BUFFALO, N.Y. - A crowd of spectators started to form as two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters appeared over the tree line and landed along the shore of Lake Erie. It was almost lunchtime on Sept. 5, 2018, and already that morning a small group of Soldiers from the West Virginia National Guard's 19th Special Forces Group were busy preparing their equipment and getting ready for the day's training in Hamburg, New York, just south of Buffalo.
As the helicopter shut down and the blades stopped spinning, 1st Sgt. Kevin Vineyard, assigned to the Virginia National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, greeted Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike, assigned to the 19th Special Forces Group. This wasn't their first time working together. Over the last half decade, the two have worked to develop training that meets the pre-deployment needs of the operators while also increasing proficiency for Vineyard's flight crews.
"It's almost like working with your doppelgänger," Vineyard said of Chief Mike, whose last name is withheld for security reasons. "It's so neat to find someone who thinks on the same level."
Both Vineyard and Chief Mike are driven by a similar desire to provide realistic, effective and relevant training to their Soldiers. Repeatedly working together over multiple years is part of what helps them reach that goal.
"The relationship with the Virginia National Guard has been unbelievable," Chief Mike said. "It's pretty much the same pilots and the same crew chiefs and it's been working like that for five years, which means we're always in synch with each other."
This year's training, like in years past, made use of standing relationships with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in and around Buffalo, New York. Those relationships, according to Chief Mike, were a big part of the reason he decided to hold the training in that area and the training included support from the Town of Hamburg Police, Hamburg Water Rescue, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security.
"This is our third Buffalo evaluation and train-up for deployments," Chief Mike said. "We're pretty connected here."
The first few days of training were task-driven. The operators have a list of required skills they must certify on before they deploy and the Virginia flight crews, along with their helicopters, provided some of the necessary support to accomplish that certification.
On their first full training day, over Lake Erie, the focus was first on paradrops, which required the Special Forces Soldiers to jump from the helicopters and parachute into Lake Erie where they were then collected and brought to shore by local and federal partner agencies. After that, the training focus shifted to helocasting, an airborne insertion technique where a rotary-wing aircraft flies just above the water's surface at a low airspeed as the special operations forces jump into the water.
While training like this certifies the operators on their special skills, it also helps the flight crews improve their readiness levels.
"This is the next level of proficiency for our crews," Vineyard explained. "It's a chance to get the younger crew members involved, take them to that next level and continue to challenge them so that they can become better crew members."
Sgt. Turner Welch, one of five crew chiefs to make the trek to New York, is one of those younger crew members. He's served six years so far, as a 15T UH-60 helicopter repairer.
"I've done some of this stuff before," Welch said. "But it's different because we're not just doing traffic patterns or bouncing around from airport to airport, you actually get to do what an assault unit is supposed to do on a deployment."
Vineyard said the training in New York occurred in a "dynamically fluid environment," much like he and his Soldiers would encounter on a deployment. He said it's hard to simulate that sort of environment at home, but that the training with the 19th SFG gets them close.
"The nice thing about this is that it takes everybody out of their comfort level," Vineyard explained. "The reality of it is that things change quickly, so we training our crews to be flexible so they can adapt in these kind of environments."
On the second training day, the Virginia and West Virginia Soldiers focused on fast rope insertion techniques as well as low cost, low altitude drops, a logistics aerial resupply delivery method where bundles of supplies or equipment are dropped from a low altitude.
Planning for this multi-day, multi-agency event started months ago, according to both Vineyard and Chief Mike. Vineyard said they received a concept of operations from Chief Mike and then worked to identify how best to support their training from there, then filled in the logistical details, like where they'd stay, how to maintain the aircraft and which route they'd take to get to New York.
The third day of training served as a kind of culminating event and was scenario-based. The flight crews flew throughout the Buffalo area, and made use of locations in and around Niagara Falls as well, like Old Fort Niagara. It brought together the training certified in the previous days and included a downed pilot rescue and fast rope insertion, along with additional operational skills honed by the operators during the training.
"They know our requirements, we know how they like to fly and that actually lets us take the training to the next level," explained Chief Mike. "We trust each other so we can kind of take a little bit more risk because we've been training together for so long."
Over the last five years, Vineyard and Chief Mike have gotten into a pattern of training together once every two years or so, and that's a pattern they both hope to continue moving forward.
"I know where we need to push our crews to make them better and more proficient, and he does the same thing with his guys," Vineyard said.
"Everything is perfect," said Chief Mike. "We push our guys, but it's been phenomenal."