Looking Back – My Fort Drum Familiarization Trip

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Around the beginning of the new Millennium – that being 2000 to 2003 I believe, a familiarization program for FAA air traffic controllers was organized to observe Army and Air National Guard aviation operations at Fort Drum, New York. North of a Utica to Syracuse line on a map, there are multiple Military Operating Areas (MOAs) and a Restricted Area which contain targets for live firing of ammunition. Fort Drum is home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and has flying units contained within. New York Army and Air National Guard units use the facilities for training as well. Wheeler Sack Army Air Field (AAF), which serves the ranges, had its single runway lengthened to 10,000 feet in 1998, to serve large Air Force transports moving the 10th Mountain Division around the world.

The Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) is located in Nashua, NH. Nearby Boire Field airport is more than capable of flight operations of small to medium sized General Aviation aircraft, including jets and turboprops. Two supervisors at Boston Center were pilots for the Connecticut Air National Guard, and one of them set up a program that allowed a handful of air traffic control personnel to travel to the Army airport and observe flight training and weapons firing in person, a few times a year. One of the many functions that a Boston ARTCC controller accomplishes is to keep non-participating aircraft away from these live fire areas when they’re scheduled to be “hot”.

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The Connecticut Air National Guard’s 103rd Fighter Wing operated the A-10 Thunderbolt II at the time, but also had a Beech C-12 Super King Air assigned to it for National Guard duties. On a weekly basis, the twin turboprop would fly between the 103rd’s base at Bradley International Airport and Wheeler Sack AAF, ferrying personnel and supplies between the two. For training efficiency, the 103rd operated a Forward Operating Location (FOL) with personnel that could refuel and rearm A-10s at the Army airport. The A-10s would depart Bradley with practice munitions, get clearance into the Restricted Area and drop their ordinance, shoot their guns, and land at Wheeler Sack. The pilots would plan their next sorties while the FOL crew would turn the A-10s around, refueling and rearming them. Upon departure, the A-10s would perform more target practice before departing the area for home. This would save between an hour to an hour and a half of transit flying time between the consecutive sorties.

Space permitting, the C-12 King Air was made available for a shuttle from Nashua to, and back from Wheeler Sack. I was a Traffic Management Coordinator at Boston Center at the time, assisting with scheduling and communicating the Fort Drum range operation times. I got lucky enough to go on one such familiarization trip. We departed Nashua early on a Friday morning and our C-12 quickly arrived at Fort Drum. We went into the Operations building and toured the range control unit. I saw the airspace scheduling unit and observed how aircraft operating in the airspace could still avoid the live fire zones in the Restricted Area.

The day I went, a high ranking New York National Guard officer and delegation was also at Fort Drum for familiarization, so this would be a busy flying day for us to see. Helicopter operations were most of the flying we saw, but at one point several New York Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcons dropped Cluster Bomb Units (CBUs) on the range targets too. Although they didn’t use the range, I saw a B-52 from nearby Griffiss AFB flying just east of us as well.

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From the base operation building, the handful of us (about 7 or 8 people) split up and boarded a pair of Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters… part of a 4-ship formation that would carry us out to the actual ranges. It was late summer/early autumn, and we flew low across the forested landscape and arrived at a grass landing site. Greeted by uniformed soldiers, we were led down a short path and up a small hillock.

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Suddenly, we heard helicopter rotor noise, and a pair of UH-60 Black Hawks with howitzers slung underneath them popped up from our right. They flew directly in front of us, placed the cannons down some 50 yards or so away, and then settled to let soldiers dismount from the cabins. Within minutes, the soldiers had moved the cannons into their firing positions, unloaded boxes of ammunition, and had fired a few rounds of 105mm howitzer shells downrange. The Blackhawks quickly returned and picked up the soldiers and left.

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We went back to our UH-1s, and departed for another viewing site, looking at the same live fire range from a different location. We dismounted and watched as a trio of NYARNG AH-1 Cobras shot their cannons and Hellfire missiles on targets as an OH-58 Kiowa assisted with their targeting. At this point, although I had been allowed to use my camera during the trip, all of us were told to stop looking in our viewfinders and taking photos unless we had a special lens filter attached… the Hellfires launched were laser-guided and while I never saw a laser in operation, I followed orders!

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After a few hours in and above Upstate New York, we flew back to the main airfield and ate lunch before boarding the C-12 for the flight home. There was one more surprise on the day though, and it happened after we departed. One of my favorite terms heard while controlling is the declaration of “MARSA” between two or more military aircraft. “Military Assumes Responsibility for Separation of Aircraft” (MARSA) means that pilots, or built-in procedures in a military flight plan, allow for separate aircraft to join together without the requirement of ATC providing standard separation between them. After the morning’s A-10 target practice, two jets were turned around at the FOL and departed just before our C-12. Somewhere near Utica I think, the A-10s must have called MARSA to ATC, and joined up in formation on our wing, giving us an idea of what formation flight was all about. Granted, the jets weren’t breathtakingly close to us, but we marveled at the sight of another aircraft in close proximity to another – something a controller seldom gets to see in person.

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Soon we landed at Nashua and our day of flying was done. What I took away from the trip included gained knowledge of how the process of scheduling and using airspace occurs from the Fort Drum personnel, helicopter operations, formation flights, and the mitigation of hazards like laser light.

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Looking back at it now, the Army and Army National Guard have retired all of their Bell UH-1 and AH-1 helicopters, and the 103rd Fighter Wing has lost their A-10s and C-12 as they are equipped with C-130 Hercules transports today. Additionally, the NY Air National Guard’s 174 Fighter Wing has retired their F-16s, replacing them with MQ-9A Reaper unmanned aircraft. The Air Force’s 416th Bomb Wing is decommissioned and the Griffiss AFB has been closed by a BRAC decision… their B-52Gs are all parked at the AMARG Boneyard or scrapped. So, this was quite a snapshot of operations from two decades ago, and air operations in the Northeastern US has almost totally changed, except for the fact that Fort Drum and Wheeler Sack AAF are still in operation.

 

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