GYPSUM, Colo. — Look to the sky in and around Eagle County and you’re likely to see military helicopters in flight. They may be flying as part of a training exercise or for a lifesaving rescue.
Search and rescue missions are so frequent here that at the entrance to the Colorado National Guard’s High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, or HAATS, a sign reads: “Welcome to HAATS. Lives saved this year: 16. Lives saved since 1986: 510.”
The National Guard Bureau chief recently visited HAATS to gain a full scope of the training site and its members’ abilities.
“It’s an incredible capability the National Guard provides the entire joint force,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson said.
The primary mission of HAATS is to train military aviators to manage aircraft power to help pilots and crews become more skilled and proficient. Run by full-time Colorado Guardsmen, it offers advanced training for joint force pilots and crew members from all branches and international aviators.
Kiowas, Chinooks, Black Hawks and Lakotas are the typical airframes flown at HAATS during the one-week course.
Pilots spend one day of training in the classroom learning the intricacies of power management in high-altitude mountainous terrain. On the other four days, they fly in and around the jagged peaks of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, with altitudes ranging from 6,500 feet at the airport to 14,000 feet. A one-week instructor pilot course is also offered.
“They teach hoist operations, how to land in small areas, how to operate at altitude and how to take advantage of the winds and terrain to get more performance out of your helicopter than you might normally be able to,” said Hokanson, who is also the Army Guard’s senior aviator.
HAATS is located on the northern fringe of the White River National Forest, with a Rocky Mountain playground at its doorstep. It is a springboard to creating skilled aviators and launching helicopters to aid people in need.
“This is some of the most formidable terrain people go hiking in,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Pat Gates.
At its center stands the imposing Capitol Peak. It is one of the 58 famed mountain peaks exceeding an elevation of 14,000 feet — known locally as fourteeners — that dot Western Colorado’s landscape.
Touted as one of Colorado’s most difficult mountains to climb, Capitol Peak has claimed the lives of many who dared to scale its dangerously exposed “Knife Edge.” This summit and its environs draw skilled mountaineers and amateur adventure seekers alike.
This rugged terrain sometimes leaves them injured or stranded in areas accessible only by rotary-wing aircraft.
Gates can speak to this area and the difficulty of flying helicopters in high-elevation environments because he has served as an instructor pilot at HAATS for more than a decade.
The Colorado Guard works closely with state and local authorities, including civilian rescue technicians, to identify and source search and rescue operations out of either Buckley Space Force Base, near Denver, or from HAATS. Gates estimated he had taken part in at least a dozen rescue missions, including several near or on Capitol Peak.
“You’re identifying the landing zone, looking at power requirements, monitoring winds and fuel levels,” he said. “You’re looking at routes in and out and making decisions in high-pressure situations. That’s also the mindset we try to teach our students.”
During his visit to the schoolhouse, Hokanson was led on a tour of the facilities and flew over the HAATS training area. He shared his experience as a helicopter pilot in the Oregon National Guard, where he also flew rescue missions and provided his perspective from the cockpit.
“They’re all unique,” Hokanson said of rescue situations. “It’s all about your ability to manage the power to do the mission, and during a rescue, to keep the aircraft stable.
“But if you don’t have the basic skills to adjust to the environment, you’re not going to be successful,” he added. “The key is to train pilots in the most difficult surroundings that we can find.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Stroud, the first HAATS Air Force liaison instructor pilot, said the environment around the training site is “perfect,” but not just because of the high elevation access.
“The variety of terrain within close proximity really helps facilitate the training they have here,” Stroud said. “There are large and small valleys, deep creeks, cliffs, ridges, cirques, bowls, and yes, mountain peaks.
“Due to a combination of these environmental factors, helicopters are going to be very limited up here, from a power perspective,” he said. “Therefore, the skill and forethought that goes into forming approaches takes practice that you can’t necessarily replicate elsewhere.”
The National Guard Chief said the training aviators receive at HAATS benefits the nation and the surrounding communities.
“Because we’re manned, trained and equipped to fight our nation’s wars, we can also do so many other things for our states and communities,” said Hokanson.