Va. Guard aviators add training value, build partnership with Special Forces troops

Virginia Army National Guard aviators from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment conduct fast rope training May 9, 2015, with Soldiers from the West Virginia National Guard’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group at Fort Pickett, Va. The fast rope training was in preparation for a night raid conducted at Fort Pickett’s urban operations training site. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Virginia Army National Guard aviators from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment conduct fast rope training May 9, 2015, with Soldiers from the West Virginia National Guard’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group at Fort Pickett, Va. The fast rope training was in preparation for a night raid conducted at Fort Pickett’s urban operations training site. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

FORT PICKETT, Va. – Virginia Army National Guard aviators held a stable hover for Special Forces Soldiers May 9, 2015, as they fast roped into Fort Pickett’s urban operations training site from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during a night training raid. The exercise was part of a weeklong annual training period for the operators and a continuation of the ongoing partnership between the two units.

The relationship started nearly a year and a half ago when teams from the West Virginia National Guard’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) needed aviation support in order to complete some of their required training missions. The training they needed to complete required specialized equipment, like the bar used for the Fast Rope Insertion/Extraction System, or FRIES. It wasn’t readily available from aviation assets in their own state, so the men of the 19th SFG(A) looked elsewhere and found the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, outfitted with both the required equipment and a willingness to concoct adaptive, effective and collaborative training plans.

“I don’t know who they called first, but they called us one day,” explained 1st Sgt. Kevin Vineyard, the first sergeant for Company A, 2-224th and one of the masterminds behind the training.

From there, the two units started planning their training, learning the capabilities and limitations both possessed. Their first training event together was in November 2013 and the May exercise was their fifth collaboration. Most of their training together took place at Camp Dawson, W.V., but they also completed a highly publicized mission in Buffalo, N.Y.

Master Sgt. Mike, a team sergeant and FRIES master with the 19th SFG(A), cited Vineyard as the main impetus for the collaborative training and said, “The Virginia National Guard has been the best air asset we’ve worked with so far.”

For the May mission, the planning phase was short and easy, according to Vineyard. Including the same Soldiers in each exercise means they come to each successive mission with a historical base of knowledge to draw upon and after more than a year of working together, the aircrew and SF team are on a familiar, first name basis.

“I know what their capabilities are and they know what our capabilities are,” Master Sgt. Mike said on the benefit of using the same aircrew.

In the special operations community, fast roping is not only one of their required skills, but it’s also a preferred method for quickly getting Soldiers on an objective.

“The great thing about fast roping is it puts you into the closest proximity to the target, so as soon as you’re lined up with the target, you’re dropping your ropes and you already see the enemy and you’re pretty much already engaged with him,” Master Sgt. Mike said.

To fast rope onto an objective, a FRIES-equipped helicopter comes to a hover, then a thick, braided rope that’s attached inside the helicopter with a redundant fastening system and safety pins is dropped and the Soldiers slide down it and complete their mission. It’s used when landing a helicopter is either impossible due to terrain or when battlefield hazards make it too dangerous for the bird to land. After the final Soldier is down the rope, the aircrew releases it and it’s eventually picked up after the Soldiers on the ground have completed their mission.

“It’s a really good way to get a bunch of Soldiers on a target really fast,” said Master Sgt. Mike.

For the May mission, the detachment fast roped onto a three story structure. This required precision from the aviators as a missed objective meant a multi-story tumble for the men sliding down the rope.

“There’s no auto pilot,” explained Chief Warrant Officer 3 Geoff Mann, one of the pilots on the mission. “The most important job from my side, as a front-seater, is to keep that aircraft as still as we can, as long as we can until the guys are off the ropes and to make sure they aren’t falling off the building.”

Both Mann and Vineyard explained that the skills required of the aircrew for operations such as this one are considered advanced.

“This is like the graduate level stuff,” Mann said. He explained that the crew members picked for fast rope missions tend to have more experience and that the opportunity to train with the 19th SFG(A) acts as a motivator for the newer pilots. Because the opportunity to conduct such training is rare, there are also only a few crew chiefs and pilots certified and current in fast rope operations.

“It gives our air crews a goal,” Vineyard explained. He said the new pilots come in, anxious to participate in the training, and are reminded to focus on the basics, to perfect their hover ability before they get the chance to participate in operations like this one.

The missions conducted by the Virginia Guard aviators and the Special Forces Soldiers have continued to evolve since its inception, with successive missions growing in complexity. So too does each mission start with the basics before the Soldiers advance to the final phase of an operation.

Maj. Chris, commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, (Airborne) explained that his Soldiers first fast rope from a rappel tower before moving to the helicopter for elevators – where the helicopter simply goes up and down – to fast rope first from a low altitude and then from a higher altitude to make sure everyone involved is comfortable and aware of the sequence of events.

“All these guys are qualified,” Maj. Chris said, “but for safety considerations and the training value, we like to start with the elevators.”

Safety, for all the men involved, is “absolute paramount,” according to Vineyard. He explained that when inserting small teams onto an objective, ensuring that each Soldier on the team lands on the ground safely with all their equipment intact and functional is key to the Soldiers on the ground successfully completing their mission. If a weapon is damaged, a flashlight dropped or a leg broken, the fighting power of the team is significantly altered.

Mann explained that the safety concerns are part of the reason why the crews are so experienced and said that, “Experience, it’s a risk mitagator too, if you’ve got someone with several thousand hours versus several hundred hours.”

Once the rehearsals were complete and night began to fall, the mission was executed. The Special Forces team boarded the helicopter, flew across Fort Pickett to their objective, deployed the ropes, fast roped in and completed their mission.

After more than a year and five training iterations, both sides had nothing but praise for the other.

“The professionalism and their willingness to work with us and to make any adjustments or anything that we need – it’s just been extremely pleasant, to say the least,” Maj. Chris said. “We got to know the Soldiers and we definitely plan on using this aircraft and this crew as much as we can in the future.“

Vineyard praised the men of the 19th SFG(A) for their focus and dedication to mission accomplishment and Master Sgt. Mike said, “They’re pushing themselves just like we’re pushing ourselves and we’re growing together. They’re experts are getting better, just like our experts are getting better.”

For operational security reasons, Soldiers of the 19th SFG (A) are identified by rank and first name only.