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HAATS: Taking the High Ground

Mountains command respect. And when instructors at the Guard's High-Altitude Aviation Training Site in Colorado aren't teaching helicopter pilots to navigate their perils, they're saving civilians stranded among them.
 Photos by Vance Jacobs
Photos by Vance Jacobs

There was no way my Black Hawk could land on this tiny island. At 20 knots of airspeed and 30 feet over the surface of this Colorado mountain lake, my 65-foot UH-60 started to shudder. As we slowed, my rotor, which creates the lift, was becoming less efficient—a scenario that has killed countless pilots. 

My hulking beast of horsepower could produce only about 70 percent of the torque it could under normal conditions—not enough power to hover at 30 feet. And we were surprisingly close to our maximum allowable gross weight. One wrong move could be catastrophic. 

Before this moment, I had landed helicopters thousands of times, in all kinds of conditions. Now, my hands began to twitch—muscle memory trying to take over. My instincts told me to pull up the nose and add power. But if I did that here, at 10,000 feet above sea level in the Rockies, we would end up in a smoking hole on this sliver of land that was barely half as wide as my rotors. 

My instructor pilot (IP) wasn’t concerned. He had predicted the Black Hawk would shudder. And to ensure we didn’t lose more speed, he urged me to nose the aircraft over a bit, even as my brain told me to do the opposite. I followed the direction. We sank fast. 

But at around 15 feet, just as the island disappeared from view beneath the dashboard, our crew chief leaned out his window and called out our position. 

“Nose is over the LZ,” he said. 

“Tail is over the LZ.” 

And finally, the phrase I needed to hear. 

“You’re clear down.” 

That meant we were safe over the LZ, settling onto a cushion of air that had dramatically slowed our rate of descent. The Black Hawk stopped at a 5-foot hover. I had just completed a nearly impossible landing using a shockingly meager amount of power. 

That was five years ago, when I was a student at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS) in Gypsum, CO. This past July, back at HAATS on assignment for this story, I returned to that island, observing an IP train another young pilot on the same procedure I’d practiced. Through HAATS, helicopter pilots learn to handle seemingly insurmountable aerodynamic conditions with ease. 

Throughout my 16-year Army career, I’ve taken countless courses, but HAATS stands out as, by far, my favorite. In the years I’ve spent traveling around the country for GX, I’ve observed dozens more training environments, and HAATS still tops the list. The instructors are highly trained and capable, the curriculum is invaluable, the facilities are world-class, and the location is simply breathtaking. 

Many of the techniques taught there can be employed in a variety of demanding flight scenarios and challenging places, like Afghanistan. And the value of the lessons learned at HAATS is substantiated by its far-reaching roster of students; it’s one of only a handful of Guard-run schoolhouses that routinely trains Active Duty Army Soldiers, along with personnel from other branches and countries. 

Plus, HAATS instructors are regularly called upon to perform real-world civilian rescues—in fact, they very well may be the nation’s most active Guard unit in humanitarian missions. And they do it all by being experts in a methodology that can be summed up in two words: power management. 

Nestled in the Rocky Mountains near Vail, CO, the state-of-the-art High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site is surrounded by geographical features such as pinnacles, valleys and ridges. These elements mirror the challenging topography of places like Afghanistan, where mastery of the schoolhouse’s graduate-level power management curriculum is critical to mission success and Soldier safety.


Aerodynamics Basics
For most people, talking aerodynamics with a pilot is like discussing tumor removal with a brain surgeon. Pilots spend years mastering the mechanics of helicopters. (Flight school is an intense year and a half or so, depending on how quickly you move through the phases, and even after pilots return to their units, they keep learning through annual knowledge assessments, called check rides.) While you don’t have to grasp all the intricacies of a surgeon’s work to fully appreciate it, you need at least a basic understanding of how helicopters work to comprehend the momentous difference HAATS makes. 

