SAINT PAUL, Minn. – “It always feels good to help a friend,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Nathan Buck, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter technical inspector with the Minnesota National Guard’s Bravo Company, 834th Aviation Support Battalion.
Buck was one of seven Minnesota crew chiefs sent to Croatia to advise and assist the Croatian Armed Forces as they integrated UH-60M Black Hawks into their Air Force.
This mission was part of the Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program. The program pairs states with nations worldwide, including the Minnesota National Guard and Croatian Armed Forces, beginning 26 years ago.
“Everything is written in manuals, but if you don’t have the practical experience, you can make some preventable mistakes,” said Croatian Air Force Lt. Col. Eduard Perković, the group commander for the 194th Squadron, 91st Wing, of the Croatian Air Force. “Having Minnesota here to advise us created a safer environment and gave us the opportunity to ask questions and receive hands-on guidance.”
As a member of NATO, the Croatian Air Force identified the need to modernize its helicopter fleet by incorporating NATO interoperable UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to meet operational demands. Since the Minnesota National Guard had fielded the UH-60M model in 2015, they were in a perfect position to advise their Croatia partners through the same process.
“Our mission was to assist the Croatians in creating an aircrew training program and to help build their confidence in working on the UH-60,” said Buck. “I believe the Black Hawk will be an excellent addition to their military as it is a much more maintenance-friendly aircraft. They will be able to spend more time flying and training.”
This aviation collaboration began in 2021, when Croatia asked for assistance in anticipation of receiving two Black Hawks from the U.S. government through a donation ceremony May 25, 2022.
The first element of the skills exchange began in the summer of 2021 when two Croatian pilots came to Minnesota to work alongside pilots from the 34th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade. A Black Hawk maintainer workshop followed in the fall of 2021. In 2022, the focus has been on mentoring crew chiefs on their duties and responsibilities, with seven Minnesota National Guard Soldiers working alongside eight Croatian service members in Croatia.
“During my time in Croatia, I’ve developed many friendships with our foreign counterparts,“ said Buck. “We’ve created an everlasting line of communication so that at any time, they can reach out for help if needed. Hopefully, in the future, we continue to work together and continue to help develop their training and maintenance programs.”
The Croatian and Minnesota aviation teams have spent about 160 hours of familiarization on technical inspections, flight crew tasks, maintenance shop management, standard operating procedures, and aircrew training program development.
“It has been one of the smoothest and most rewarding experiences to be there for Croatia while they incorporate the UH-60M into their fleet,” said U.S. Army Col. Greg Fix, the state aviation officer for the Minnesota National Guard. “The Croatians take their aviation training seriously, and their Airmen and pilots are very professional, well-educated and trained. Croatia already has their own programs; we are just sharing our best practices, and that sharing goes both ways with our state partner.”
Since 1996, Croatia and Minnesota have worked together as partners through the State Partnership Program. The program fosters mutually beneficial relationships by building trust and understanding of partner nations’ tactics and capabilities. This low-cost, small-footprint program delivers a significant return on investment by broadening the pool of security partners willing and able to support defense and security cooperation objectives around the world.
“We are honored and humbled to be a partner with Croatia,” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Shawn Manke, the adjutant general for the Minnesota National Guard. “They are a large part of the solution to providing stability and peace in Europe and throughout the world. We look forward to future opportunities for our Soldiers and Airmen to serve next to their peers from Croatia.”
The State Partnership Program enables states and countries to support one another through simple tasks such as establishing aviation standard operation procedures, which has the ripple effect of bolstering a NATO partner’s security capabilities.
“I cannot explain how much we appreciate that we had Minnesota to guide us through this process,” said Perković. “So far, we have only had a great experience with their crew chiefs. When I make a request for future training, they will be exactly who I want to bring back.”
From the world-renowned Plitvice Lakes to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the Croatian Armed Forces and Minnesota National Guard continue to build strength through unity and demonstrate that even the sky is not a limit.