The meaning of the term “dust off” was readily apparent to the crowd of approximately 150 people who came to watch a pair of Black Hawk helicopters and a single Chinook land in the parking area of the National Military Vehicle Museum a few miles east of Dubois.
The three aircraft and the 24 men aboard were part of the Colorado National Guards High Altitude Aviation Training Site located in Gypsum, Colorado, near Vail.
They arrived from the east, following the highway up the canyon from Lander after refueling in Rock Springs earlier Wednesday morning.
The staff ride, as the National Guard Unit referred to the flight was the idea of Lt. Colonel Nicholas Tucker.
“We were on vacation. I promised my son I’d take him to a tank museum,” Tucker said. “This is the best one I’ve ever been tool.”
That short visit was back in April and Tucker contacted the museum on his return home.
“He was excited about visiting the museum,” National Museum of Military Vehicles owner Dan Starks said, “He initiated it, not me.”
The High Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS) is located at Eagle County Airport at an elevation of 6,500 feet.
The state mission of the unit is, “To conduct DA directed functional training for all pilots in aviation combat skills relating to power management and environmental training techniques in high density altitude and high aircraft gross weight conditions.”
In practice that means training pilots who spend most of their time at sea level in how to operate helicopters in the rarified air at 5,000, 10,000, or up to 20,000 feet in altitude.
“We train international pilots, Saudi Arabian, NATO, Columbia, you name it, anyone who is friendly, we’ll train them at altitude,” Chief Warrant Officer Darren Freyer said.
Freyer is a pilot, and one who is very familiar with Riverton, and Wyoming as a whole.
“I flew for Great Lakes Airlines for five years,” Freyer said. “If you flew out of Riverton, odds are I was piloting the plane.”
The dynamics of rotary flight at increasingly higher altitudes puts a strain on the power of the jet turbine engines that power both the Black Hawk and the Chinook helicopters.
“The power limitations are remarkable,” Freyer said. “Most fly at sea level and we train at 6,500 feet. You are only at 85% of power at 12,000 feet.”
The challenges of high altitude flight became apparent soon after the US entered the war in Afghanistan.
The Hindu Kush Mountains in the northern region of Afghanistan are the second highest in the world, exceeding 24,000 feet.
“Afghanistan made the school,” Freyer said. “After that, the faucet turned on. Afghanistan really cranked us up, new facilities, more money.”
There are nine helicopters on site, but many nations and other branches of the United States Military prefer to bring in their own aircraft.
“We train you in the chopper you fly,” Freyer said. “We pay for ourselves. We’re one of the few units that pays money into the treasury after foreign governments pay us for the training.”
Freyer noted that the staff works with Colorado search and rescue teams in extracting injured hikes, skiers, hunters, and kayakers from high altitudes.
The staff ride isn’t unique, but it hadn’t been done for a long time.
“We haven’t done anything like this in a decade,” Tucker said.
The challenges of combat in the high altitude of Afghanistan date back to 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded the country.
“Our Apache is on par with the Soviet Hind,” Tucker said. “You can’t carry a full load in the mountains. You have to carry less gear, fewer troops, and less munitions to compensate for the altitude.”
While most of the crowd gathered around the two Blackhawks, the Chinook had fewer visitors a few hundred yards to the south on the opposite bank of the Wind River.
The CH-47 Chinook is a twin-rotor aircraft capable of carrying 24,000 pounds of cargo at sea level. It is one of the oldest still functioning helicopter designs in the world dating back to its first flight in 1962.
The Chinook can carry 20 fully equipped troops at speeds up to 200 mph and first saw combat action early in Vietnam.
There are 1,200 operating worldwide.
“The best thing in Afghanistan was the Chinook,” Tucker said.
With no active major military engagements going on at present, HAATS is busy preparing pilots and aircrews for potential future conflicts that may occur well above sea level.
The soldiers were treated to lunch and a tour of the museum before departing back to Gypsum.