Va. Guard howitzers fly over Fort Pickett

Virginia National Guard Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conduct sling load operations with their M119 howitzers April 11, 2015, at Fort Pickett, Va., with aviation crews of 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment. The event took months of planning and practice for the field artillerymen. For each iteration, the field artillerymen loaded onto the Uh-60 Black Hawk helicopter before ground crews linked the howitzer to the helicopter. After that, they flew across Fort Pickett, unlinked the howitzer and unloaded the gun crews who conducted crew drills once back on the ground. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia National Guard Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conduct sling load operations with their M119 howitzers April 11, 2015, at Fort Pickett, Va., with aviation crews of 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment. The event took months of planning and practice for the field artillerymen. For each iteration, the field artillerymen loaded onto the Uh-60 Black Hawk helicopter before ground crews linked the howitzer to the helicopter. After that, they flew across Fort Pickett, unlinked the howitzer and unloaded the gun crews who conducted crew drills once back on the ground. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

FORT PICKETT, Va. – Virginia National Guard field artillerymen of the Hampton-based 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team hooked their M119A2 howitzers to Virginia National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters as part of a gun raid training exercise held April 11, 2015, at Fort Pickett, Va.

A gun raid mission enables the field artillery to provide indirect fire support to the manuever element and is a capability this direct-support artillery battalion is required to provide to their maneuver unit, the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, according to Maj. Charles Reinhold, the executive officer for the artillery battalion. A gun raid allows one or more gun sections, and their howitzers, to move from one location to another expeditiously in order to engage and ultimately destroy the enemy, and, if needed, allows them to quickly leave a fighting position.

“Say we have a specific area we need to hit,” explained Spc. Andy Howry, assigned to a gun crew in Battery B. “We can pick up the howitzer, take it over there, drop it, shoot some artillery downrange, destroy the enemy and then get out of there real quick.”

For several hours the Black Hawks, from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, buzzed over the skies of Fort Pickett, carrying crews and cannons from pickup zones to landing zones.

Getting to the day of the exercise and the execution of the gun raid took months of planning.

Virginia National Guard Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conduct sling load operations with their M119 howitzers April 11, 2015, at Fort Pickett, Va., with aviation crews of 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment. The event took months of planning and practice for the field artillerymen. For each iteration, the field artillerymen loaded onto the Uh-60 Black Hawk helicopter before ground crews linked the howitzer to the helicopter. After that, they flew across Fort Pickett, unlinked the howitzer and unloaded the gun crews who conducted crew drills once back on the ground. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia National Guard Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team conduct sling load operations with their M119 howitzers April 11, 2015, at Fort Pickett, Va., with aviation crews of 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment.(Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Reinhold explained that first the leadership and Soldiers looked at doctrine – U.S. Army field manuals, training manuals and regulations – to see what exactly was required of the unit and to ensure not only proficiency on the artillery pieces, but also on the role of the helicopters. He said their standing operating procedure spelled out what was required of each Soldier in order for complete the training successfully.

“Once they mastered the written material, we started walking though the training evolution and making sure every Soldier knows what they’re supposed to do, when they’re supposed to do it,” Reinhold said. He also said it was important for everyone to know what wrong looked like as well, so that “every Soldier, if they see something going wrong, can call an end to the operation before someone gets hurt or before the equipment gets broken.”

The Soldiers practiced their gun crew drills for months, making sure they knew exactly what was to be expected of them on the day of the exercise. Those assigned to work with the sling load took classes on how to properly and safely hook up the howitzer, practicing both at home station and in the field. During their March drill period, the Soldiers even used a crane to pick up the howitzers during a final practice session before the main event.

On the day of the exercise, the Artillerymen were out early putting their howitzers in place and checking and rechecking the sling load to make sure it was properly done. One of the pilots also checked the howitzers and then they took to the skies, first picking up the gun crew and then the gun.

“For me, for my first experience, it went wonderfully,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Barley, a gunnery sergeant in Battery A who hooked up the howitzer to the aircraft. “I was nervous at first. After being in the service all these years, that’s my first time ever doing it and it was very exciting.”

Reinhold said the most important thing he hoped the Soldiers would take away from the event was the importance of teamwork.

“When you have training like this, it requires every member of the team to know their job and to be able to work together,” Reinhold said. “The Soldiers are engaged, they’re working hard, they have to think and they have to come together as a team.”

Photos: Howitzers fly through the skies at Fort Pickett -April 11, 2015