By Photos and story by SPC Nicole NewtonApril 24, 2012
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (April 18, 2012) - The pilots of Columbia Helicopters went through an emergency landing, evacuated their injured military passengers and commandeered vehicles; they endured an ambush, intense interrogation sessions, and their birds never even left the ground. It was realistic, it was intense, and it was all in the name of training.
It began as a regular day for the Columbia crew, an interesting blend of civilians and prior service Special Forces, Snipers, Marines and medics, all seasoned professionals passionate about their space in the sky. Although some have hung up their camouflage uniforms, the adventure, the camaraderie and their desire to serve still remains. They spend their days transporting very precious cargo across the battle space here in Afghanistan, those who raised their right hand to serve their country. It's their collection of experience that keeps Columbia on the forefront of technology and training; tasks they all take very seriously.
Caleb Stine, former Special Forces pilot and current Air Crew Trainer for Columbia designed the events that were about to unfold for his new pilots and wasted no time enlisting help. Who better to aid in the training than current military members themselves? Members of the active duty US Army, National Guard and Australian Air Force all teamed up and volunteered their free time to help out with the lesson in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) that was about to begin.
Stine thought the training partnership was beneficial for all parties.
"It bridged the gap between military and contractors," he said. "These guys willingly gave their day off to come out here and help us because they care. They go through this kind of training regularly and they wanted to help our guys learn."
Morgan Llewellyn, member of the 230th Signal Company said she was happy to help and was able to learn from Columbia as much as she was able to give.
"Something like this could happen at any time," she said, "it was shocking to go through such a realistic training but I feel more prepared because of it."
The pre-training brief that began the day was vague for both the flight crew and the passengers, and it was done on purpose.
"I briefed them just like we were flying today," Stine said. "I wanted them to get experiential training. We have a lot of team members who've never had this training and I knew they wouldn't know what to do. Actually going through this stuff; it connects, and they'll never forget it."
He went over the routes, actions to be taken should they encounter a combat situation or a downed aircraft, and a slew of additional details. The crew then briefed their passengers the same, leaving everyone a little anxious, wondering how real this training would become.
Mere minutes into the faux flight, the call that changed everything came over the pilot's crackling radio. One by one, the red and white Chinooks, like flying bulls-eye targets, were hit with rocket propelled grenades (RPG's) causing the pilots to simulate emergency landings. Stine put down his radio, started his stopwatch, and stood back to observe.
His crew members scrambled to collect their precious cargo, sensitive items and medical equipment before exiting the birds and heading for safety. Pilots and passengers were injured, the landing zone was unsecure and getting to safety was priority.
"I was unconscious and Sgt Sears had a broken leg," Llewellyn said. "They carried us off the helicopter, cared for me while they called for a medic but then had to take turns carrying me all that way to the safe zone."
Each Soldier was briefed to take all commands from the flight crew and not take initiative to help them but their instincts quickly began to take over, assembling themselves in a security perimeter after egress from the helicopters. Some were receiving medical care but the others were alert, aware and ready for anything.
I watched as the experiential training Stine hoped for began to click with his crew. Upon egress, the crew from the second bird saved their strength and conserved their resources by utilizing whatever they could find.
"We commandeered a vehicle," Adam Bath, Marine and Cabin Crew member said with a chuckle as he talked about the small ATV sitting between the parked helicopters.
"We saw a resource available and we used it," Kyle Watts, former Marine and Cabin Crew Member added.
After the 500 meter trek with injured personnel was made, both teams collected in an open area for a bit of rest which lasted only a second before the surprise second half of training began.
The Soldiers again set up their security perimeter and held steady as the Australian Air Force barreled in, weapons raised and faces covered. Their booming voices instructed everyone to lay flat on the ground, face down. They swiftly went through the prone group giving each person specific instruction.
"I was actually scared," Llewellyn said, "it felt very realistic, the way they came charging at the group with their weapons pointed and faces covered."
The initial rendezvous was a bit intense. The tired, thirsty crew was taken by surprise, blindfolded, disoriented and taken into a desolate, small dirty shipping container for interrogations and identity verification. The Soldier's were spared, separated from the group, and left to watch as the crew was picked up one by one and shuffled away for their interrogations.
"They kept us completely separate and I didn't like it, I wanted to know what was going on, Llewellyn said. "I realized later that it was done that way on purpose, this is where some of our pre-deployment training came into play and it was good for the civilian crew to go through it."
"Verification is intense, it has to be" SGT Nicholas Bell, member of the Australian Air Force and lead interrogator, said as he talked about the importance of his team's role in capturing the information needed to verify identity. "The crew who will be coming in to rescue you won't know your identity, they haven't confirmed who you are, so the quicker you can give them the information they need, the faster they can get you to the care you need."
Those who restrained or fought endured a longer and more painful chat. All of which were monitored by Stine to ensure that the situation remained a realistic but training environment and quickly defused situations as they started to become personal.
Tension hung in the air during the second de-brief, the crew was sweaty, angry, tired and hurting.
"The recap got a little hostile," Llewellyn said with a chuckle, "people were pumped up on adrenaline so heads were butting a little bit."
Although the training was harsh, Stine says it was necessary.
"From my military experience I lost a lot of friends, and we were all trained in this stuff," he said. "For every friend lost, there were probably three or four that were saved because of it."
Stine takes training to heart because of those specific experiences and made sure to share the importance of that with his crew during the debrief.
"This wasn't to make you guys look bad," he said as he looked around the room at each of his crew members, "You will remember this. It's about getting through these situations to get back here and do this for another day."
SGT Raymond Sears, member of the 230th Signal Company and training volunteer said he was impressed with the crew, the pride they took in their equipment, and their forward thinking when it came to training.
"Columbia Helicopters is setting the standards and leading the way when it comes to training their civilian contractors," he said.
It wasn't a day like they were expecting but after the training had a few hours to soak in Stine made his rounds to personally chat with each crew member.
"Everyone picked up a different piece of it," he said. "It created a thirst for information and the desire to learn. They all came in the next morning wanting to talk about the previous day, go through their gear and cross train each other."
Stine says that the training was a success and it will be re-occurring but the situation will vary.
"Comfortable is the most dangerous place to be out here," he said. A mischievous smirk began to appear on his face as he continued on about future training sessions. "I like to keep things interesting," he said.