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State-of-the-art search and rescue

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, right, looks over the HH-60W with pilot Maj. Matthew Johnson on Monday at Kirtland Air Force Base. The combat rescue helicopter arrived at the base late last year and can often be seen flying over the state. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Air Force’s newest, state-of-the-art combat search-and-rescue helicopter has been putting in some serious miles in New Mexico skies in recent months.

The HH-60W – which bears two names, the “Jolly Green II” and the “Whiskey” – arrived at Kirtland Air Force Base late last year. And it quickly become part of the local skyline.

The aircraft has been making about eight training flights out of Kirtland per week, said Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Stewart of the 58th Operations Group. Pilots are also using an HH-60W flight simulator on base nearly every day.

The Whiskey can carry more weight, fly longer and higher, and has significantly upgraded avionics compared to its predecessor, the HH-60G Pave Hawk, Stewart said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., visited the base Tuesday to see both the new training simulator and the helicopter, which is the first of what is expected to be a dozen or so that will ultimately be based at Kirtland. Base officials are expecting a couple more Whiskies next month.

Heinrich said he’s been working to bring the aircraft to Kirtland for years. Journal reports from 2014 said Heinrich was pushing against terminating the helicopter’s replacement program, which at one point was being considered.

Kirtland, home to the 58th Special Operations Wing, is a training ground for Air Force combat search-and-rescue operations.

“It’s just really gratifying to finally see the Whiskies start to arrive. It’s a project we’ve been working on for a really long time and it fills a unique need in the search-and-rescue mission,” Heinrich said in an interview. “It’s a huge part of our economy, and it’s also part of the culture of this state. We’ve had so many important training missions over the years.”

Heinrich’s tour included a stop inside the flight simulator.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, left, looks inside the HH-60W, the Air Force’s newest combat rescue helicopter, Monday at Kirtland Air Force Base. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

For security reasons, Air Force officials do not allow the training device to be photographed. But Heinrich visited a secure building with high ceilings on base, where the boxy flight simulator – it looks like a tricked-out virtual ride at an amusement park – hovers off the ground and is accessed by stairs.

Inside, the simulator has four chairs for the helicopter pilots and backup pilots who handle the weapons systems. Guns can be mounted on both sides of the aircraft.

Instead of windows, there are large screens in the simulator that, on Tuesday, when the senator visited, showed an airport runway on a sunny day. Stewart said that can change to simulate easy flying on a clear day, raging storms or heated battles.

“The simulator’s basic flying and combat flying (training scenarios) are based off things that we’ve seen,” Stewart said.

Missing from the simulator, the real Whiskey also has space for two or three pararescue specialists who can provide care to service members scooped up during a search-and-rescue mission.

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a Lockheed Martin company, in 2014 received a $1.28 billion engineering, manufacturing and development contract to create the HH-60W.

Lockheed Martin’s website says the Air Force is calling for 113 of the helicopters.

A Lockheed Martin spokesperson said the company has so far delivered five “system demonstration test articles” and three “engineering and manufacturing development” aircraft to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, and to Kirtland.

The company has so far been awarded two contracts valued at more than $1 billion to build 22 of the helicopters and production is underway. Lockheed Martin expects a third contract for another 19 helicopters later this year, the spokesperson said in an email.

Kirtland Air Force Base officials said it remains to be seen how many permanent jobs on base will materialize as a result of training on the new aircraft.

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