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Soldiers counting on speed, precision to prepare for Apaches replacing Kiowas on rapid reaction force

AH-64D Apache helicopters of 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade maneuver through the Multi-Purpose Range Complex during the unit's aerial gunnery on Fort Stewart, Ga., Jan. 21, 2016.

SCOTT LINDBLOM/U.S. ARMY

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: February 16, 2016

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Col. Erik Gilbert nods his head in approval as he watches the closest thing the Global Response Force has to a NASCAR pit crew.

In weather he described as cold and miserable, Gilbert had a team of soldiers swarming over an AH-64D Apache helicopter.

Its goal: to have the Apache in the air as soon as possible.

Gilbert, the commander of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, said the soldiers' efforts are instrumental to the continued success of the nation's Global Response Force.

The 82nd Airborne Division-led mission to deploy anywhere in the world on little to no notice has relied on the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior to be the GRF's eyes and ears for years.

On training exercises, the smaller Kiowa is often on one of the first aircraft to land after paratroopers descend and seize an enemy airfield.

But the age of the Kiowa is nearing an end.

And while the 82nd Airborne will have the last remaining Kiowas in the Army, Gilbert is preparing for life without them.

That means having the Apache ready to fill the Kiowa on the GRF's aviation task force, which is currently led by the 2nd Aviation Assault Battalion.

Apaches are already part of the GRF, but their new role will see them deployed much faster than before.

Gilbert and other 82nd leaders see the attack helicopter as an improvement over its smaller cousin.

The Apache, flown on Fort Bragg by the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, is more heavily armed than a Kiowa - carrying a 30 mm machine gun, Hellfire missiles and Hydra rocket pods.

It can spot enemies and attack from further distances, and has more protection in the form of thicker armor plating.

"I mean, it's an anti-tank capability," Gilbert said as he watched his soldiers work in the drizzling, cold rain. "That's huge."

Earlier in the evening, the two Apaches coming together outside Hangar No. 4 on Pope Field were on the other side of the airfield. Their wings had been clipped - rotor blades folded and positioned in the back of a C-17 Globemaster visiting Fort Bragg from Alaska.

At that time, the soldiers now moving over the Apache with numb fingers, head lamps and frozen breath were huddled outside the C-17's back ramp.

There, a noncommissioned officer with D Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, gave orders to more than a dozen soldiers. When everything had been covered, he gave one last direction: "Get ready to rock."

Then, in a synchronized effort, the soldiers were on the move, positioning wooden ramps, carting off numerous cases containing weapons and sensitive equipment.

A short time later, outside the hangar where Gilbert watched, the soldiers worked swiftly, but determined.

Despite the ticking clock, the colonel noted there was no running or shouting. Amid the flurry of activity, the soldiers were calm.

As some soldiers reattached rocket pods, others reattached the stabilizer to the back of the Apache.

More still worked to unfold the helicopter blades to their precise positions, while others added antennas and other accoutrements of the Apache.

As they worked, the soldiers made promises for future efforts.

"Next time we'll do this," one said.

They are one of two teams integral to the process under development.

The first, a team of soldiers from the 122nd Aviation Support Battalion, is charged with readying the helicopters and loading them into a C-17 under the watchful eyes of Air Force loadmasters.

Soldiers from D Company then fly with the helicopters. When the plane lands, wherever that may be, their work starts.

Staff Sgt. John Sharpe, the air land and blade fold noncommissioned officer overseeing the team, said the soldiers are constantly learning and improving.

"We just created this capability since returning from deployment last summer," Sharpe said of the brigade's nine-month tour in Afghanistan that ended in May. "The more we train, the easier it gets for us, the more we're prepared."

In Afghanistan, many of the soldiers now tasked with rapidly deploying the Apaches were in a different, albeit similar position.

With U.S. forces drawing down in Afghanistan, the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade led efforts to send excess equipment and helicopters back to the U.S.

From Bagram Airfield and other Afghanistan locations, teams of soldiers from the brigade readied Apache, Chinook, Black Hawk and Kiowa helicopters to be sent back to the states.

But Sharpe said that mission involved breaking down the helicopters completely - removing the rotor blades altogether for transit by plane and ship. As part of the Global Response Force, soldiers won't have that luxury.

Armed with a team of pilots, helicopter mechanics and avionics systems technicians, members of Sharpe's team will have speed on their minds.

"As soon as we get off (the plane) we want them up in the air," he said. "We're all together. It's a collective effort. The faster we are, the sooner they fly."

Citing security, officials won't release how long the process takes. But Gilbert, the brigade commander, said the teams have come a long way from when the efforts began.

"We're doing it faster than anyone has ever done it," he said. "And every time we do it, we learn something new. Every margin, it all adds up."

Aboard the C-17, loadmasters from the 517th Airlift Squadron from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, are no strangers to moving helicopters.

"I've carried them wherever they've needed to go," said Staff Sgt. Justin Hoffman.

In the dark of Pope Field, their concerns lie with safety, according to Tech. Sgt. John Ellis.

Hoffman said the airmen are there to ensure the plane maintains its center of balance and that the helicopters don't shift in flight.

But while not unfamiliar, the airmen haven't yet been asked to do what Gilbert wants: to land in austere environments and leave the helicopters and soldiers behind.

While praising the difficulties created by the weather and wet, cold concrete, Gilbert said practicing near a hangar or on a modern airfield was "suboptimal."

On the GRF, the soldiers will be asked to work on dusty, dirt runways in pitch black and with artillery impacting around them. Through all of that, they'll need to keep their composure, he said.

"We're doing this faster than anyone has ever done," Gilbert said. "We're viable today. But in a firefight, minutes matter."

While emphasizing speed, Gilbert said that wasn't the only concern.

The Apache is a precise machine, he said. One small mistake could lead to disaster in the air.

That's why inspectors are intimately involved in the process, and a series of checks must be made before any of the helicopters can take off.

"It's got to be speed with accuracy," Gilbert said.

To solve both, soldiers have created new ways to work.

They've made new tools to measure the exact positions of the helicopter's blades and developed new ways of doing old tasks.

Gilbert said the work is physically demanding, but praised his soldiers for being creative.

"It takes rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing.," he said. "There's not a book out there written on how to do this. We're writing the book."

brooksd@fayobserver.com

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