On the north side of the Eagle County Airport sits a nondescript facility that houses the Department of Defense’s only high-altitude helicopter training school in the country. Known as HAATS, the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site has been training pilots since 1986. On the heels of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the school has become the go-to place for aviators that need to learn the intricacies of flying in a rugged mountain environment, with the topography of Colorado providing the perfect classroom.
“If you look at the training area, it’s Afghanistan,” said Capt. Nicholas Tucker, the training officer for HAATS.
Tucker equates HAATS to a graduate course for pilots, where students learn advanced techniques for flying at altitude in the mountains during a five-day intensive course. Although there are 13 aircraft housed at the facility including UH-60 Black Hawks, CH-47 Chinooks, OH-58 Kiowas and UH-72 Lakotas, the majority of students bring their own helicopter to the training course. Jokingly referred to as the “bring your own helicopter” program, this allows pilots to gain advanced training on their own equipment from their home base. For example, during a recent week a medevac unit from the Massachusetts National Guard came to Colorado to train, flying out in their Black Hawk helicopters.
“This is the premier school to go to fly in the mountains,” Tucker said.
HAATS is an Army base, but the training is open to all branches of the service, including the Coast Guard, with the course also extending to members of NATO.
“We’re it for the entire DOD and NATO,” stated Tucker.
There are 38 classes held throughout the year, with each group containing approximately 10 students. The first day is devoted to “ground school,” where the pilots focus on learning the impacts of weather and terrain. The next three days include a combination of classroom time and flying with a “mountain instructor pilot.” The fifth and final day of the course is focused on evaluation, where the students take a written test followed by a “check ride” with one of the program’s eight instructors.
The course centers around the concept of power management, perhaps the most important aspect of flying a helicopter. Without enough power the machine isn’t able to take off, land or clear mountain ranges. The simple equation is that the air gets thinner with higher altitudes, resulting in less power and less lift.
“If the helicopter says you can’t do it, I don’t care how good you fly, don’t do it,” said Carl Gray, an instructor at HAATS.
Gray should know, since he has been with the organization for 14 years and now works there as a civilian following his retirement from the Army. He also bears the distinction of having been shot down five times in one year during the Vietnam conflict while piloting a scout helicopter.
According to Gray, the HAATS curriculum is designed to give students the time and opportunity to learn the skills of high altitude flying. The program is especially valuable because pilots normally train in ideal conditions, but the reality is that in combat they will be flying a machine that is maxed out in terms of payload, with variable weather and in potentially unknown environments. As such, HAATS focuses on the three “h’s” — higher (altitude), hotter (temperature) and heavier (cargo weight). The course is math intensive, with emphasis on terrain analysis, its effect on localized winds and their impact on a helicopter in flight.
One of the recent pilots to pass through the program, Chief Warrant Officer Lester Furr, said that he only wished he had attended the course 20 years ago, because the training would have been valuable on the missions he flew in Iraq where “we were doing the best we could.” Furr touted HAATS as being the best course he had ever attended on power management and safety.
Another recent pilot to go through the program was Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Tombo Jones, who is based out of Humboldt Bay, Calif. and spends much of his time on search and rescues. Oftentimes he is called upon to head inland and assist with rescues in the mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada. Jones showered praise on the instructors at HAATS, saying it was an extremely eye-opening experience.
“To keep us from becoming a statistic, that’s really why we are here,” he said.
A color-coded map inside the headquarters of HAATS details the areas where trainings may, and may not, take place. The command staff is adamant that they are also members of the community who enjoy camping, hunting and recreating in the outdoors and believe in protecting its resources.
“We are blessed to have this training area, and we protect it,” Tucker said.
To that end, the school doesn’t operate during elk calving and rifle seasons, limiting classes to 38 weeks a year. Tucker said that HAATS works closely with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners to limit their impact on the environment. They also self-police and will shut down a training landing zone if they notice that rotor-wash is impacting trees in the area. In 2007 the Army spent over $1 million on an environmental impact study to ensure the organization was not causing damage.
“People have a negative impression because of the uniform,” said Maj. Tony Somogyi, commander of HAATS, referencing any perceived conflict between environmental and military values. “But it’s also our environment.”
Unlike other branches of the service, the Army must maintain a 2,000-foot buffer zone above wilderness areas. This is in contrast to the U.S. Air Force which last year was considering low-level training missions that would have reached into the Aspen area. Public outcry ultimately led to the proposal being tabled. HAATS does not perform training flights over Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, and the military is required to provide an annual update to the U.S. Forest service, said Somogyi.
Additionally, any military group requesting use of the training facility is required to have a HAATS instructor pilot fly with them. According to Tucker, special operations units often request the use of the base on their own terms, and are denied access.
“We are not going to let them ruin our training area,” said Tucker.
HAATS is considered a national asset and is federally funded, but as part of the Colorado Army National Guard, the base and its active guard reserve employees such as Somogyi and Tucker answer to the governor, Tucker explained. The Guard is a state resource called upon in times of natural disaster, including wildfires. Each year the pilots train and re-certify using helicopters with buckets of water and are available at a moment’s notice to activate. The president can also activate a Guard unit at the federal level, where they can be used for domestic emergencies or be deployed as combat troops.
As a state resource, HAATS can be called upon during a search and rescue (SAR). The most recent example of this happening in the Aspen area was in June, when a Black Hawk helicopter was deployed to the Maroon Bells to assist Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) in the recovery of a climber who died on Thunder Pyramid Peak.
According to Somogyi, the Guard has a non-compete clause, ensuring they won’t take away business from private contractors. The primary contractor for MRA rescues is Doug Sheffer, who owns DBS Helicopters. Sheffer said that he has a very good relationship with HAATS, and in the case of the June rescue he had another job scheduled, therefore the military resource was activated.
There are also other times when HAATS may assist on a rescue due to the pilots’ advanced capabilities, such as their ability to use a hoist or fly night missions. Somogyi said that HAATS will also act as a command and control station for rescues, using advanced communications technology to relay information from a team in the field back to the incident commander.
Sequestration, the automatic spending cuts enacted by Congress, have begun to trickle down and impact operations at HAATS. According to Somogyi, the biggest effect is on the number of students taking the class. The school doesn’t charge other military units per se for the class, but those units face their own budget cuts. Historically there are very few empty seats in each class, but instructors are now seeing no-shows, where registered participants don’t appear because their travel and training budgets were slashed last minute.
The base is also faced with procurement challenges for new aircraft, and the number of new helicopters scheduled for the facility has been halved. Tucker also points out that they have 11 maintenance staff for 13 helicopters, and said that personnel perform a miracle every day to keep the machines flying.
Somogyi also feels strongly about supporting and being a part of the community, however sequestration has pulled the plug on all outside activities. This year’s performances by the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, elite aerial flight demonstration teams, have been canceled, and the same rules apply to HAATS. For example, in order to participate in this year’s annual Wheels and Wings show, where its aircraft will be on display just a few hundred yards on the other side of the runway, HAATS must tow over the helicopters to save fuel costs.
One area of the base that won’t be affected by budget is the new, $39 million state-of-the-art building that HAATS will call home beginning in October. The new facility, located a short distance away from the current building, has been on the books for more than five years and is nearly completed. At over 100,000 square feet, the new facility is nearly five times larger than the current building, with the bulk of the space devoted to a bigger hangar for aircraft. The new home, which is LEED Silver certified, will also increase the number of classrooms and provide on-site housing for students.
HAATS hopes to continue to fly under the radar, be it with the environmental impact of its training missions and facilities, or its involvement in search and rescues.
“If [the public] never heard of us, we’re doing our job right,” said Somogyi.