Though the conversion from old to new is time-consuming, officials said the change is for the best.

"It's working well as a medevac platform for us," Stanley said.

Flatiron pilots agree.

"From a pilot's standpoint, it's a great aircraft," said Capt. Seth Swartz, Flatiron flight platoon leader. "It has great technology."

Most Flatiron missions involve picking up student- and instructor-pilots off-site when they are forced to make precautionary landings, he said. According to Swartz, the unit conducts about 2,000 of these annually.

Another 40 missions each year involve medical evacuations, either on the installation or around the Wiregrass. Flatiron has a Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic contract with local communities, stating they can be called in as a last resort for civilian emergencies, he noted.

In addition to their duties here, aircrews also provide medevac support during Army Ranger mountain training with the 5th Ranger Training Battalion in Dahlonega, Ga., Capt. Steven Murty, executive officer, said.

Performing a wide variety of missions means the Soldiers must be proficient and ready to handle any task, unit members said, noting that adjusting to the differences between the old and new aircraft is the biggest challenge.

Because Flatiron crews may have to switch between life-threatening and routine precautionary landing calls during the same day, Stanley said arrangements are in the works so back seats can be moved around in the aircraft to carry different combinations of patient and passenger loads.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeremye Collins, a flight medic, said he appreciates this change because it efficiently utilizes floor space and makes his job easier. He said he also appreciates the new side mounts to hold medical equipment, which were unavailable in the Hueys.

Another new feature offers an external rescue hoist, creating more room inside the aircraft for medics and patients, Swartz said.

Firefighter Spc. Robert Davis said this arrangement makes aiding patients from the air safer.

"The hoist is easier (to operate). You have more control because of where you are (sitting) on the skids," he said.

Lakotas have additional avionic and radio capabilities to better coordinate with ground crews, and they are also similar to civilian medevac helicopters, making training with off-post organizations simpler.

For now, pilots only fly Lakotas out of Cairns Army Airfield on Sundays, Swartz said. Crews conduct necessary missions the remaining six days of the week with the Hueys until the aircraft are completely phased out.

Though hours are long and adjustments can be difficult, Flatiron members agreed their work is worthwhile, regardless of their transportation mode.

"This is a real-world mission," Murty said. "I take pride in our work because there's always somebody here (working). We go the extra mile to pick up patients in need."

Aiding those stranded or injured is what their mission is all about, Swartz said.

"It's the most rewarding job I've had in the Army because you're helping people," he said.

Page last updated Fri March 19th, 2010 at 12:19