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Minnesota National Guard
St. Cloud Guard base supports helicopter training

Inside the large, airy hangar sits a mammoth of a machine At 51 feet long and with two large rotors and three 60-foot diameter blades, the Chinook easily dwarfs the Black Hawk across from it

Several flight engineers climb over the long body, meticulously looking over the helicopter

It's a warm July day and the sky is perfectly clear The temperature is in the upper 70s

It's a good day to fly

Capt Jon Sarawanski and Capt Mathieu Bergeron of Canadian Forces will be flying the Chinook with Minnesota National Guard flight instructor Maj Michael Barker The Canadians are preparing to go to Afghanistan and they have come to the Minnesota National Guard Aviation Support Facility in St Cloud to do some typical pre-deployment flight training All of Canada's military helicopters are in Afghanistan, so they train here

It's only recently that such training could take place in St Cloud The Guard facility for helicopter training and maintenance opened in March near St Cloud Regional Airport The public gets to see it Wednesday

On this day the Canadians will do some combat maneuvers and external load training Sarawanski and Bergeron will be flying one of two Chinooks going out

A small John Deere tractor pulls up and hooks to the front of the Chinook Carefully the tractor leads the aircraft from the hangar, onto the parking pads on the other side of the building

The crew follows into the sunshine

There are three pilots and two flight engineers on this flight Everyone gathers inside the Chinook's cavernous interior There's plenty of room; the helicopter is used for troop transport and has been known to hold up to 71 people

Sarawanski goes over the flight plan The Chinook will head west to practice combat maneuvers before heading north to Camp Ripley During the flight the crew will watch for low-flying aircraft such as crop dusters

The crew has some words of wisdom for two visitors Don't worry about throwing up, it happens to everyone There are bags socked away throughout the aircraft If you can't reach them, puke down your shirt so it doesn't end up on the person sitting next to you

The pilots get into position and start going through a preflight checklist that's as thick as a novel The pilots check gauges and test the equipment In front of them is a large board filled with buttons, levers and dials They seem to go over each one as they make their way through the checklist

After several minutes, the pilots start the engines and rotors start to rotate Despite ear protection, the sound is deafening

The helicopter sits while the engines warm up Sarawanski gestures to the large panel of buttons and levers in front of him His words are drowned out by the motors but his gestures are clear: Don't touch

The helicopter sits in the middle of the landing space, its rotors spinning fast The whole aircraft begins to shake as the rotors pick up speed

"It's nothing to be alarmed about," Sarawanski said

Sarawanski taxis the helicopter over to an open field Slowly, nearly effortlessly, it lifts It stops for a few moments before continuing its ascent The ground below becomes a patchwork of farmland dotted with houses and intersected by roads

The helicopter heads west so the crew can try out some combat maneuvers In the front window the horizon twists from side to side, up and down The helicopter goes nose down and then pulls up again

It's not for weak stomachs

Air flows through the cabin, alternating between stifling hot and refreshingly cool depending on the direction the helicopter takes Sometimes the smell of fuel fills the air

Barker offers advice to Sarawanski on what to pay attention to in Afghanistan and how the flight would be different half a world away

After several minutes of maneuvers, Sarawanski turns the helicopter north and heads to Camp Ripley It's a short flight and soon the fort's familiar red and white checkered water towers are in sight

The Chinook lands softly in an open field as its sister aircraft conducts some training with a sling-loaded truck The Chinook takes the truck several minutes away so its sister can retrieve it

The helicopter Sarawanski is flying lifts off and shortly comes to a clearing in the woods where the truck sits The pilot expertly lowers the Chinook, hovering just above the truck The rotors whip the trees and the rush of air pushes the grass flat against the ground

The pilots had mentioned earlier how different it is to hover in Minnesota compared with Iraq or Afghanistan, where they have to worry about sand whipping up and limiting visibility

But Minnesota offers its own natural resource to train for such conditions: snow When a helicopter hovers above a snow field, the snow acts much the same as sand

"But snow eventually blows away," Chief Warrant Officer Paul Adamson said With sand, the cloud will just get bigger

The Chinook hovers between the trees There will be times while deployed that pilots have to make a landing with just 15 feet of clearance

Flight Engineer Staff Sgt Bob Schuety opens up a trap door in the bottom of the helicopter He's strapped to the interior walls of the aircraft and grabs a long pole that is also attached

He gets down and crawls halfway through the trap door, his legs splayed across the helicopter floor He will attach the sling load to the Chinook

Schuety uses the pole, which has a hook at its end, to pull the sling and try to put it in the hook under the helicopter

It takes several tries to get it right Schuety and Sarawanski keep in constant contact the entire time, so they know what the other is doing Finally the sling catches and the hook locks into place

The Chinook rises again, this time with the truck dangling below In the Chinook, the extra weight is hardly noticed

The truck is moved back to a cluster of buildings near the main part of the camp Once again it is placed on the ground and Schuety unhooks the sling

Training completed successfully, the crew lands for a short break The helicopters are refueled, and this time Bergeron is at the helm

A light rain begins to fall as the crew prepares for takeoff The flight engineers stand outside the helicopter and watch as the rotors power up, making sure everything is in order They hold small fire extinguishers that are meant for people who are on fire, not the helicopter It's just another safety precaution in a long list of them

The engineers get back on as the helicopter prepares to take off Soldiers at the camp come out of buildings to see the Chinook leave, some with their cameras out

As the helicopter ascends a passing thunderstorm can be seen to the east An opaque cloud hangs over the area, obscuring the buildings on the ground

The Chinook goes around the cloud and soon is in the sunshine again It weaves up and down as Bergeron practices several more combat maneuvers Fresh air and sun fill the cabin

It's a good day to fly

Story by Kari Petrie - kpetrie@stcloudtimescom
Article source: www.SCTimes.com

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