Task Force Viper Trains at Falcon Focus
CAMP MCGREGOR, N.M. -- An AH-64 "Apache" helicopter fires a "Hellfire" missile during a training exercise at Camp McGregor, N.M. Task Force Viper is at Camp McGregor as part of Falcon Focus, an eight-week intensive training exercise designed to prepare the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, Third Infantry Division, for its upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by 2nd Lt. Rachel Berkoff/Released)

CAMP MCGREGOR, N.M. - The top of South Franklin Mountain, nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, rests at the end of the Ron Coleman Trail in Smuggler's Pass and offers visitors a breathtaking panoramic view of El Paso, Texas, which lays at the western feet of Franklin Mountain State Park. Getting there isn't easy, as the mountain's asymmetrical surface, littered with loose rocks and jagged edges, is difficult to climb.

When the Soldiers of Task Force Viper conquered the trail as part of a team building exercise, it wasn't the vista that filled them with pride. After all, working in an aviation brigade, one gets used to breathtaking views. Instead, it was the feeling of the rough mountain terrain beneath their feet - a mission complete, an obstacle conquered.

Task Force Viper, a collection of elements from the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, lead by the 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, is in Camp McGregor, N.M., for Falcon Focus, an eight-week intensive training exercise designed to prepare the brigade for its upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

Joining 1-3 AVN are 3rd CAB units from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, the 4th Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, and the 603rd Aviation Support Battalion, as well as fellow Marne Soldiers of the 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.

Camp McGregor is one of the locations U.S. Forces Command designated for High Altitude Mobile Environment Training, or HAMET, due to its similarity in terrain and altitude to Southern Afghanistan. Forces Command develop the training program in 2010 to acclimate aviation brigades to new environments and a heightened pace of operations.

Chief Warrant Officer Nate Craig, an Apache pilot with 1-3 AVN, said the HAMET training introduces pilots to a more challenging geography than of Savannah, Ga., and the rest of the Coastal Empire.

"The high altitude training was a true eye opener for those pilots who have not flown in a mountainous environment and a great refresher for those who have flown in Afghanistan in years past," Chief Warrant Officer Craig said.

Training scenarios challenged the pilots to land on mountainous terrain, where the thin air limits power and dusty brown-outs can reduce the field of vision.

Viper AH-64 "Apache" helicopter pilot Capt. Nate Swann said that as a pilot, he appreciated the efforts of all the Soldiers to raise the caliber of the training.

"The crews and maintainers are tirelessly working to ensure this training is of the highest quality," Capt. Swann said. "Crews flying in high, heavy, and hot conditions are working to build the skill set required to operate in the Afghan theater."

The Viper missions in Afghanistan also depend on how well the pilots fly together as a team - especially when a mission calls for multiple, different helicopters.

Apache pilots have joined UH-60 "Black Hawk" helicopter pilots to simulate combat scenarios, including Black Hawk air assaults with Apache gun support.

First Lieutenant Kathryn Munera, a Black Hawk pilot with 4-3 AVN, said the training has put them in a position for success in Afghanistan.

"Flying together in these high altitude conditions have helped the cohesion of both Apache and Black Hawk pilots together," 1st Lt. Munera said.

Falcon Focus isn't solely dedicated to pilot training, however. Helicopter crew members and ground support Soldiers have all participated in exercises critical for future successes.

Almost 200 Viper Soldiers took part in emergency extraction training, which simulates the removal of crewman from a hostile environment after an emergency landing.

The Downed Aircraft Removal Team from the 603rd ASB is responsible for securing and removing damaged aircraft from the battlefield. Together with the Aerial Response Force from 5/7 CAV, their training culminated in a full scale night exercise using Black Hawks for transportation and Apaches for air security.

Capt. Pete St. John, battle captain with 1-3 AVN during the night operation, said the exercise benefitted on all fronts.

"The Fallen Angel DART Battle Drill training was not only an awesome opportunity to see how our DART and ARF are able to work to respond to a downed aircraft, but a great chance as Battle Captain for me to steer our Tactical Operations Center through the many steps necessary to get downed pilots the help they need," Capt. St. John said.

But for all the exercises to take place, every helicopter and vehicle needed one thing: fuel.

Echo Company, 1-3 AVN, has established two Forward Arming and Refueling Points during Falcon Focus: one at Camp McGregor and the other at the Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport in Alamogordo, N.M. From these two spots, the Viper Soldiers give life support to rest of Falcon Focus, providing fuel, ammunition and vehicle maintenance.

First Lieutenant Nadine Smith, the Echo Company platoon leader said she recognizes the contributions her Soldiers make to keep Falcon Focus up and running.

"My Soldiers work day and night to fuel Apaches and Black Hawks, but that's our mission, and their [the pilots'] mission heavily depends on us," 1st Lt. Smith said.

Lieutenant Colonel Brian Schaap, commander of Task Force Viper, said his intent for the unit at Falcon Focus was to build the team and get better every day.

"Fly smart, shoot straight and speak the truth," Lt. Col. Schaap said - a motto for a task force with one mountaintop beneath its feet, setting its sights on the next.

Page last updated Tue August 21st, 2012 at 00:00