When an aircraft flies through the mountains, several principles of aerodynamics are at play, but two in particular loom large. The first deals with the engine’s ability to produce power. By design, helicopter rotor systems turn at a constant rate of rpm, which Army helicopters have an almost unlimited ability to sustain at sea level. But at mountain altitude, where the air is thin, things get tricky. And if that air also happens to be hot (as on a summer day in Afghanistan, for instance), then generating power gets even trickier.

A helicopter’s engine harnesses the power of what’s essentially a controlled explosion. It works like this: In the engine’s combustion section, fuel is misted and mixed with air to form a fireball. To keep that fire contained, a fan at the front of the engine routes clean air through a series of channels around the rim of the combustion section. The “explosion” forces air out the back of the engine, where it turns another fan (called a turbine—hence the term “turbine engine”). That fan activates a drive shaft, which is routed through the transmission and eventually turns the rotor. 

When the engine needs more power to maintain the rotor’s rpm, it simply pumps more fuel, making the fire hotter. But there’s a limit to the amount of fuel the engine can pump at any given time. When the engine’s need for power exceeds its ability to pump more fuel, as is frequently the case in high-altitude scenarios, the rotor slows down. And when that happens, a pilot can quickly lose control. A wrong reaction—or an overreaction—only makes things worse.  

The second principle at work is that of ground effect, an ever-present consideration for HAATS aircraft. Think of a helicopter’s rotor system like the propeller on a boat, and the air as water. A boat traveling upstream needs more power to cut through the river’s current. That’s similar to what happens when a helicopter is out of ground effect, or OGE. When the aircraft isn’t close to the ground (farther than about half the rotor’s width from the ground, say), the air providing lift is continuously recycled through the rotor—blown down, pulled back up, blown down again, and so on. Rotating through that recycled, moving air drastically reduces the rotor’s efficiency. 

On the other hand, when the helicopter is in ground effect, or IGE, the ground interrupts that recirculation of air. IGE is akin to what a boat would experience if the current it was fighting suddenly stopped; the boat would have the same amount of power, but it wouldn’t have to work so hard. IGE is what provided the cushion of air that allowed me to hover over the tiny island. If my IP hadn’t taught me how to use the ground effect, then I wouldn’t have been able to make the most of the limited power available to me, and I wouldn’t be alive to write this article. 

Power Trip
Before each landing at HAATS, instructors walk students through a process that helps them determine two crucial pieces of information: how much power they’ll need and how much power they’ll have. Recognizing the limitations of their engine to produce power, and understanding how their surroundings affect their need for power, form the basis of this process. 

In addition to altitude and temperature, pilots must consider the environment they’re landing in, (including wind speed and direction) and the specific makeup of the landing zone (LZ) they’re approaching. This is evident when we visited Dome Peak with Chief Warrant Officer 4 Anders Nielsen, a HAATS instructor, and two students from the Coast Guard. 

“Mother Nature is always trying to win,” Nielsen said on the approach to the 12,172-foot peak, which towers above the high alpine portion of the White River Plateau, about a 20-minute flight north from HAATS’ location at Eagle County Regional Airport. 

The LZ was a small, flat space barely bigger than our UH-72 Lakota. (By the way, IPs don’t have an affinity for torturing students by making them land on small LZs. It’s just that space limitations are a great way to force even the most experienced pilots out of their comfort zones.) On one side of the LZ was a steep, grassy slope dotted with volcanic rock. On the other was nothing—an almost-vertical cliff face. And that’s the side Nielsen talked the student into approaching from. 

Mother Nature was really doing her thing that day—the wind crossing the peak was mildly turbulent and shaking the helicopter. “Just wallow in it,” Nielsen said. “That’ll keep you from making big pedal inputs.” This was his subtle reminder to the pilot not to overcorrect; those unaccustomed to this kind of turbulence tend to make radical—and sometimes devastating—control inputs. A large part of HAATS training seems counterintuitive; in this case, making fewer inputs achieves a smoother approach.

