FORT BLISS, Texas — It’s not just a simple flight from Montana to Kuwait.
There are steps.
Training procedures, efficiency tests and, more importantly, extensive training.
The Montana Army National Guard's 1-189th General Support Aviation Battalion, which deployed from Helena on March 23, has been training in the desert of Texas for the past several weeks. And 60 of those soldiers have recently left Fort Hood, which is in central Texas, to get a hands-on, nitty-gritty feel for the real thing.
They are stationed at Fort Bliss — a 60 mile swath of land that mimics the terrain of Kuwait and Iraq. Only as Maj. Kyle Campbell put it, “there’s no vegetation out there. It’s like Kansas made out of sand.”
The pilots have to experience what the army calls a “brown-out.” Essentially it’s like being in a snow storm, but instead, it’s a helicopter-created sandstorm.
“The best way to land (in a brown-out) is to have the doors off and you pick a spot below your leg,” said the battalion commander Lt. Col. Jamie Wilkins. “It doesn’t work out perfect every time.”
But that’s why they’re here, honing in their skills.
The pilots, crew members and mechanics are working eight hours a day, in darkness and light.
The wrath of the sand is apparent everywhere. On the rotors, in the cockpit, even in the lounge, where there’s sand on the counters.
The sand isn’t just annoying, it’s also corrosive.
“We’ll take in sand in the intake that goes through the compression or turbine section. That sand will tend to wear those blades … if you let that go over a period of time those blades will lose their efficiency,” said CW4 John Russell.
And that’s something crews do not want. Let’s just say, the turbine section is the heart of the engine.
But the army has slowed down the intake of sand with an “inlet barrier filter,” a very large, efficient air filter that’s similar to the filter found in your car.
They also clean the engine with a process called a “cold flush;" where they force water through it.
The blades themselves are also prone to the wear and tear of the desert. Every couple of days, crew members have to paint them.
“Overall, it’s hard on the airframes,” said Wilkins.
And on the crew.
The roughly 150 crew members have been in and out of the desert, improving their endurance and skills to serve as the support battalion for the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade.
Under the brigade, they will be joined by an air assault company from Alaska and a medivac company from Indiana and Kentucky.
The primary role of the 1-189th battalion, also known as the Task Force Vigilante, will be transporting people, assisting medivac missions, moving supplies and partaking in overseas work.
They will be overseas for nine months.
Here in Texas, they will be training for a total of two months.
Last time Wilkins deployed, he was away from home for 18 months.
“We’ve resourced a lot on the aviation side … all the crew members have been through a lot of training in the past 12 months,” said Wilkins, explaining why the projected deployment timeframe has been cut nearly in half.
Maj. Tim Crowe also explained that the boot on ground time went from 12 months to nine months, which eliminated the midtour leave for the soldiers.
The timeframe decrease has happened in large because of increased training at the home bases, Crowe said.
This enables people to stay at home longer, and away for shorter.
But for now, even a nine-month tour in Kuwait involves two months of sand in Texas.