Army training here through April 18
FORT DRUM — The 10th Mountain Combat Aviation Brigade is performing new training exercises, spanning the North Country and involving low-flying helicopters, caravans and rocket replicators.
Hearing the chop of helicopter blades over houses, the blast of fireworks near “combat” areas or the roar of Humvees on state roads from now through April 18 should not cause alarm. It’s just the Fort Drum-based soldiers practicing new combat maneuvers and strategies in the aviation-centered Falcon’s Peak exercise.
Troops deployed east from Fort Drum toward training areas, including the Tahawus Mine and Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont, on Monday. From there they will begin to “fight” their way back to the fort, simulating a battle with an enemy with high-tech capabilities, similar to those possessed by the U.S. military.
Falcon’s Peak utilizes 750 soldiers, six Apache helicopters, 18 Black Hawk helicopters and 160 vehicles in a 200-mile area. They move in the air and on the ground by existing military corridors that are not typically used in training exercises.
Most exercises take place only on the 100,000-acre base, but that area can be crossed by helicopter in under 10 minutes, and is mostly flat. This exercise will put coordination to the test by spreading resources, communications and technology over a large area. The flight crews will also practice new flight patterns, using mountainous terrain to out-maneuver evolving weaponry.
“We have got to be able to train in large formations, dispersed formations, at low altitude, at high speed, across real-world distances,” Deputy Commanding General for Readiness, Brigadier General Patrick Donahoe, said at the exercise briefing in a hangar on the Wheeler Sack Army Airfield.
Falcon’s Peak has not been performed in over a decade, as the War on Terror mostly consists of fighting enemies with short-range and outdated weapons. However, as new aggressors arise with near-peer equipment and foreign engineers surpass U.S. military innovation, flying high is no longer the safe option.
“I will tell you, there are peer threats, and in some cases, maybe we’re the near-peer now,” Commander of 10th Combat Aviation Brigade Col. Clair Gill said.
Donahoe showed footage of shoulder-fired S-400 anti-aircraft missiles taking down helicopters in fiery explosions. The missiles have a 400-kilometer range and can turn at 20 g’s of gravitational force, compared to a pilot’s ability to turn at about 9 g’s.
“[ S-400] are being sold around the world today by the Russians,” Donahoe said. “The skies are becoming incredibly lethal.”
Avoiding these surface-to-air missiles means flying low and fast to reduce sound and visibility. The payload needs to be loaded, batteries need to be connected and a target must be acquired for long enough before a surface-to-air missile can be launched.
“It’s a little bit of risk to the air crew because they’ve got to coordinate. Its a very intense mode of flight,” Gill said. “The only way we get better at it is we’ve got to train it; and that’s what we’re going to do here at Falcon’s Peak.”
On Monday, the 10th Mountain Division invited media and local officials to experience these maneuvers in four Black Hawk helicopters.
After attending the briefing, newspaper, radio and television reporters crossed the tarmac and entered the aircraft under the blades, rotating at more than 200 turns a minute. After passengers buckled in, the crafts lifted off swiftly and flew at 500 feet — the typical cruising height — toward Moores Field.
Cameras clicked as the journalists twisted excitedly in their seats, gazing out at the sprawling military base, shrinking houses and miles of endless trees. The roar inside the helicopters was deafening but the ride was smooth. These were professionals at work.
As altitude dropped and hearts rose into throats, the helicopters dove down into their new maneuvers, clearing treetops by 20 feet or less at times, flying between hills and pulling up to avoid power lines and other hazards.
While the Black Hawks passed over the barns, cows and iced-over ponds of the North Country, our escorts flew as if they were passing over Russian cottages, Afghan goats and the streams of North Korea. Zipping along at more than 100 miles per hour, the helicopters banked hard, rose fast and kept a low profile above the treeline.
“It’s very much designed to kind of mimic a [North] Korea invasion scenario. Mountains and things like that,” Apache pilot Spencer Emch said.
Landing at Moores Field, everyone exited to see a demonstration of the maneuvers from the ground. The power of the Black Hawk helicopters was palpable as they took off again, sending reporters reeling backward from the airborne dirt kicked up by the rotors, and knocking over a staff writer for the Watertown Daily Times, Gordon Block, who was kneeling nearby to get a good angle.
Helicopters flying at the 500 foot cruising height were audible around three miles away and visible at around a mile away. However, when they buzzed over the trees at 20 feet or less, there was only a couple seconds of visibility as they broke the treeline and little auditory warning.
A shoulder-mounted rocket replicator on site was wielded by several attendees who tried to keep up with the helicopters as they passed by. Not only did they have less time to lock onto the aircraft, they also had to compensate more by swinging the hefty weapon around to match the helicopter’s speed.
Through the course of the Falcon’s Peak exercise soldiers will face GPS and communication jamming, simulated chemical attacks and aggressors probing the Tahawus Mine camp. Helicopters will be targeted by shoulder-mounted rocket replicators in the Tupper Lake area. The replicators shoot ultraviolet light instead of missiles and use fireworks to simulate firing.
The flight crews will also practice night flying, when they will only have a 40 degree field of vision through night vision sights.
Traffic delays are anticipated on U.S. Route 11 and state Route 3 near Fort Drum through April 18, during the exercise. Driving back from the flight Monday afternoon we ran into a caravan driving down state Route 3 near Childwold and at points were slowed down to a near stop. Upon entering Tupper Lake the caravan stopped at the Save-A-Lot parking lot to refuel.
Major Joshua Meyer, operations officer for 10th Mountain Division, said the helicopters flying over residential areas will be loud and will pass quickly.
“You’ll come outside looking for us and then we’ll be gone,” Meyer said.
Members of the community with questions during Falcon’s Peak can contact the exercise operations center at 315-772-1048.