As we neared the cliff face, the student’s stress was noticeable in his voice as he talked through the pre-landing procedure. “We’re landing to the long axis of the LZ,” he said. Then, “No obstructions on any side …” But he was too focused on what he was doing to finish the required callouts. 

Tapping into the calm demeanor that comes from having 7,000 flight hours in just about every Army aircraft in use since the Vietnam War, Nielsen deftly talked the student through the rest. “Feel that?” he asked as we got closer. “That’s the wind coming off the cliff face. Just let that happen.” 

That wind was one of the reasons he’d talked the student into landing from this direction in the first place—the updraft added to the Lakota’s lift. We crossed the cliff face and were suddenly IGE. Now that he’d verified that landing would be possible (which was the point of this low-area recon flight), the pilot was supposed to simply fly over the intended touchdown point and continue on. But like me, his instincts were leading him astray.

For our altitude, the helicopter was getting too slow for Nielsen’s liking. Still, the unflappable IP’s voice was calm and steady as he guided the student through his next steps. “A little more forward cyclic,” he said. “Fly through the low ground—we like to fly downhill. Good.” 

The Lakota finally gained speed as we followed the steep peak down. “Now think about how much more power it would’ve taken to climb up forward over that hill instead of coming out the way we did,” said Nielsen. And with that, he’d identified the potentially fatal flaw in the student pilot’s original plan to land on the grassy side: If, while attempting to land upslope, he’d discovered he lacked the power to do so, he wouldn’t have been able to get up and over to the cliff face. There would have been no escape.

Training That Moves Mountains
Instructors like Nielsen have been integral to HAATS’ success from the beginning—in fact, they were the beginning, according to HAATS Executive Officer Captain Nicholas Tucker. “HAATS started in 1985 as a group of Colorado Army National Guard aviators who were all Vietnam Veterans,” he says. “Through their extensive experience training new aviators, they realized that those pilots couldn’t fly in the mountains. So they started training them to.” 

The only DoD schoolhouse that teaches high-altitude power management techniques to rotary-wing aviators, HAATS combines classroom training with actual flight time in elevations ranging from 6,500 to over 14,000 feet above sea level.

That training led to lesson plans. Those lesson plans became standardized. And over the next decade, the immense value of the training started getting noticed. “Word spread and other states sent pilots until finally, in 1995, [HAATS] became an official federally funded schoolhouse,” Tucker says. “The best way to describe it is a grassroots movement by aviators for aviators.”

Even today, HAATS retains its fundamentally smallish scale despite the enormity of its mission. At any one time, the schoolhouse can accommodate a dozen students. HAATS’ fleet includes Black Hawks, Lakotas and Chinooks, but Soldiers are also welcome to BYOA (bring your own aircraft). The first day of each weeklong course takes place in the classroom; the other days, students start in the classroom but quickly take to the skies above—and in and around and through—the rugged Rocky Mountains, with peaks that soar as high as 14,000-plus feet. 

One of the student pilots attending HAATS during GX’s visit was Captain Justin Ratliff. He’s a member of the Texas Army Guard’s C Company, 2/149th General Support Aviation Battalion, and within a couple months of graduating from the school, he would be headed off to Kosovo on deployment. 

“The elevation we’re going to see in Kosovo is similar to [the elevation here]—8,000- and 9,000-foot peaks,” Ratliff said. “We have a serious lack of mountains in Texas. So the elevation is one thing, but today, we were [also] experiencing winds like I’ve never seen before. I was doing stuff that I’m used to doing from five years of flying, but the aircraft [wasn’t performing how I expected]. It’s frustrating and challenging, but it’s also fun, because I’m learning stuff I’ve never even thought about learning before.” 

And those lessons will extend far beyond Ratliff’s own toolbox—every pilot he flies with while overseas will learn and benefit from the instruction and experience he got at HAATS. 

