A rainy day at Dip Flat with the RNZAF was more of an exercise in staying dry than seeing the capabilities of old and new aircraft, writes Tracy Neal.
It was over in about 30 seconds: Lift-off, hover, forward thrust, descent. ‘‘Is that it?’’ the Marlborough Express reporter uttered.
‘‘You, you, you and you – out!’’ Sergeant Ryan Woodley signalled. Four women tumbled out the side of the chopper into the rain as its rotor thwacked just metres above, then lifted the heavy bird off again. Our collective weight and the amount of rain were too much for the chopper’s hovering manoeuvre required of our photographer, so the story goes.
We were in sub-alpine Dip Flat, beneath Rainbow Skifield. These sturdy workhorses, fondly referred to as ‘‘the Huey’’, made their mark in the monsoon seasons of Vietnam.
It was my first, and no doubt last ride in a Bell UH-1 Iroquois; the iconic aircraft that once sounded alarm bells for the enemy in Vietnam and still spells trouble for cannabis growers around our region at harvest time when police spotters are out in force.
The buildup to what was meant to be a mountain flying sortie as part of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Exercise Blackbird at the Defence Force base at Dip Flat, had lasted about three hours, broken by rain squalls strafing the camp and a slice of bacon and egg pie in the mess tent. There is limited communications at Dip Flat, but a satellite dish beamed Freeview television on to a makeshift screen into the lunchtime mess tent. The cartoon Futurama dominated the room.
‘‘We turn on the TV to kill conversation and boost morale,’’ says our furtive lunchtime companion who declined to offer his real name.
The week-long Exercise Blackbird was the first large-scale training exercise for pilots of the new-generation A109 light utility helicopter which will replace the Sioux helicopter with a capability that meets the New Zealand Defence Force’s contemporary needs.
About 98 personnel – close to 4 per cent of the total air force, were camped at the purpose-built military training site this week on special mountain flying training duties. They included five Iroquois crew and two A109 crew, plus support crew including technicians, re-fuellers, medics, and caterers.
It was the first time the air force had been back at the military training area since July last year, and was a chance to showcase to the media a sample of the Ministry of Defence acquisition project.
The A109LUH, nicknamed the Mako for its resemblance to the menacing shark, is a light utility helicopter. The machine can fly at 285kmh and is being used to train pilots and aircrew who will later fly the NH90 medium utility helicopter and SH-2G Seasprite naval helicopter, and perform light helicopter missions.
Few would doubt the value of the Iroquois in providing fundamental flying skills, but if pre-entry to the air force involved a test to do up the safety belt, two of us would have failed.
‘‘It’s a bit of a Rubik’s cube,’’ Woodley says while conducting the pre-flight briefing.
Wing Commander Shaun Clark, Commanding Officer No 3 Squadron, was a good example of the elevated right and left brain acumen needed to fly the Iroquois. While talking about his favourite aircraft, his deft demonstration of the co-ordination needed, using hands to operate the cyclic stick and collective lever and feet to control the anti-torque pedals, suggested it might take the average person three brains to fly the military craft.
The Iroquois, distinctive for the sound made by its two-bladed main rotor as the blades at full speed come close to smashing the sound barrier, was developed by Bell Helicopter to meet the United States Army’s requirement for a medical evacuation and utility helicopter in 1952. It first flew in 1956 and went into production in March 1960. More than 16,000 were produced worldwide, but they are coming to the end of their life in New Zealand.
Clark, who hails from Dipton, was among the air force personnel to arrive at Dip Flat on Monday morning. There is nothing he does not like about the Iroquois, whose exit from the air force fleet by about mid 2014 will also be a turning point in his career. ‘‘I’ve flown a lot of fixed wing but I like the pure flying aspects of the Iroquois. You’re always doing something as a pilot.
‘‘They’re 46 years old now, and not meeting the needs of the air force. It will be a sad day when they are phased out. They have a very evocative sound. All pilots and crewmen love it.’’
Squadron Leader Marcel Scott of Takaka, whose career has taken him to war-torn Afghanistan, also cut his teeth on the Huey, which he still regards as a favourite.
The former Lincoln University student says the 16 years since joining up have "gone by in a flash".
Scott went to Britain in 2006 and learned to fly Chinooks with the RAF, as part of a programme set up to gain experience on a new aircraft with a view to the new helicopters being introduced to New Zealand.
He spent three years in Britain, during which time he completed several tours to Afghanistan, something he described as "pretty exciting".
"It's good to see how training sets you up for a theatre like that. You do feel threatened at times but that's when your training kicks in."
Scott recalls the heat as much as anything.
"It was pretty warm - 47 degrees Celsius at 3000 feet."
Clark says Dip Flat offers a good environment for high altitude flying in difficult conditions. The skills needed for that are consolidated and transferred into other pilot skills areas.
Flight Lieutenant and pilot instructor Hayden Sheard, who is involved in the transition of pilots into the A109, and who also loves the Iroquois, said they were as different as a Holden Kingswood was from a Ferrari.
"It's a massive step up in helicopter technology, " he says of the advanced electronics in the A109. The main purpose of this year's exercise is to develop procedures around mountain- flying the A109. It's our first proper field deployment and it's all about getting to know the chopper."
Clark says Dip Flat is a good training base but it's not the only one used in New Zealand. The air force also trains pilots in Tekapo and parts of Southland, but Dip Flat was accessible, has good infrastructure and high mountains surrounding it.
It was also a good place to train staff to deploy to a field environment.
"It's also good to learn about operating in a remote area with limited facilities and no communications."
Scott says it provides a good opportunity to get away from day-to-day distractions, and to spend time connecting with colleagues. He too is facing a career shift once the Iroquois are phased out.
Squadron Leader Ron Thacker who is helping to train the A109 pilots, says new generation aircraft might be a good recruitment tool for the air force, but the helicopter role was always attractive.
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