Fort Carson's high-altitude helicopter training pays off in saved lives in Colorado
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: September 9, 2019
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — While winching an injured hiker off the Sangre de Cristo mountains at nearly 10,000 feet in July, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Winter says he wasn’t worried about swirling winds, or the tiny performance window that separated his Black Hawk helicopter from hovering or crashing in a ball of flame.
Winter says high-altitude training at Fort Carson gave him the confidence and the edge he needed to save the man and skills that would help overseas in war.
“Having this mountain training helps me conduct this mission safely,” he said last week at the post.
As Fort Carson awaits a Bureau of Land Management decision on whether it can continue to train crews on federal lands in the high country in El Paso, Teller, Fremont and Park counties, the Army is looking at the high-altitude chopper school as an asset that can save lives.
Chief Warrant Officer Brad Nelson, one of Fort Carson’s most veteran pilots, said the high-altitude training has already shown its value in Colorado, where Fort Carson pilots have fought fires, rescued flood victims and hauled wayward skiers and lost hikers to safety. The post says its choppers have joined in 1,000 rescues in the past six years.
“We are more capable to do local missions,” Nelson said. “We want to help our community out.”
The reaction of the community that Nelson wants to help has been mixed on the BLM proposals that would allow Fort Carson flyers wide access to federal lands with dozens of landing zones in the high country.
Some worry about noise disturbing the solitude. Others fear that wildlife would be disturbed or pristine land destroyed.
Fort Carson has been using the mountain landing zones for the past decade under a “casual use” permit from the land agency that was established as the post entered a crash program to get flight crews ready for combat in mountainous Afghanistan.
The BLM would formalize Fort Carson’s right to use the land while setting limits on where helicopters can land. Also under consideration are limits on when the post can use its mountain landing zones and how often.
Chief Warrant Officer Josh Kiinnee, Fort Carson’s 4th Combat Aviation Brigade safety officer, said the mountain training is something that can’t be simulated elsewhere.
Helicopters are impacted by altitude in ways that other aircraft are not. The craft are already difficult to fly, with pilots controlling thrust and the bite of rotor blades with one hand, the direction and angle of the blades with the other hand, and pointing the nose of the craft with foot pedals.
Each of the pilot’s limbs must act in harmony at sea level. In the mountains, finer control is required.
Kinnee has a list of what pilots simulate in Colorado’s mountains and at Fort Carson memorized.
“We call it high, hot, heavy, hostile, dark and dusty,” he said.
What makes the Colorado mountains so difficult are the top three on that list. Helicopters operate on a fine line when faced with thin air. Those margins get thinner when high temperatures thin the air more.
A heavy payload of gear or people adds more trouble and strain.
Motors are taxed to deliver power to rotors that must bite harder into the air. Transmissions operate at high temperatures under the strain and face failure if overtaxed.
Nelson said the conditions make pilots have their four limbs at the controls as they eye multiple gauges to make sure their mechanical systems don’t wrench themselves apart.
“You may only have a 1(%) to 5% power margin,” he explained.
Those tiny margins were on Winter’s mind as he flew south toward the mountains above Cottonwood Creek in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, just north of the New Mexico border.
His crew had been alerted to the stranded hiker by Air Force Rescue Center, part of a program under the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Northern Command, which provides military help to civilian authorities.
It was a 30-minute trip at full throttle in the UH-60M. As Winter worked through the turbulent mountain wind, the rest of his four-soldier crew kept an eye on the ground to spot the stranded hiker and the search-and-rescue crews that had made their way to him and provided first-aid.
The Army was called because Winter’s helicopter, a flying ambulance, has one piece of gear that civilian choppers don’t: A hoist that can haul wounded troops up without landing.
The hiker couldn’t be taken out by stretcher — he had injured his feet and was serverly dehydrated after nearly a week on the woods.
“The hiker had been stranded for five days,” Winter explained.
His crew spotted the team on the ground and Winter’s Army medic strapped into the hoist gear for a trip to the ground.
Winter carefully held the 14,000-pound helicopter in a hover above the trees.
Buffeted by winds, Winter made tiny adjustments with his hands and feet.
“There’s not a lot of room for error up there,” Winter said.
It seemed like hours, but in just a few minutes, the medic had the hiker hoisted up and safely aboard.
“As soon as we got him on the helicopter, our medic was talking to him,” Winter said of the hiker.
Even on a bouncing chopper, the medic found a vein for a life-saving intravenous bag of fluids.
“It was definitely something to experience,” he said.
Nelson said missions like the one flown by Winter are made possible by Fort Carson’s rigorous mountain training program.
Crews spend days in classrooms before they head to the mountains, accompanied by an instructor pilot at the second set of controls.
They learn about swirling mountain winds. Mountains also can toss a chopper up or down like a toy — the windward side of a peak comes with a strong updraft while the other side has a powerful downdraft that forces unsuspecting helicopter crews toward the ground.
Trainers like Nelson know every detail of the mountain landing zones they use as a classroom and guide crews through the details of each while in flight.
“It gives us an opportunity to train in a controlled environment in peacetime,” he said.
Kinnee said the training has paid off, especially in the mountains of Afghanistan where the 4th Brigade’s helicopters have flown in high-terrain on last-second missions.
“If we can train then for that, they will be ready for anything,” he said.
Those trained crews are ready at Fort Carson for local medical missions, aerial firefighting and other needs that could arise in Colorado, Nelson said.
Winter said he won’t soon forget his mission to rescue a hiker.
“My adrenaline didn’t stop pumping until the next day,” he said.
Skills he trained to use to save lives in combat paid off in Colorado, he said.
“I know the whole crew felt really good about it.”
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