April 25, 2010

Army offers glimpse at pilot training

'This is how they get them out; this is how they will bring them home'

Staff Writer

WILMINGTON — The Black Hawk helicopter rose over the tapered ridge of Whiteface Mountain and fell deftly off the other side.

Another tier of mountain rolled up from below.

And cerulean blue skies vanished.

Sheer rock ledges closed in on the wide-open bay doors.

The aircraft leaned, lending gravity a fierce diagonal force, as forests ballooned into view, frosted and bent with rime ice.

The Memorial Highway uncoiled like a stone snake.

The helicopter slowed, hovered in clear air and turned again, lifting again above the steep terrain to circle the summit spine.

The landscape telescoped, as a four-man crew maneuvered the Black Hawk for landing.

Its deafening roar commanded silence lit by a steady strobe of rotor shadows.

Pitching left, it dropped to maybe 1,200 feet above a postage-stamp-sized patch of pavement and paused.

A frigid windstorm raged inside the open cabin.

Friday's mission was one of the first training flights conducted this week by the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division Combat Aviation Brigade out of Fort Drum.

Having picked their landing target, Specialist Raymond Dority, Black Hawk crew chief, leaned out the open door and eyed the tail's position, directing pilots through headsets.

He and Crew Chief Spc. Joseph Phillpot occupied seats directly behind the cockpit, facing horizontally out of the helicopter.

The pilots, Chief Warrant Officers Casey Pfannenstiel and Mitch Wiese, adjusted the aircraft squarely above the tight space. Downwash whipped a frenzy of pine needles and dust.

A few feet to the left loomed icy fir spires.

To the right was a parking area about the size of a porch, before the ground dropped sheer vertical.

The 10-ton machine settled like a feather.

The Aviation Brigade mission Friday carried four news crews and left Fort Drum at about 10 a.m. on a 35-minute flight nearly straight over the routes 3 and 86 corridor, traversing the breadth of the Adirondack Park.

Two Black Hawk helicopters departed after a briefing from Col. Jim Baker, Aviation Brigade deputy commander.

Baker invited the press corps to see "what our pilots are going to see" to better understand why soldiers are training at high elevations in the Adirondacks.

"The Afghanistan Mountains are higher than these," Baker said, "but this training gives pilots an appreciation of how wind affects the aircraft and how mountain terrain appears."

Mountain terrain appears in unfolding layers cragged with ledge.

Wind pours over and around summits in streams. Updrafts bounce back from lower ridges, forming pockets of turbulence.

Spc. Dority called finding a smooth air surface "the comfort spot."

The mission Friday accomplished three landings in close to 50 minutes, and none of the improvised helipads were truly flat.

Pilot Pfannenstiel said using a road makes the exercise safer, giving pilots time to focus on riding wind currents.

Whiteface is, after all, dedicated to the 10th Mountain Division and the Memorial Highway, elevator and Castle to all veterans of U.S. war.

Their brigade is part of Task Force Phoenix and soldiers will also train this summer at Fort Carson in Colorado.

Kae Young, Fort Drum press operations director, has traveled with Fort Drum troops to Afghanistan.

She said training missions here prepare pilots for retrieving soldiers in narrow mountain corridors, only there they dodge gunfire.

"This is how they get them out; this is how they will bring them home."

Leaving Whiteface, the Black Hawk touched down at Lake Placid Regional Airport so crews could close the bay doors for the flight back to Fort Drum.

Pilots turned toward deep mountain pockets behind Mount Marcy.

The High Peaks punched rock-knuckled summits into the sky from a sprawling, vast wilderness mottled with silver-bright lakes and dark, coiled river.

The helicopter cruised low enough to see two water birds splash in the wide belly of a lake.

A tractor turned in a barnyard and delivery trucks crawled on narrow highways.

Black Hawks are deployed for evacuation, rescue and moving supplies in a military theater.

Besides the four-man crew, the aircraft carries 11 passengers.

It is one of four types of helicopters training at Whiteface.

The U.S. Army will also deploy Chinook, Apache and Kiowa helicopters on missions through about mid-May with up to 22 sorties per week.

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