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Army Helicopters Conduct Training Mission In Aleutian Islands

Courtesy of 1-52 Avn Regt (GSAB)

For the first time in two years, the U.S. Army is conducting helicopter training exercises in the Aleutian Islands. The mission is designed to test pilots' capabilities navigating over water and landing in mountainous areas. 

10 soldiers and two CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the Fort Wainwright base in Fairbanks, will be flying in the region as they transit to Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island, near the westernmost tip of the Aleutian Island Chain. 


Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Rosario commands the 700-man 1-52 General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB) comprised of 35 helicopters. And he's responsible for guiding the training and readiness of the aviation battalion that is carrying out the mission near the western end of the Aleutian Islands. 

The nearly 84-foot Chinook helicopters that these crews will be navigating, are two-pilot aircraft, along with a flight engineer and crew chief in the aft, and are the largest helicopters in the U.S. Army. For training purposes, Rosario said they will have a third pilot in each aircraft, making a total of five soldiers in each 50,000 pound CH-47 Chinook participating in the current mission. 


Rosario said the expedition provides a great training opportunity for the pilots and crews in the Chinook company that returned from deployment last November and haven't had the opportunity to execute similar drills in a long time. 


"It's been a long time since we've actually gotten an opportunity to do some overwater training," he said. "And that's something that one, is always challenging to get done being in the interior of Alaska. But also, since the unit had been gone in Afghanistan, they really hadn't had a chance to test and train on this."

According to Rosario, the Aleutians are a perfect setting for the Army pilots to practice long distance flights over water in challenging topography and weather, with the ability to still access Eareckson Air Station in cases of emergency.


"We found that heading down to the Aleutians was just a perfect training scenario to get us flying long distances, long range over water," Rosario said. "And navigation, which is really part of this — so, time on target and being able to navigate with not a lot of visual cues. I don't know that there's anywhere that is comparable. It's definitely a place that is unique and provides us a mix of training challenges that we can take advantage of."

The flight crews are planning for seven days of training in the Aleutian Islands, according to Rosario, but he expects the mission to take longer than a week. While the island chain provides an ideal terrain for this type of military training, it also brings with it several safety challenges. Due to quickly changing and challenging weather conditions that may be too dangerous, even for these training missions, and because he wants to ensure the safety of his soldiers, Rosario expects they will have to ground some of the training. 

The Army has optimal conditions for what is called "VFR" or visual flight rules, he said. They look for a cloud ceiling of at least 1000 feet above ground level and three miles of visibility in order to fly, which in the Aleutians can be a challenge. 

"We look at staying on top or ahead of the weather as truly being the riskiest part of training and navigation when we fly these missions," he said. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, the aviation battalion was at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island. Due to shifting conditions, Rosario predicts they will be in the Aleutians until mid-August.


Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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