Fort Belvoir, Va. (June 12, 2014) - It was a sight rarely seen at Davison Army Airfield, June 4, as 24 Lakota and Blackhawk helicopters took off from the base at the same time for a one-hour tour of restricted air space over Washington, D.C.
The Army Air Operations Group, 12th Aviation Battalion, organized the flight exercise that was a practice for a mass event in the D.C. area for pilots, passengers, maintenance and ground crews, and air traffic controllers at Davison. The fleet was made up of Lakota, Blackhawk UH-72 and Blackhawk VH-60 aircraft. It would be the last time Davison would see the Lakota and VH-60 aircraft fly at the field, as those aircraft are being sent to Fort Rucker, Ala. to be placed in museums and training programs. They will be replaced by Blackhawk UH-70 aircraft.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dan Hand, C Company, 12th Aviation Battalion pilot, said flying over Washington was a rare opportunity.
"It's awesome. Flying over D.C. is awesome," he said. "You get to fly past the Monuments at 200 feet. We try to wave at people."
With the Lakota and VH-60 Blackhawks leaving Davison airfield, Hand predicts an exercise like this will not happen again for a long time.
"This will be a once in a lifetime for this area," he said. "This was the last time we could launch all the aircraft at once."
The 24 aircraft took off from Davison, flew by the air traffic control tower, up the Potomac River, and around Washington, D.C. The trip took about an hour total.
Spc. Eric Lee of the 12th Aviation Battalion said they were low enough to see people on the National Mall.
"Everyone was at the monuments looking up and taking pictures," he said.
Lee rode in the VH-60 Blackhawk, which is outfitted to transport general officers, senior government officials and other VIPs. This was his second flight aboard a VH-60 Blackhawk, the first was aboard the more utilitarian UH-72 Blackhawk.
"I prefer that one," Lee laughed, pointing at the shiny black aircraft, adding that the VH-60 had air conditioning inside the cabin and leather seats.
Dale Walters, air traffic systems manager and historian for Davison Army Airfield, said there are many different components to a flight exercise like this.
"I call it organized chaos. There are so many moving pieces, not just on the ground but the sky around us," he said.
The exercise took more than a month to plan, Walters said. The base had to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, Homeland Defense and Homeland Security for all the aircraft to take off and fly through the restricted airspace in downtown Washington, D.C. Air traffic controllers from Davison and Andrews coordinated together to guide the aircraft safely through the D.C. airspace.
"There's a massive amount of people at an airport that make it operate safely," Walters said.
Hand credited the professionalism of both the Davison and Andrews air traffic controllers for ensuring a safe flight.
"The tower was really good. They got us through," he said. "Everything went real smooth."
Each aircraft is individually authorized by air traffic control to take off, with the lead aircraft and tail aircraft communicating back and forth.
Once on the ground, crews refueled the helicopters to ensure they were ready to go in an emergency. The passengers, who were volunteer servicemembers from Fort Belvoir, exited the aircraft, and ground crews refueled each helicopter.
Walters said refueling a Blackhawk helicopter is no simple task.
Hand said for every hour a Blackhawk is in flight, there are many more put in behind the scenes to make it happen -- especially with a massive flight exercise.
"That's a big deal for maintenance," he said.
Passengers were required to follow strict safety protocol. Walters said the most important thing to remember, is to never walk behind the helicopter, and always remain where the pilot can see you.
Lee said the first time he flew on a Blackhawk, a fellow passenger vomited in front of him, making for an uncomfortable ride. This time, Lee said he thoroughly enjoyed the whole ride, and hopes to make a habit of it.
"I'm getting used to it," he said. "I guess the more flights I get, the better it is."
The entire exercise took well over two hours to complete, from briefings, to firing up the aircraft and flight time, to the final landing. After getting into formation on the runway, the aircraft stayed there for more than a half hour as final checks were completed, and the pilot's awaited clearance from air traffic control. Walters said the procedure is the same in an emergency. Pilots and crew must be calm and collected, and no stone should be left unturned.
The 12th Aviation Battalion is the aviation support unit for the Military District of Washington. In a real emergency, crews would take off from Davison with specialized crews equipped to rescue high-level officials. During the practice run, the passengers were onboard to provide the pilots a true simulation.
"They will get real-world experience," said Walters.
During the practice, the aircraft lined up on the runway and remained in formation during flight. Walters said in a real emergency, the aircraft are capable of taking off from where they happen to be parked at the airfield, called "present position," however, for mass take-offs, air traffic control will request they get into formation.