Alberici: Black Hawk helicopters in Concord sparking interest
A New Hampshire National Guardsman walks towards a Black hawk helicopter at the concord airport. (MIKE ALBERICI for the Monitor) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
On a windless day last summer, my family and I kayaked across Turkey Pond. The water was smooth as glass, the scene peaceful and contemplative. Then we heard a familiar sound in the distance: the deep, resonant fwopfwop- fwop of a Black Hawk helicopter. It appeared suddenly, moving fast and low, just clearing the tall pines on the shore and swooped right over our heads. We instinctively began waving wildly to the crew.
The aircraft suddenly flipped into a hard turn, circled back and made another pass over us, then quickly disappeared.
Black Hawk helicopters are a way of life around Concord. We hear and see them flying over the city regularly, but we’re so used to the drone of their rotors that we pay little attention. But my close encounter made me begin to focus on them.
What are those copters up to?
I decided to find out.
Over the past three months I’ve been learning all I can about those Black Hawks. With the help of Public Affairs Officer Major Greg Heilshorn, I’ve been given access to the Army Aviation Support Facility on Regional Drive to watch the men and women who fly the Black Hawks up close. I’ve observed the pilots and crewmembers training endlessly. I’ve spoken to the officers, administrators and trainers. I’ve met the repair personnel who keep the aging helicopters fueled and in peak operating condition. I’ve met their families and spouses who make personal sacrifices while their loved ones are overseas. I’ve even taken a seat aboard a Black Hawk for an unforgettable flight. What are those Black Hawks are up to? That’s simple: They’re saving lives.
White Mountains and Afghanistan
The Army Aviation Support Facility is the enormous facility right past Concord Airport. An older Huey helicopter is mounted on a pedestal out front, and crewmembers jokingly refer to it as the “helicopter on a stick. ” Heilshorn meets me at the security gate, leads me into the administrative area and introduces me to Major David Mattimore, who explains the multiple roles of the New Hampshire Army National Guard.
In Concord there are nine UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that are used by two medical evacuation units: Char lie Company 3-238th and Detachment 2 F-company 1169th forward support medical team.
At the federal level, Mattimore explains, their mission is to move wounded and ill persons throughout the battlefield.
Most of the work done in New Hampshire is in training for medical evacuation scenarios in Afghanistan and recently Iraq. When soldiers are wounded in battle and cannot be moved by ground, a Black Hawk is called in to locate and evacuate them to an area where they can be treated.
“Afghanistan is the most demanding flying environment in the world,” says Mattimore, whose pilots must contend with mountains, brutal heat, swirling sand, deafening noise, heavy winds, enemy fire and constantly changing weather.
Locally, the Blackhawks provide search and rescue and medical evacuation services across the state, primarily in the White Mountains. They don’t compete with private agencies but are often called in when more powerful aircraft and specialized equipment are necessary.
When a rescue call comes in, it’s Mattimore who usually picks up the phone. Depending on who’s available, the weather and time of day, a Black Hawk can be quickly scrambled and actively searching for a lost or injured hiker in less than two hours.
The Army Aviation Support Facility is a busy place with constant training and maintaining of the aircraft. On another visit Sgt. First Class Brian McKay, a fuel technician, gives me a tour. He leads me into the hangar where the helicopters are kept. The room is gigantic and spotless. Four Black Hawks are lined up in front of me. Massive garage doors open out to the concrete tarmac, where two copters are being prepped for an evening training flight. On the back wall hangs a huge American flag.
“This is the second largest building in Concord,” quips McKay.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” I say. “What’s the first?”
No guns, armor
The UH-60 is a four-bladed, medium-lift utility helicopter that entered service in the U.S. military in the late 1970s to replace the Vietnam-era Huey. It comes in many variants and can be modified to suit the mission at hand. It was a highly modified stealth version of the UH-60 that crashed in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The medevac Black Hawks in Concord carry no weapons or guns and have no armor. They are used for air ambulance purposes only and are clearly marked with large red crosses on all sides – but that doesn’t stop them from taking fire while moving the wounded. Each Black Hawk carries a pilot, co-pilot, crew chief and medic and can carry up to 11 troops if necessary. The ones in Concord can be equipped with a “Bambi bucket,” a large fabric container that hangs beneath the copter and can be dunked into lakes and filled with 600 gallons of water for firefighting.
The new price of a base model Black Hawk straight from the factory is about $20 million, but the ones in Concord are all older models, some more than 30 years old, which cost significantly less. They require constant maintenance, and several in the hanger were being worked on at the time of my tour.
Most of those flights you see over Concord revolve around the medevac training cycle. National Guard personal travel from all over New England to Concord on nights and weekends to clock their flight time and receive related training.
With a Blackhawk there is always something new to learn, some new flight scenario to experience.
