FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
A convoy of trucks and a helicopter scrambled from Fairchild Air Force Base as part of an exercise to recover a downed vehicle approximately 10 miles northeast of the installation June 14.
It was not an Air Force operation, but a training exercise for the Washington National Guard, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 112th Airborne Regiment, a tenant unit that calls Fairchild home.
“We have ground units and six UH-72 Lakota helicopters here,” said Maj. Emily Gerding, Washington National Guard C Company 1-112th Airborne Regiment commander. “We support law enforcement agencies with aerial reconnaissance and imaging with an onboard camera system. We also have the ability to support medical evacuation, disaster recovery, and scouting and survey missions for ground units and larger airframes.”
The National Guard ground crew rallied up in front of their operations center at approximately 8:10 a.m. to set up a convoy of nine assorted Humvees, trucks and armored vehicles for the exercise. Capt. Hieu Nguyen, Washington National Guard C Company 1-112th unit operations officer, surveyed his troops as they scurried about to ensure all was in order.
“It’s my squad’s job to organize ground response for whatever may be needed,” Nguyen said. “We take every opportunity to do training with both the ground and air units, as it’s critical to practice our coordination for missions together.”
Once Nguyen was satisfied his crew was ready to proceed, he checked his watch one last time and gave the signal to move out. They would link up with a vital component to their rescue efforts, the Lakota helicopter, once they were en-route to their destination.
“Standard crew for the Lakota is two pilots and a crew chief,” said Sgt. Darrell Russell, Washington National Guard C Company 1-112th Lakota crew chief. “We can hold up to six or more people on board, including the pilots, should the need arise.”
A Lakota was wheeled out of the hangar and given a final check to ensure it was properly prepped for take-off. The helicopter was manned with two pilots and Sgt. Russell, the crew chief equipment operator for the powerful camera array mounted on the nose of the helicopter. The camera, combined with a long-range radio to communicate with the ground convoy, would prove to be an invaluable eye in the sky for assessing and directing troops to the simulated disabled truck.
“These little helicopters are pretty amazing,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Chris Haeder, Washington National Guard C Company 1-112th Lakota helicopter pilot. “They are powerful for their size and can be outfitted to suit the needs of a mission with spotlights, camera, and hoists for recovery operations.”
The Lakota crew launched from Fairchild, heading northeast toward a remote, forested area north of Spokane. After establishing communications with the ground units, the helicopter raced ahead of the convoy, circling the area as they scanned the terrain for signs of the disabled truck.
“The Lakota gives us the ability to assess a situation from a significant height and distance, then coordinate and direct ground crews to the site. That ability is its bread and butter and few aircraft do it better,” Haeder said.
Russell spotted an out-of-place truck partially hidden in a hilltop clearing. Directing the pilots to fly closer, from approximately 3,000 feet away he zoomed in on the license plate with the on-board camera to positively identify it as the truck they were looking for. After inspecting the area for a driver, injured persons or signs of combat, Russell contacted the convoy, providing details of the scene and directing them to the site of the disabled vehicle.
“In this state, we’ve typically used the helicopters for battlefield assessment missions,” Gerding said. “We have the ability to scramble our aircraft and ground units, and by communicating and working together, we can respond to situations in as little as an hour.”
Within minutes of the convoy’s arrival, the disabled truck was hooked up for towing and on its way back to base in under 15 minutes.
Helicopters around Fairchild are a common sighting, but few know what they are doing or what unit they belong to. The UH-1 Iroquois helicopter is used by the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School of the 336th Training Group, but the more commonly sighted Lakota helicopters are exclusively used by the NG unit.
“We do our best to support the SERE school for training assistance,” Gerding said. “In return, we’ve been able to take part in some wilderness and water survival training, which has really helped the readiness of our Soldiers. We stage and help facilitate disaster response crews for wildfires, floods and search and rescue. We can respond right along with Fairchild units when the call for help goes out,” added Gerding.
The Washington NG relocated to Fairchild in 2006, as a result of the Congressional Base Realignment and Closure findings.
“It’s been a mutually beneficial arrangement with the Air Force from our point of view and we are highly appreciative of that,” Gerding said. “We feel like a part of the base and not just guests. We’re happy to be one of the little Army hubs on an Air Force base; it’s good for all of us.”