Joint warriors utilize JBSA landing zones for vertical lift training

  • Published
  • By Col. Kjäll Gopaul
  • Air Education and Training Command

For the second time in as many weeks, joint warriors converged on Joint Base San Antonio-Chapman Annex to formally confirm the suitability of helicopter landing zones in order to expand the maneuver space for vertical lift operations and improve home-station training for San Antonio’s military units.  

As San Antonio continues to develop out from the city’s center, outlying areas that were once remote are now impacted by the encroachment of land development. This expansion places additional pressure on nearby military training activities to consider noise, light, traffic volume, safety, and other environmental factors.  

Texas Army National Guard’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, a unit of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that routinely trains with JBSA units at Martindale Army Airfield in southeast San Antonio, had been affected by these factors and has partnered with JBSA to find a solution.  

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Bill Sierra, standardization pilot for C/2-149th AV, led the initiative to expand training at JBSA-Chapman Annex.  

“We are a habitual partner with JBSA – often training with medical, aerial transportation, and security forces units,” he said. “Having additional maneuver space so close to Martindale Army Airfield increases the amount of time we can train on-site with our JBSA partners, diversifies the scenarios that can be exercised, and provides a reliable way for our aircrews to sustain proficiency on external loads.”  

“For our federal and state missions, we are required to maintain the capability of conducting external sling load missions–both for a combat scenario overseas and for the state of Texas in an emergency management event,” he said. “Encroachment around Martindale Army Airfield was affecting this.” 

Sierra said the company has successfully conducted a four-phase proof-of-concept to verify the suitability of JBSA-Chapman Annex with a ground survey, an overflight, an aerial survey, landing passengers, and finally landing external loads.” 

During the proof-of-concept phases, the joint team transported 20,000 pounds of materiel and 22 personnel across 15 sorties to validate the suitability of the maneuver area for multi-service vertical-lift operations.  

“The JBSA staff and tenants were very supportive, and worked very quickly to coordinate the approvals,” Sierra said. “It was amazing how quickly we went from walking the field to having an aircraft safely conduct training. With this success, we now have the capability to expand our training partnership with JBSA.” 

Sierra said the partnership opens doors for the unit and their JBSA partners to advance readiness together, along with the 36th General Support Aviation Battalion, for other lift and assault activities.  

“The possibilities are endless at this point for mutually-beneficial training on our mission essential task lists in this joint environment,” he said.  

Tech. Sgt. Christopher LaPlant, passenger services supervisor for the 74th Aerial Port Squadron, participated in the aerial survey Sept. 2 and met with San Antonio organizations to obtain approvals for the JBSA-Chapman Annex. The meeting was with representatives from air traffic control, range operations, the military working dog schoolhouse, and the Battlefield Airmen schoolhouse. 

“I’m glad I volunteered for this,” LaPlant said. “I thought it was extremely important to develop new relationships and get a broader perspective of what happens across JBSA.”  

For a sling-load mission Sept. 8, the team prepared A-22 cargo bags with water barrels, rigged and inspected the load, and rehearsed attaching them to a helicopter.  

“Our team of 16 Airmen put out marking panels on the landing zone and repeatedly attached the sling loads to the cargo hook of the helicopter,” LaPlant said. “Setting up the LZ was an awesome opportunity – to see the precise measurements on the ground and the mechanics of staking in the markers.” 

LaPlant also said hooking up under the aircraft was incredible, having an aircraft a few feet above his head and experiencing the noise and the rotor wash, while staying focused on the task. 

Tech. Sgt. Crystal A. Ziehl, a load planning supervisor, 74th Aerial Port Squadron, was the safety noncommissioned officer and team leader for one of the touch-down points.  

“It was my first time working around a helicopter, and even though everything was explained pretty well and we rehearsed ahead of time, the noise and the rotor wash were very powerful,” she said. “Literally, no one could hear you talk when you were right next to them near the aircraft, and the force of the rotor wash…. After you’ve hooked up the load and you’re running to your safety point, the wind pushes you - That was a little bit more than I expected.  

Ziehl said the rehearsals and pre-flight training gave her confidence, but the noise is something you can only truly understand it by experiencing it. 

Senior Airman Chet D. Jones, passenger service specialist, 74th Aerial Port Squadron, said he enjoyed the experience.  

“I loved the high-speed training! We thoroughly covered the tasks and it helped me understand how everything is done correctly by checking your work and team’s work so that the load is ready for the mission,” he said.  

Jones underscored the relevance of the training exercise. 

“While I was deployed to a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, we relied on helicopters to re-supply our patrol bases and to avoid improvised explosive devices and other ground threats, or if the road conditions were too poor for driving,” he said. “So, using air support was the best way to move materiel about 70 percent of the time.”  

Offering an aviator’s perspective as the pilot-in-command of the Sept. 9 sling load mission, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jonathan Weller, aviation mission survivability officer, C/2-149th Aviation, said it was great working jointly with the Airmen on the ground, and conducting so many iterations with well-prepared ground teams. 

“The hook-teams were quick and responsive, and the use of signaling smoke and a ground radio operator was invaluable in painting a true picture of what’s happening on the landing zone,” he said.  

“If we can hone our skillset and work with people outside our own unit, it prepares us for our civil missions that support the citizens of Texas,” he said. “This mission has direct application to our unit’s coverage for civil operations for Federal Emergency Management Agency search and rescue work with Texas Task Force 1 response to fires, floods, and rescues where we might conduct supply missions with unfamiliar teams.” 

“Charlie Company, “ALAMO DUSTOFF,” is an air ambulance medical company whose wartime mission is to provide aeromedical evacuation support within the assigned brigade and/or corps area of operations,” said Maj. Samuel J. Scallon. “The fundamental pillars supportive to this mission are outlined in the unit’s mission essential task list which includes: managing aeromedical evacuation support activities, performing tactical aeromedical evacuation support activities, and conducting expeditionary deployment operations."