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Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Zipping through canyons at 200-plus mph and landing on
mesa tops in a blinding blast of red dust somewhere near Socorro reminds the uninitiated just how insanely dedicated Air Force pilots must be.
But to those pilots and crew, it’s just another training day across a landscape that looks, feels – even smells – like the mountains in Afghanistan, where most of them flew in combat not long ago.
“We can’t afford to lose this training environment,” said Col. Dagvin “Dag” Anderson, commander of Kirtland Air Force Base’s 58th Special Operations Wing at the conclusion of a bone-chilling, stomach-churning day of training.
Sandwiched between days of sunshine and clear skies, the low clouds, cold temperatures and spotty rain on Feb. 11 barely fazed the pilots flying the two HH-60G Pave Hawks, the CV-22 Osprey and MC-130J Commando II involved in that day’s search-and-rescue exercises.
The 58th Special Operation Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base trains air crews on MC/HC-130 transport aircraft; HH-60G Pave Hawk and UH-1N Iroquois helicopters; and the tilt-rotor CV-22 Osprey, an airplane/helicopter hybrid. Its primary mission is training special operations and combat search-and-rescue crews.
The wing employs more than 1,800 personnel and trains about 2,000 students yearly who are enrolled in 113 training courses for 32 different crew positions. The wing is one of the largest units at Kirtland Air Force Base.
The 58th and its associated units have 12 HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, seven CV-22 Ospreys, six UH-1N helicopters and 13 MC/HC-130 transports.
The UH-1N Iroquois is a light-lift utility helicopter used for a variety of missions. It’s the modern version of the venerable UH-1 Huey helicopters first used widely in the Vietnam war. The Iroquois can carry up to 13 troops, has a maximum gross weight of 10,500 pounds and a top speed of about 149 mph.
The HH-60G Pave Hawk is a medium-lift helicopter primarily used in search-and-rescue missions. The Pave Hawk, a highly modified version of the Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk, can carry up to 13 troops and has a maximum gross weight of 22,000 pounds and a top speed of 184 mph. Pave Hawks were first deployed in 1982.
The Pave Hawks and Osprey were landing and taking off at LZ (Landing Zone) 19, situated about 45 miles northwest of Socorro, at an elevation of about 6,000 feet – the same elevation as Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul.
Capt. Nick D’Andrea, an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter instructor pilot, said training in New Mexico is invaluable for air crews because of the state’s many similarities to Afghanistan and other potential battlefields.
Training at high altitude is critical for pilots, he said.
“At higher altitudes, especially in hotter temperatures, there is less air for the rotor blades to catch, so they produce less lift. At the same time, there is less oxygen in the air, so the helicopter engines produce less power,” he said.
Another “attribute” of training in New Mexico, D’Andrea said, is dust – though it’s a two-edged sword.
Dust was in ample supply on training day. Each time a helicopter took off or landed, a swirling circle of dust enveloped the aircraft. When an Osprey did the same, the blast was exponentially greater, pushing up blinding walls of dust that enveloped the aircraft.
“We like to train in dust,” D’Andrea said, because it’s a fact of life for helicopter and Osprey crews, particularly in desert environments. But it’s also hard on the Osprey’s twin, 6,200 horsepower engines, he said, which adds to the costs of operating the aircraft.
The Osprey tilts its two 38-foot-diameter rotors from horizontal to vertical to combine the vertical flight capabilities of a helicopter with the speed and range of a turboprop airplane. It can carry up to 32 troops or 10,000 pounds of cargo.
To those onboard, the in-flight transition of the rotors is far from subtle. As the blades shift from vertical to horizontal for hovering or landing, it feels like someone slammed on the brakes. When the rotors move back to vertical, it feels like flooring a supercharged Corvette. That explains why everyone on board is tethered to a steel cable or floor hook.
About the only time an Osprey flies straight and level is during aerial refueling, which was demonstrated that day as the CV-22, piloted by Maj. Matt Shrull, took on 2,000 pounds of fuel from an MC-130J Commando II, flown by Maj. Timothy Paschke.
The day’s training involved the 58th’s 415th Special Operations Squadron, which trains special ops crews on the HC/MC-130s; the 512th Rescue Squadron, which does search and rescue with HH-60 Pave Hawks; and the 71st Special Operations Squadron, which trains CV-22 Osprey crews.
“High altitude, altitude density and the dust make this place more beneficial for (realistic) training than any other location” in the United States, D’Andrea said.
Anderson, the 58th’s commander, said when you combine those attributes with sunny skies conducive to flying about 300 days per year and close proximity to live-fire ranges at White Sands Missile Range and Melrose Range, it would be a daunting task to find a more ideal place to train.
“We train in realistic environments, so when we go out there to fight, we’re prepared,” he said.
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