The quality of HAATS’ instructors isn’t the only thing that makes the school’s training world-class. In October 2013, HAATS cut the ribbon on a brand-new building unlike any other Guard facility in the country. Just outside its keypad-secured, sliding front door is a fire pit that would look right at home outside any Rocky Mountain ski lodge. After being buzzed in, you’re greeted by a huge, interactive information station like the ones at high-end malls and Mercedes dealerships. Touching one icon calls up a map of the facility. Touching another helps you locate your barracks. A few more taps produces a listing of the best local dining spots. It’s all very high-tech—and as impressive as it is functional.

Just past the touchscreen display is a spacious seating area with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the airport runway, where private jets toting wealthy, Vail-bound passengers continually touch down. The antlers lining the bookshelves further contribute to the building’s ski lodge feel. But that’s not to say the facility is extravagant—it’s simply well thought out. The place feels like what a state-of-the-art aviation training facility should feel like. Its clearly planned layout symbolizes the forethought required in an occupation where a 2 percent margin for error can make a life-or-death difference. 

For all its flair and unique character, HAATS does boast one bit of traditional military decor. Most Army schoolhouses sport collections of photos from past graduating classes, and some of those include a smattering of faces from other U.S. service branches. The halls of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, AL, for example, display members of the Navy and the Marines, along with a handful of international students. At HAATS, the stairwells house this collection, and the number of international and non-Army photos rivals any schoolhouse hall I’ve seen. There are pictures from classes of Danish, Swiss and German students. Tucker says the schoolhouse has also trained rotary-wing military aviators from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Slovenia, Norway and Colombia. 

Real-World Difference
The way most Army schools work is that instructors train students, then those students apply the techniques they’ve learned in the real world, and eventually provide feedback to the schoolhouse. But that feedback loop isn’t necessary for HAATS, because its instructors are performing real-world missions themselves and saving civilian lives at an extraordinary rate—392 in its 30-year history, to be exact. 

Civilian rescue agencies tap HAATS instructors for help during two scenarios: when those agencies are overtasked, and (in a true testament to the significance of HAATS’ power management training) when the high altitude makes it impossible for underpowered civilian helicopters to complete a rescue. “In the last 12 months,” Tucker says, “we have rescued 58 people, with 38 live hoists above 10,000 feet.”

During those real-world rescues, HAATS provides the helicopter and crew while civilian rescue personnel perform the recoveries, getting lowered via hoist to retrieve the stranded, often injured, victims. To facilitate this partnership, HAATS’ leadership holds training events twice a year, in the spring and fall. Participants come from all over Colorado and are all volunteers.

“The training we do is centered around hoist operations,” Tucker says. “This training has proven invaluable, as rescue teams are often literally working on a mountain ledge. The fall hoist training is for the new team members, and the spring hoist training is for the guys that will be in the field. It’s the final dress rehearsal before the summer rescue season.”

The environmental training provided by HAATS’ top-notch instructors—Colorado Guard Soldiers one and all—is perhaps never more relevant than when they are called upon by civilian rescue agencies for help with real-world mountain rescues. To date, schoolhouse personnel have saved the lives of nearly 400 civilians who learned the hard way that they were no match for the perilous terrain of the Rockies.

With each rescue mission the instructors perform, they put into practice what they preach. Every time, lives hang in the balance—not just those of the civilians who need rescuing, but those of the pilot and crew as well. It’s the kind of thing that makes good teachers great, and it’s the calling card of instructors who genuinely care about what they’re teaching because they understand what’s at stake. 

“My favorite thing about teaching is the direct impact and influence I have on [students’] skill sets,” says Nielsen. “[HAATS training] greatly improves their safety across a broad mission spectrum.” 

No matter the mission—a medevac in the Hindu Kush, a supply run in Kosovo, the rescue of an injured hiker in the Rockies—the power management lessons learned at HAATS make pilots better, smarter, safer and more effective. High altitudes mean high stakes. And for graduates of the Army’s greatest flight school, knowledge is literally power.