FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. - In their own right, each is iconic in U.S. Army lore: aviation and infantry. Combine these two elements and you get the sort of stuff legends are made of. But every legend has its early days, and in the mid-morning hours of Feb. 8, deep somewhere in the woods of Fort Hunter Liggett, this one was just beginning.
"What we do today will facilitate our success during annual training, 2014," explained a focused Maj. Robert Horvath, battalion S-3, 1-184 Infantry, 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 40th Infantry Division.
With a chuckle, Horvath lets escape he knows what's coming for his soldiers.
"During this upcoming annual training, we - the 1-184 Infantry - have been given an air assault mission, during the FTX," the major explained. "So that's why we're here today."
Under the heavy padding of body armor, his chest rises and falls in a deep sigh as he looks out across a field; his eyes lock on to the group of Soldiers huddled en masse in a circle off in the distance.
"Crawl, walk, run," he said. "That's what we're doing. Practicing this in preparation for our mission during AT."
But the guys of 1-184 Infantry are just one half of the equation. In order for this to work, they'll need the assistance of the soldiers and assets of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, specifically they'll need help from Company B, 1-140th Aviation Brigade.
The infantry troops hail from Northern California. Fort Hunter Liggett, situated about 150 miles south of their home in the East Bay area, is almost their back yard. Not so for the pilots and crew chiefs operating the UH-60 Black Hawks resting in a staggered column of three. The aviation soldiers hang their hats in southern California. When they put their birds away for the night, it's the warm ocean breeze of a Los Alamitos, Calif., wind that make the helicopters' rivets creak.
One such soldier is Spc. Scott Pauley of Orange, Calif. Pauley isn't your typical specialist. He enlisted in the Army at 38 years old. His physique cuts an imposing stature. Built like a middle linebacker, Pauley easily takes charge as the troops from 184 Infantry begin their maneuvers.
"First and foremost comes the safety of the aircraft and the crew," Pauley explained during a down moment in the training.
Eight guys, fully loaded with gear, carrying weapons and an equal mix of seasoned and raw soldiers is enough to make any crew chief's spidey-senses tingle. Each one of these Black Hawks costs millions of dollars, and the crew chief is charged with the bird's care.
"One false move with one of those weapons and it's a bad day for everyone on the bird," Pauley says.
But it's more than just the safety of the crew and the aircraft, there's always concern for the "pax," military lingo for passengers. Loading and unloading of a helicopter is rife with danger, and in the years Pauley's served, he said he's seen some "pretty dumb maneuvers."
"Even some of the guys who've been in the military for years, they get around a helicopter and they kind of lose their minds," Pauley said.
Better to temporarily lose one's mind and have a crew chief call you out rather than be struck by one of the Black Hawk's rotor blades. According to the United States Army Aviation Warfighting Center's UH-60 student handbook, when at full speed, those blades spin at a rate of 258 revolutions per minute.
With the assistance of his fellow crew chief, Pauley gets everyone loaded onto the helicopter. There's a slight slowdown in the operation as the restraint system proves a challenge to some of the less experienced soldiers and Pauley helps them get the straps over their gear and into the clasp. Everyone properly buckled in, the crew chiefs climb aboard and the Black Hawk lifts into the air.
This being a training mission and all, it's not a long flight and soon enough the team's platoon leader calls out, "ONE MINUTE!"
The words are repeated and everyone - as much as they can - begins making final preparations. The bird touches down, Pauley slides the door open and the troops explode out taking up a hasty, prone defensive position at the edge of the blade's circumference.
As quickly as they touched down, the trio of helicopters takes off again and assumes a safe position back at the battalion's base. Now they wait - they wait for call announcing mission complete via the use of a key word. Once the pilots hear what they need to, they'll head back, do it all over again and bring the soldiers back to the staging area.
All told, the combination of infantry and aviation perform three rotations. As the final load drops off and the soldiers retreat back to conduct an after action review, Horvath walks over and begins chatting up the pilots. Horvath would like to get in a few more rotations, fuel levels dictate that probably isn't going to happen. But the major seems mostly satisfied with the day and the performance of his soldiers.
"There's some things we need to improve upon, but all and all the guys are doing pretty well," said Horvath.
Soon enough Horvath will know beyond a shadow of a doubt if all the training has paid off. Annual training is just around the corner, this day was just for practice, but come June and its go-time. This is the sort of stuff legends are made of.
Fort Hunter Liggett is the eighth largest Army installation in the United States. With more than 165,000 acres of unencroached mountains, valleys, rivers, plains and forests, the training facilities provide ideal maneuver areas for today's training requirements.