A Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk descends on Camp Shelby Joint Force Training Center's Hagler Field Sept. 9, 2017. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army
As Hurricane Irma threatened to travel up the west coast of Florida earlier this month, Alabama’s Fort Rucker needed to make a decision. Keeping its fleet on the ramp was not an option, but it needed to be ready to fly again in the shortest amount of time.
“Every two weeks, I have a class of brand new flight school students… I tell them three things about safety: Prevent accidents before they happen; make risk decisions at the right level; and never accept unnecessary risk,” Col. Chad E. Chasteen, commander of the 110th Aviation Brigade, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Fort Rucker, told R&WI. “Aviation is inherently risky, but if we apply those three rules, we can keep the force safe. And those three rules were applied on Sept. 6 when we had to decide what we were going to do to prepare for this storm.”
The hangar at Fort Rucker is big enough to house the entire fleet, and can withstand 100-kt winds. But Chasteen explained that “folding” the aircraft, or taking the blades off the helicopters to make them fit in the hangar, made putting the entire fleet in the hangar during the hurricane impractical. As he said, Fort Rucker is the U.S. Army’s only unit that trains more than 4,000 aviators from 20 countries each year. The sooner For Rucker can get back to performing its duties, the better.
“It could take several days for us to unfold them all, do all the maintenance actions that are required,” Chasteen said. “It would delay returning to the mission.”
So then, decision was made to evacuate a portion of the fleet, and reassess the situation the following day. If moved, the aircraft do not need to be folded, which avoids downtime for maintenance. Sept. 8, after the partial-evacuation, Fort Rucker “took a tactical pause,” as Chasteen said. Analysing the storm once again, it was determined that the storm was tracking further west than originally forecasted, and the winds were going to be severe, but not as severe as everyone thought. The decision was made to evacuate even more aircraft and move them further west, instead of north, where some of the aircraft had already moved. Chasteen said Fort Rucker ended up putting 2/3 of its fleet in the hangar, which was done by the Aviation Center Logistics Command. The rest were flown to Tennessee, Mississippi and Northern Alabama.
“This was absolutely the right decision to make, given what we knew,” Chasteen said. “And then as the situation developed and we determined that the storm was going to be significant but not as severe, exceeding the limits of our hangars, we continued the decision cycle every day. These were long days of planning an execution, involving multiple agencies.”
There was also a strategy for which aircraft were evacuated, and which aircraft were put in the hangar. The goal was to resume training operations as soon as possible. While moving aircraft avoided the downtime associated with removing the blades, it meant that the aircraft could not simply be rolled out of the hangar once the storm passed. Chasteen said the greatest volume of flights at Fort Rucker occur on smaller aircraft, like the Bell Helicopter TH-67 Creek and Eurocopter UH-72 Lakota. The larger, more advanced aircraft, like the Boeing AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook, are flown later in training. Chasteen said some Apaches and some Chinooks were evacuated during the storm, and many of the smaller aircraft were put in the hangar. He said it was the best combination for Fort Rucker, because it avoided folding the larger aircraft and allowed the mission to resume quickly. By Sept. 12, the evacuated aircraft had started to return.
Chasteen said after Hurricane Irma passed, Fort Rucker’s fleet was 100% intact.
“If we had left all those aircraft out on the ramp, we would have absolutely had significant damage, just based on the wind from Irma,” Chasteen said. “Even though it wasn’t the full 185 [mph winds], if we had left them outside, we would have had some serious damage, most likely in the millions [of dollars]. I’m glad we made the decisions we did and we moved them offsite and were able to return to training. “
Fort Rucker was training Sept. 13.