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April 20, 2014

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The Military:

Helicopter pilot school at Nellis on hold so trainers can fly in Afghanistan

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LAS VEGAS SUN file

A Pave Hawk helicopter performs a demonstration north of Las Vegas in 2002. Pilots of the helicopter, used in 421 missions in Afghanistan this year, are in great demand as combat ramps up in that nation.

Beyond the Sun

The war in Afghanistan is stretching the ranks of the Air Force’s search-and-rescue helicopter pilots so thin, the service had to cancel an advanced training course so it could send the instructors to the front lines.

The Pave Hawk helicopter course at the Air Force’s prestigious Weapons School, which operates at Nellis Air Force Base, is the only class in the branch that is temporarily on hold because of more pressing needs overseas.

The personnel affected may seem small — three Pave Hawk helicopter crews — but the development speaks loudly about the growing demand for those pilots in Afghanistan.

“The military doesn’t like to disrupt classes. It sends people through the normal routine of training even during wartime, so this indicates it’s a non-trivial issue,” said Jeffrey White, a former longtime military-capabilities analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The Weapons School is akin to graduate-level schooling and teaches advanced skills in weapons and tactics for pilots of a variety of aircraft. Pave Hawk crews fly search-and-rescue and medevac missions, and the pilots who come for additional training at Nellis are already among the most advanced.

The Air Force considers the Weapons School instructors a solid-gold asset, according to John Poffenbarger, the logistics support contractor for the service’s Pave Hawk helicopters.

The military is expecting an increase in combat missions in Afghanistan — and therefore the demand for rescue operations — as a result of the insurgency’s tightening grip, the surge of 17,000 U.S. troops in the area and the return of warmer weather that marks an end to the relative lull in action dictated by the brutal winters.

Additionally, the military wants more Pave Hawk crews in Afghanistan to reduce medevac response times, which were running 90 minutes. Those have recently dropped to an hour, according to the Air Force.

The helicopters have flown 421 missions in Afghanistan this year, rescuing 96 people, the Air Force reported. Search-and-rescue crews respond to an average of five or six calls a day, and that number will likely increase as the number of troops in the country continues to increase.

The Air Force is tapping into its pool of instructor pilots not just because they are the most advanced pilots but also because the ranks of pilots are only 87 percent filled at a time when mission needs are increasing, the military says.

Combat search-and-rescue missions are conducted primarily by the Air Force, partly because the Pave Hawk can fly in less light than the Army’s search-and-rescue helicopters.

Depending on the level of combat in Afghanistan, the Pave Hawk advanced-training pilot classes at Nellis may resume this summer, according to Col. Scott A. Kindsvater, commandant of the Weapons School.

Shuffling assets as it did with the instructor pilots could be a more common occurrence for the Air Force, White said.

With Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ “emphasis on the Air Force to become more relevant to irregular warfare,” White said, “this is the kind of stuff we’re going to see.”

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