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Navy helicopter crews train in West Virginia

MADISON, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Navy helicopter crews are finding a lot to like with Southern West Virginia as a training area and a temporary home base, after the first of three Navy helo squadrons scheduled to conduct exercises here this fall completed nine days of training.

“The flying here has been amazing,” said Cmdr. Michael Marks, commander of the Norfolk-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 9 “Tridents,” who wrapped up nine days of training Oct. 2, all staged from Charleston’s Yeager Airport. “The terrain in the Norfolk area is pretty flat, so the mountains and the mine sites here give us quite a change in routine, something that’s always good for training.”

It’s also a vivid change from flying over the ocean for members of HSC-9, who make up part of Carrier Air Wing 8, assigned to the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.

Yeager Airport has agreements with the owners of a half-dozen large, inactive surface mines, covering tens of thousands of acres, within 45 miles of Charleston to use their properties for military training. Most of the sites can be reached within about 15 minutes of flying time by the squadron’s MH-60S “Seahawk” helicopters.

The mine sites make possible a wide variety of training scenarios, while the airport offers military flight crews the option of “hot-fueling” their aircraft while engines are operating, making for faster turnaround times. Yeager also offers complimentary use of its Woody Williams Military Flight Operations Center, equipped with a flight planning room, offices, kitchen, locker rooms and an adjacent heated, 12,000-square-foot hangar.

“We’re able to do unit-level training here,” said Marks, who brought 105 squadron members to Charleston for the training.

On Sept. 25, training took place at the West Virginia National Guard’s Hobet All Hazards Training Center, encompassing 30,000 acres in Boone and Lincoln counties west of Madison. There, Seahawk crews practiced landing in dusty, low-visibility “brownout” conditions on unpaved, uneven terrain, conducting a “personal recovery” search and rescue exercise involving a downed aircrewman, and making simulated gun runs targeting a pickup truck driven across the former strip mine by a squadron member.

From the Hobet site, the Seahawk crews flew southward to practice low-level flight over mountainous terrain, before returning to the All Hazards Training Center to run additional scenarios.

In addition to giving military aviators a base from which to conduct operations and easy access to training sites, Yeager Airport’s “Home Base” program is designed to fuel the economy in the Charleston area, according to director Nick Keller.

Based on military per diem allowances, the 105 members of HSC-9 pumped at least $155,000 into the local economy for hotel rooms and meals during their stay here, Keller said.

Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Irwin McBride, assigned to the “Tridents” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 9, removes tip caps from the rotor blades of an MH-60S Sea Hawk in May. (MC3 Rebekah Rinckey/Navy)
Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Irwin McBride, assigned to the “Tridents” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 9, removes tip caps from the rotor blades of an MH-60S Sea Hawk in May. (MC3 Rebekah Rinckey/Navy)

“The team at the airport and the people of Charleston have been very friendly,” Marks said.

When off duty, squadron members have gone on whitewater rafting trips, ridden four-wheelers on the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, gone fishing and exercised by running along Kanawha Boulevard, he said.

“We will have another Navy helicopter squadron in for training at the end of October, followed by another one in November,” Keller said.

At least 120 military units representing all service branches have trained or made refueling stops at Yeager since the airport began promoting itself as a military destination two years ago.

The airport, in conjunction with the West Virginia National Guard, is seeking to have the Federal Aviation Administration designate a 2,000-square-mile section of Southern West Virginia a Military Operating Area, making possible tactical training, including live-fire missions at its more remote mineland training sites.

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