Members of Detachment-2 of F company 1-169th, now being deployed to Afghanistan, have prepared extensively for what they will likely see on the battlefield. I’ve observed them train for “instruments only” situations, when the pilot must fly the aircraft with zero visibility and navigate only with the instruments on the panel. They’ve also trained to fly with night vision goggles, and logged flight time in a high tech Black Hawk flight simulator, which recreates the actual terrain features in Afghanistan.
For some real mountain fly time, many flights from Concord head north. The White Mountains give pilots the experience of flying in terrain and weather similar to what they might see in Afghanistan. Often other Black Hawk squadrons from flatlands will travel to Concord for training in our mountains.
Although the Whites may just be the perfect spot for Black Hawk mountain training, one thing is missing: the swirling sand, which damages rotors, decreases visibility and clogs engine intakes. To give pilots experience flying in sand, the Black Hawks practice taking off and landing in the pits of local sand and gravel companies.
But it’s not all about the pilots. Medics and crew chiefs get their fair share of the training, too. In a rescue situation, the medic and crew chief leave the helicopter to retrieve wounded personnel. In August, the crews at the Army Aviation Support Facility cooperated in a weekend training exercise with the Concord Hospital Simulation Lab, which provided a pair of high-tech mannequins, which could simulate the battle injuries that units might find in the field.
During the drills, remotely controlled mannequins were rigged with simulated injuries and laid out on the hanger floor. ER physician Chris Fore prepared the mannequins with multiple gunshot wounds, blast injuries and facial and chest burns. Dressed in fatigues and combat gear, the mannequins were battered and bloodied, with bullet holes, broken limbs and tourniquets.
A typical drill began as a Black Hawk pulled up to the hanger doors. The rear door slid open and 22-year old medic Christopher Wearing of Salem stepped out and approached the scene. In an actual rescue medics sometimes have little information about the injuries that wounded soldiers might have. During these exercises they were operating blind.
Once on the scene Wearing and hospital staff had a quick shouted discussion about a mannequin’s medical status, loaded him onto a stretcher and wheeled him out and into the waiting Black Hawk. The pilot then began a simulated flight to the hospital.
Once medic and mannequin were in transit aboard the Black Hawk, Fore began remotely controlling the mannequin’s medical condition from a computer back in the hanger. Wearing’s patient had a seizure in flight, (which he treated), lost oxygen and had a ventilator failure. Wearing had to react to all of these things immediately.
“Things like that happen nearly every flight,” he said.
Flags on the 48
A few weeks later, I’m strapped down in the rear seat of a helicopter in a fourpoint harness. I’ve got some serious ear protection for the flight: dual-density foam earplugs squished inside my ears with heavy-duty, shooting style protectors on the outside. Pilot Bruce Gokey has a printed map of our flight plan, but he doesn’t need it. He tucks it into his pocket and climbs into the cockpit. As an avid hiker, he’s climbed most of the 4,000-footers in New Hampshire.
As the longest continually operating helicopter pilot in the state, he knows the area like his own backyard. Gokey and co-pilot Dave Breton are in the cockpit running through a preflight checklist.
Crew chief Aaron DeAngelis is outside on the tarmac making last-minute preparations.
All aboard can communicate via intercom system, but that’s the only luxury we have. There’s nothing comfortable inside a Black Hawk. It’s hot, crowded and reeks of jet fuel and exhaust.
The twin turbo-shaft engines, just inches above my head, begin to cycle up. The main rotor begins to turn in large, lazy circles. DeAngelis hops inside and buckles into his seat next to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kathryn Reney. In a few minutes, the rotor roaring at full tilt, the helicopter glides off the earth. We rise gently, turn westward and then head north.
Our mission today is ceremonial: We’re taking part in the annual “Flags on the 48” event in which hikers raise American flags on the summits of the 4,000-footers to honor those who died on Sept. 11. Our job is to perform ceremonial flybys on as many summits as we can.
The weather is looking sketchy, with dense fog and winds gusting up to 45 knots. For the crew this is a perfect opportunity to get some heavy-weather fly time.
The ride to the mountains is smooth. With a strong northward tailwind we’re over Winnipesaukee in only 10 minutes.
We roar up through a valley and circle toward the first summit. The jukebox in my mind begins playing Ride of the Valkyries. Gokey banks the copter through the fog into a hard rising, left-hand turn.
The tailwind catches the tail rotor, pushing the aircraft in a sideways circle around the summit of Mt. Bond. The winds kick in as we reach the summit and the aircraft is rocked hard by turbulence. I grit my teeth and hang on.
The first American flag suddenly comes into view right outside my window. It’s a powerful image that catches me off guard.
Suddenly the fog breaks to a view of the summit covered with hard-core hikers. We’re so close we can see the expression on their faces: one of patriotism and gratitude.
For hikers, the Black Hawk can represent the last safety net in the Whites, the last hope for survival when you get yourself into some serious trouble.
The hikers down there recognize this. They know what the men and women up here are up to, and their appreciation is obvious.
They’re all on their feet, waving hands overhead at the crew in the Black Hawk helicopter.
(Mike Alberici of Concord is a professional musician and educator.)