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Soldiers conduct air assault training
Sling-loading Howitzer
Soldiers assigned to the 1/76th FA fly in the UH-60L Blackhawk with their 105mm Howitzer sling-loaded under the aircraft. - photo by Randy C.Murray

Twenty-two artillerymen with the 1st Battalion, 76th Field Artillery, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division conducted air assault training on the Vanguard Brigade’s compound Friday morning.

According to Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez, the all-day training exercise prepared the soldiers for training later this summer with cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The gunnery sergeant said the training began with rigging their M119A2 Howitzer and a large pallet of simulated 105mm rounds for sling loading. He said noncommissioned officers with air assault experience supervised the equipment rigging, which would be inspected by crewmen from the UH-60L Blackhawks. The equipment and personnel later be transported by the UH-60L’s later that morning.

“(Our battalion) is the only light artillery unit in the 3rd ID,” Rodriguez said. “We’re more maneuverable than the big guns. We can go anywhere... This training is extremely important. Air assault is a fast way to get the guns onto the battlefield. Once the guns are set down and de-rigged, we can have the first rounds heading downrange in just a few minutes.”

Rodriguez said the weather would play a big part in the day’s training. Although the sky was clear and blue, winds could get up to 30 mph, he said. If the winds got too high, he said they would discontinue operations. He said sling load operations are inherently dangerous so his NCOs will supervise their troops closely to ensure safety of all personnel, including junior enlisted soldiers.

Rodriguez’ platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Skeen, said many of their younger troops have not deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and some have not even flown in Blackhawk. He said his soldiers have at least had live-fire experience. The unit conducted live-fire operations April 28-May 2, he said.

Skeen said the first thing his troops would do when the Blackhawks arrived from Hunter Army Airfield was practice loading and unloading the aircraft. As the words were leaving his lips, two helicopters could be heard approaching the training area. Seconds later, the aircraft were at treetop level, preparing to land. One bird landed near Skeen’s platoon; the other landed 100 meters away near another platoon.

The Blackhawks’s lift rotors and tail rotors continued to turn, sending huge gusts of wind over the soldiers, who stood in a platoon formation at ease. Finally, the twin-engines were shut down then two crew members approached the formation to deliver a thorough safety briefing. Seven soldiers at a time were instructed to load the aircraft, climbing into the front and back bench seats then connecting their safety straps. Moments later, they were instructed to climb out of the aircraft and get into the prone position on the ground with each soldier getting as close as possible to his buddy.

After practicing loading and loading with the aircraft with engines off, they then practice doing it with engines running and blades turning. Private First Class Douglas Powell, a radio-telephone operator said he was excited about the training and looking forward to his first flight in a Blackhawk.

“I think this (training) is a great opportunity,” said Powell. “It’s what I came in the Army for.”
Powell, who came in the Army only 14 months ago, admitted he hasn’t flown in a Blackhawk or deployed, but he wants to get all the training he can should he ever have to deploy. Friday’s air assault training was a good start toward preparing the young soldier for his military career.

The next time seven soldiers boarded the churning helicopter, the crew chief hopped aboard with them, his feet hanging over the edge. The Blackhawk lifted off slowly, gaining speed with altitude. The first chalk was taken out over a small lake in the Vanguard compound then around to the gun already rigged and ready for sling-loading.

Soldiers on the ground climbed on the gun and held up a large, looped cable as the helicopter descended over them. As the bird hovered a few feet above them, the cable was guided into a large slot on the underside of the aircraft and grabbed by the crew chief, who locked it in place. The soldiers on the ground moved to safety as the aircraft lifted the gun and passengers to tree-height before lowering the gun back to the ground and releasing the cable.

The same process was followed to sling-load the bundle of simulated 105mm rounds. After lunch, the crews followed the same procedure, only they and their gun were transported to an off-compound site where the gun was de-rigged for a simulated live-fire exercise.

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