Military training site set for $39 million upgrade

Crew Chief Staff Sgt. Jim Wright puts skis on an OH-58 helicopter in the hangar bay of the Colorado Army National Guard’s High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site (HAATS) in Gypsum.

On any given day, Gypsum town manager Jeff Shroll can look up and watch military helicopter pilots doing touch-and-go maneuvers on nearby mountains.

“They’re phenomenal pilots,” he said.

The instructors and facilities of the Colorado Army National Guard’s High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County Regional Airport also are a valued part of the Gypsum community, a relationship further sealed with the recent annexing of the school into the town.

The school also provides a valuable regionwide service through its search and rescue assistance, as recently demonstrated when pilots from the site found and rescued three hunters who spent four cold and snowy nights lost in the mountains of Garfield County.

But most important, the site is a crucial cog in military training in the United States. It’s the Department of Defense’s only aviation school that teaches students what’s known as power management, a skill that improves safety when flying in high or hot conditions or with heavy loads. The lessons taught at the school have been applied by pilots helping fight the war in mountainous Afghanistan and increase the safety of military operations around the world.

Reflecting the school’s national and even international importance — it regularly teaches students from numerous other countries — it’s about to undergo a major upgrade at a new site at the airport. Congress has authorized $39 million that will enable the Army National Guard to build a 100,000-square-foot school featuring new hangar, classroom, lodging and other facilities.

The project won’t result in a program expansion, said Maj. Joshua Day, the school’s commander. It will continue to train about 420 pilots a year.

“We’re building this building so we can do our job the way we need to do it,” Day said.

The site’s history dates back to the mid-1980s, and it became a federal training location in 1991. Its infrastructure hasn’t kept up, but that’s about to change.

Construction of four hangar bays will enable CH-47 helicopters to be worked on inside; currently maintenance on them must be done outside. The new facility will have five classrooms, compared to one now, and those rooms will offer views of the mountains where students will practice their skills.

The existing lodging consists of seven dorm-style beds; plans are to increase that to 34 hotel-style beds offering bathrooms with showers in each room. Adequate office space also will be a part of a training site some six to eight times the size of the current one, said Bob Datson, the design and project-management branch chief working for the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

The site will pursue green building practices, such as installing water-saving fixtures, using daylight to illuminate interior spaces and procuring materials locally where possible.

“The Colorado Army National Guard is incredibly excited about this,” Datson said. “There is no higher priority for us.

“It’s going to be a very well-thought-out, very well-designed, very well-constructed project that hopefully meets its world-class mission,” Datson said. “The mission is just outstanding. The facility has lagged behind for decades, and finally we have the opportunity with these federal dollars to catch up with where that mission is.”

It couldn’t have come at a better time for the recession-ravaged local economy. Over a period of 18–24 months, daily construction employment sometimes will top 100 workers on site, Datson said.

The bidding process is ongoing, and a contractor is to be selected in December, with work possibly beginning in February or March.

Shroll said the short-term construction work will provide “a nice shot in the arm” for the local economy. But even more important is that it will result in what he said probably will be the prime site worldwide for high-altitude helicopter training.

“We’re pretty excited about what that brings in,” he said.

Day said the school usually teaches about 50 percent Army pilots and 30 percent National Guard pilots from not just Colorado, but all U.S. states and territories.

“The remainder is kind of split up between the other branches of service and other nations’ military,” he said.

NATO makes use of the site. Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway are the source of a lot of foreign students, and others have come from places such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, Day said.

He said the training the school provides is crucial for helping pilots deal with mountainous terrain and wind conditions in places such as Afghanistan. It also helps them learn to manage available power wherever and whenever heat, load weight or altitude affect lift and engine performance. Improper power management has caused military accidents in the past, he said.

The school has local landing zones ranging from 6,500 to 12,200 feet, and from pinnacles to ridges to mountaintops. Pilots sometimes fly over 14,000-foot mountains. Day said that in fulfilling the school’s secondary mission of search and rescue, it averages about 20 such operations a year in local mountains.

Such community service has further strengthened the school’s ties with local communities. It currently has 28 personnel and is authorized to have 36, and Shroll said the staff members are active in area communities and have kids in local schools.

“They’re great neighbors,” he said of the school and its staff. “We’re very proud to have them here.”


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