PENDLETON, Oregon - Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment, continue to diversify their skills and add capabilities to their repertoire, becoming one of the most versatile aviation assets in the state. Soldiers in the Pendleton, Oregon, based unit have been busy this spring, training and preparing their CH-47D Chinook helicopters for a variety of domestic missions that could come their way at any time.
Five members from the unit had the opportunity, in April, to attend a one-week training course at the High Altitude Aviation Training (HAATs) Center near Eagle, Colorado. The training taught crews techniques like reading the environment and power management for high altitude landing zones above 12,000 feet. These skills can be directly implemented for search and rescue missions here in Oregon, mainly those above 8,000 feet where the HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters are unable to fly. Chinook helicopters do not have the hoist capabilities that the Oregon Army National Guard Black Hawks have. However, Chinooks can be used as a sighting platform, used to update and potentially prepare other first responders on any given situation.
Soldiers also learned about the physiological effects in high elevations, like hypoxia, when there is a deficiency in the amount of adequate oxygen, which can lead to altitude sickness, and can even be fatal given certain complications.
Oregon Army National Guard Sgt. Jeremy Maddox, a flight instructor with B Company, 1-168th Aviation Battalion, previously had the opportunity to attend the training in 2013.
"While technically it is a pilot based course, HAATs instructors also focus on the back-seaters as well," said Maddox. "It helps us understand the pilots better, when it comes to numbers and power margins."
The course, in addition to the Oregon Chinook and its crew, had multiple airframes in attendance, to include Black Hawks, Apaches and Lakota helicopters. Soldiers completed a mix of both classroom and flight time with a standardization pilot (i.e. instructor) who gave feedback, pointers and evaluations.
Maddox recalls that the instructor complimented the Oregon crew saying, they had "some of the best crew coordination he had ever seen when it came to spotting hazards and identifying wind directions."
The unit also tackled their annual fire certifications, in May, under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service. Air crews and support personnel completed a "red card" classroom refresher and then practiced the deployment of fire shelters, similar to the training Oregon Guard Soldiers and Airmen conducted last year on state active duty (SAD) in support of Operation Plan Smokey. The aviators then took to the skies with their Chinooks and the infamous 30-foot, orange Bambi buckets.
During the water bucket certification, the airframe has a full crew consisting of two pilots and three flight crewmembers. However, the unit's standardization instructor pilot (SIP) Chief Warrant Officer-4, Don Ford, was technically the only person who was evaluated by demonstrating proficiency with both line and spot water drops.
"It is absolutely critical that the crew works together as a team while conducting bucket operations," said Ford. "We spend man hours practicing and refining our techniques to ensure all of our crews are at their best."
"Standardization pilots are responsible for ensuring that our flight program is complete, that it's a finished package," articulated Capt. Breanna Westman-Evans, commander of B Company, 1-168th Aviation Battalion. "He (Ford) makes sure that everyone has the same training all across the board. So, a lot of liability lies in his hands. Those check rides that he gets, and those evaluations do lie with him."
Logan F. Harris, a helicopter inspector pilot, with the U.S. Forest Service, provided oversight and was looking for 75-percent of the bucket's 2,000-gallons to hit the target. Harris oversees all special-use mission certifications for the region, outside of normal day-to-day operations. Based out of Redmond, Oregon, Harris is a part of the U.S. Forest Service's Regional Aviation Group that includes Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
Pending positive results, Harris then accredited Chief Warrant Officer-4 Ford with an immediate grade slip, with a more formal letter sent after. Ford will then be able to train and certify other members of Bravo Company, similar to the Army's 'Train-the-Trainer' type programs.
Ford said that while it is true that he is the one being graded and evaluated, it truly is an evaluation on the entire program. This was the first time that the unit had worked with Harris and they wanted to put their best foot forward.
"I wanted him to know that we are just as skilled as the civilian crews that he evaluates," said Ford.
Westman-Evans said that even though the unit has people who have fought fires for the last four seasons, they still requalify each year, to ensure all of their personnel are good to go.
"Typically the unit aims for four-to-five crews each fire season that are qualified, so, two pilots, a flight engineer and a crew chief," said Westman-Evans. "Right now our numbers look good and we have a few more weeks to get everybody ready, about 16-20 personnel."
The Soldiers utilize a drop site, through previous coordination with local landowners; they lovingly refer to as "Juniper." The site is adjacent to the Columbia River, allowing the crew to dip the 2,000-gallon capacity Bambi bucket relatively close to where they complete the water drops on specified targets. They have used the same area to test Bambi bucket drops since 2013.
Chief Warrant Officer-3 Anson Smith, a pilot with Bravo Company, says "Juniper" works well as a training area (for the water bucket operations) because of its diverse topography.
"The changing terrain exposes both pilots and the crew to the different types of water drops we can encounter while out on a fire and the necessary coordination to deliver the water," said Smith.
The close proximity to the Pendleton flight facility, just a short 10-minute flight away, also allows the unit the flexibility to swap out or provide maintenance to the bucket if needed.
The Pendleton Chinooks are the first Oregon Army National Guard airframe that Harris has certified this year. He said certifying military members brought back memories from his prior service days in the Marine Corps.