LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – New York Army National Guard Soldiers spent July 6 with forest rangers and conservation officials flying over Whiteface Mountain scouting for places to train to simulate conditions in Afghanistan without harming endangered plants and animals.
Flying in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the Albany airport, the Soldiers met with state officials to discuss using rocky outcrops around the mountain.
“We did some coordination training with the Department of Environmental Conservation as well as ORDA, the Olympic Regional Development Authority, to look at using Whiteface Mountain for helicopter training, high altitude training, pinnacle training and power management training for our crew members,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Ferreira, commander of Army Aviation Support Facility #3.
At 4,867 feet, Whiteface Mountain is the fifth-highest mountain in New York.
“To do the environmental training that we’re looking at doing and the altitude training, Whiteface Mountain is probably one of the tallest mountains around,” Ferreira said. “So it is a unique area that can offer that.”
If you don’t have a helicopter, or don’t want to hike, Whiteface Mountain also has a road where you can drive to the top, and then take an elevator ride to the summit. There’s also a state-owned ski resort run by ORDA.
At the top, however, lives the Bicknell’s Thrush, a bird listed as vulnerable due to decreasing habitat. It is one of North America’s rarest birds and nests in trees and shrubs at the top of mountains and one of the species that could impact where the aviators can train, according to Emma Lamy, sustainability and environmental compliance officer for ORDA.
Ferreira said that, with Whiteface Mountain being less than two hours away by helicopter, it is unique in simulating conditions of a combat zone.
“The altitude adds a great training value to our crew members to evaluate performance considerations of the aircraft, how much weight the aircraft can use to actually perform the mission,” Ferreira said. “Which then helps to relate to going and flying combat missions in Afghanistan or other high-altitude parts of the world.”
Ferreira also explained that the training would give them experience in power management, which would help with things such as staying in the air longer during search-and-rescue missions abroad and even when called upon at home in New York.
They will also conduct pinnacle training, where only one wheel of the helicopter would touch down on the landing zone while the aircraft hovers, a form of landing on uneven and rocky ledges.
However, there is an approval process the New York Army National Guard must go through first to train at the mountain.
“I’m working with the New York National Guard to do the environmental assessment of the touchdown locations and where they plan on using the mountain to train,” said Lamy.
Lamy said her role is to ensure that certain animals and alpine plants on Whiteface Mountain are not harmed, as some of the species are considered threatened.
“The way it’s going to work is I’m going to go back and look at the intensive use area mapping of this area and work with the Army to overlay where the endangered species are, where the touchdown locations are and where we actually have land,” Lamy said.
Whiteface Mountain is surrounded by wild forest that is not available for use, Lamy explained. The goal then she said, is to bring all agencies together that manage the Whiteface area to determine what is usable within the boundaries available, based on potential spots identified by Ferreira and his Soldiers.
“Basically, what they have to do is choose these spots, and then we perform the environmental assessment to discuss potential impacts and then Army will apply for a temporary, revocable permit from ORDA,” Lamy said.
If the training is approved, Ferreira said his aviators would look into a September-to-May timeframe to conduct the training with one aircraft at a time. That would avoid peak season for tourists and nesting season for the wildlife.
“We do like to be user friendly to the environment as well as to the people that are using the mountain,” Ferreira said.