GYPSUM, Colo. – Coming from the relatively flat state of New Jersey, Capt. Matthew Munoz recently learned how to land a UH-60 Black Hawk above 12,000 feet.
As a National Guard pilot, Munoz normally trains with sling loads and hoists or transports Soldiers in air assault courses.
Those missions usually allow a large power margin for his helicopter, meaning there is less stress on the aircraft.
But surrounded by the Rocky Mountains in western Colorado along Interstate 70, the terrain tests helicopter pilots with risky landing zones on limited, uneven space often strewn with large rocks and trees.
"There definitely is that pucker factor," Munoz said. "You have that caution and fear in that confined space. And there's that potential for the rotors of the aircraft to strike an obstacle."
A student at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, Munoz recently took the site's weeklong course to hone his power management techniques that may one day help him out of a bad situation.
The only aviation school of its kind in the Defense Department, HAATS teaches about 350 students per year across the U.S. military as well as from foreign militaries, which account for about 20 percent of enrollment.
The school is one of four Army National Guard aviation training sites in the country. Given its access to over 1 million acres of rugged forest with landing zones from 6,500 to 12,200 feet, HAATS mainly focuses on power management that teaches pilots how to maximize the utility of their helicopters.
The training sharpens pilots heading into combat or to perform missions back home, where they may find themselves flying in high altitudes, hot weather or carrying heavy loads, all of which can sap power from an aircraft.
"It's important for us to give them the tools they need to make sure that they can complete their mission successfully and not bend or break aircraft in the process," said Lt. Col. Britt Reed, the HAATS commander.
Operated by a small, 30-member cadre of full-time Colorado Guard members, federal employees and an instructor pilot from the Coast Guard, the school relies on pilots to bring their own helicopters that can range from Black Hawks, CH-47 Chinooks and UH-72 Lakotas.
Once they arrive, students head to the classroom to learn about approaches and takeoff sequences, weather and environmental considerations, and then power management.
Afterward, pilots typically fly twice a day out in the rugged terrain, practicing the skills they just learned.
Reed considers the training to be "graduate level," intended for more experienced pilots.
"It would be difficult to take a student fresh out of flight school and put them through this training," he said, "while they're trying to learn their aircraft and how to maneuver it."
With only two years of experience as a Lakota pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Ferguson said he was lucky to be chosen for the course.
A member of the Virginia Guard, he plans to use the skills when he is called on for drug interdiction operations in the state. High above the ground, Ferguson helps conduct surveillance for law enforcement as they search for suspects or illegal marijuana fields in the forest.
Many times the job requires him to hover at high altitudes so as not to spook suspects and for safety reasons.
"If you get too low, the helicopter hovering over the house becomes pretty obvious, pretty quick," he said. "So, you got to know how to maintain standoff, how to read the wind, [and] position the helicopter where you need it to be positioned."
The techniques and finesse he picked up at the HAATS course, he said, gave him better control touch of the aircraft when it's using a lot of power.
Since they manage the aircraft, crew chiefs frequently join the pilots in the training to hone their skills, too.
By being together, aircrews can improve their teamwork, especially in dangerous landing zones where a crew chief is needed to spot dangers on the ground.
"Having good aircrew coordination between everybody in the aircraft is pinnacle because if you're not talking to each other, then something is going to get missed," said Sgt. Robert Black, a Black Hawk crew chief.
One time while deployed to Iraq, Black said he was on a helicopter that landed roughly on the side of a mountain as his crew went to check out a new landing zone during a training event.
"When we came in, we kind of browned out and then touched down a little bit harder than usual," said Black, who is assigned to the Virginia National Guard.
While no one was injured, Black still saw it as a wake-up call. "If we would have had the training we had here, that probably wouldn't have happened," he said.
During the course, instructors show videos that simulate previous helicopter crashes and discuss how to avoid the issues faced by those crews.
While somber, since some of the crashes have led to deaths, the videos are valuable learning aids.
"They're all lessons learned," Black said. "Being able to recognize somebody else's mistakes and being able to learn from them is a key part of any kind of training."
Seasoned crew chiefs also share their personal stories with their students.
Instructor Staff Sgt. Greg Yost draws upon lessons from his time in Afghanistan where he served as a crew chief on a medical evacuation helicopter, which had to fly quickly in hot weather that sometimes took a toll on its power supply.
"If I can't teach you something here in this course, then I have failed you," Yost said of what he tells his students. "It is my goal, my duty to impart some kind of knowledge to every student that comes into my classroom."
TRAINING FOR COMBAT
Reed said the school was asked by the 10th and 82nd Combat Aviation Brigades to train its younger crews ahead of deployments. The units flew several helicopters to the site and for weeks the school cycled Soldiers through.
HAATS even has mobile training teams that travel around the country to prepare aircrews.
At times, instructors hear back from crew members downrange they've helped train, who thank them and tell them they were able to apply the skills to real-world missions.
Occasionally, crews will share new techniques with instructors that may help future students.
"More than anything, it validates what we've been doing," Reed said.
While counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East may be waning, Yost believes skills in the course can still be used to mitigate risks in future operations.
For instance, helicopters may require heavier equipment, such as armor or technology, to offset anti-air threats posed by near-peer adversaries.
"As that stuff develops, it will be bolted onto the aircraft," the senior crew chief said. "It will be adding weight, maybe increasing drag. All these contributing factors will reduce the aircraft's performance."
Whatever the mission, it's no secret what they teach at the site, Reed said.
"We're trying to spread the word and share it," the commander said. "Oftentimes, we hear about a helicopter crash that's power related. We want to do everything we can to make sure that all the aviators out there have these tools and make the right decisions."