Aircrew: Day in the life

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Dillon Johnston
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Arriving at the squadron building before the sun has poked above the mountains in the distance, a crew of three begins preparations for a day of helicopter flying.

Making calls to arrange refueling support and flight plans, the two pilots busily work to ensure the mission is able to take off on time. Meanwhile, the crew's special missions aviator makes preparations for the flight to include pre-flight checks on the chopper, as well as checking over the manifest of those who will be flying that mission.

For this tight-knit group, all the preparation and attention to detail pays off ten-fold, as the joy of being in the air is compensation enough.

"(My favorite thing) is flying, hands down," said Capt. RJ Bergman, 40th Helicopter Squadron rescue pilot. "It's what we enjoy doing, and everything else is just so we can fly."

And flying is exactly what was on the menu that morning. An all-day sortie was ahead of them, covering a large portion of the missile field as part of a launch facility security sweep with Tactical Response Force Airmen from the 341st Security Forces Group.

"We, as well as the security forces members, are responsible for the security of the entire missile field," said 1st Lt. Greg Johnston, 40th HS rescue pilot. "We are that forward presence, letting people know we are out there and watching."

This presence in the field is paramount in deterring those who would seek to disrupt or attack the launch facilities.

"Sometimes it's kind of hard to quantify what we do, because we go out there and day-to-day we never expect something to be going on," Bergman said. "But it's hard to say how many (incidents) may have been prevented just by helicopters and security forces being out patrolling the missile field."

In order to complete these sorts of missions, which are normally low-level flying, the entire crew needs to be working in conjunction with one another.

"We have a pretty good view up front, but I can't tell what is directly below the helicopter," Johnston said. "So crew resource management comes into play with basically every flight we do, especially where we are yanking and banking pretty close to the ground."

Utilizing each other's strengths, the crew was able to effectively survey and clear launch facilities as they made their way east, toward the Lewistown Municipal Airport in Lewistown, Montana, for a quick break for lunch and fuel. Trading in their UH-1N Huey for a loaner car provided by the airport, a less-than-mint 1986 Oldsmobile nicknamed the "Brougham," the crew climbed in and headed for town for some much needed nourishment.

Arriving at a small burger restaurant, they grabbed some food, unwound and talked about their personal lives, work struggles and joked with each other like it was any other day. This level of camaraderie is something Staff Sgt. Ryan Oliver believes is essential in the flying world.

"There's so much work to do, and there are so few people, but we all are happy," said the special missions aviator. "It's not a big deal to work a 12-hour day, because you just get to hang out with these guys all the time; you work with them and they're right there with you, always with a smile on their face. It's a good working environment."

"Obviously we haven't been hard enough on you!" Bergman chimed in jokingly.

Finishing their meal, the crew climbed back into the Brougham and headed back to the airfield. Just barely making it over the hill leading to the Huey, the car sputtered and muscled its way there and was traded back in for their chopper.

With a fresh tank of fuel, it was time to complete the last leg of the mission before heading back to base. Continuing through the mountainous terrain on an unusually clear and calm day, the helicopter made its way from LF to LF, occasionally buzzing over missile alert facilities when they were close by.

After securing the last LF on the roster for that day, Johnston and Bergman took a scenic route back to base, taking in the beauty of the wilderness in the missile field. Arriving back at base with almost a half an hour of fuel left, the crew decided it was a perfect opportunity to practice their approaches and hovers, as well as takeoff procedures.

"I wanted to get a lot of approach work done," Johnston said. "I haven't really been able to do as much (of that) with the kinds of missions I've been flying lately.

"It was one thing I felt like I was getting kind of weak on, so I was making sure I was focusing on that today, and I came out of the flight like, 'Yep I got that done, I feel like I'm better than I was when I got in the aircraft this morning,'" he continued.

Once they felt they had gotten in enough training, the crew put the chopper down on the landing pad and headed back inside the squadron building to return their gear and debrief. With a successful flight under their belts, they went over what went right, what went wrong, and how to improve for future missions.

Beyond the joy of a job well done, the crew all agreed the best part of the day was simply working with each other and strengthening their interoperability and bonds as brothers in arms.

"My whole purpose of becoming a (special missions aviator) was for this community," Oliver said. "Hanging out with some good guys and spending some time with them is always a good thing."

The pilots both nodded in affirmation, with Bergman adding, "We are incredibly lucky to have a job we love and a job not many people get to do. They give us a helicopter and we have a 14,000 square mile missile field that we get to patrol, so we get to see some pretty awesome things and do some pretty awesome flying. I'm honestly just thankful for that."

With more than 20 LFs secured over the course of the day and the sun beginning to dip below the horizon, the crew headed out for some rest before getting up and doing it all again the next day.