MARCH 11, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
Cocooned in a small, cozy cockpit washed in late morning sunlight, Maj. John Osterson and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Billy Kilgore flick a few switches at a control panel. The Army Lakota UH-72A the two men are piloting comes alive. Motors switch on, turbines turn and a dozen gauge needles jump to life. Several audible beeps emanate from the cockpit while the pilots run through their final preflight checklists. They focus on stuff like fuel quantity, rotor brakes and oil pressure. You know, the important stuff—the systems pilots want to make sure are 100 percent when they’re hovering at 10,000 feet in a chunk of metal that can careen down the gravity well back to the planet’s surface. A few minutes later, the pumpkin-orange Lakota’s rotors now whir. The fuselage shakes, and the passengers inside—three Americans and two Australians—rattle. Fiddling with their headsets, they watch an airport operations crewman, LaDon Daniels, give the green light for takeoff.
“Departing in five, four, three, two, one,” Kilgore says into his headset on a common band shared with the passengers inside. Osterson shimmies the cockpit cyclic stick, works his foot pedals and opens up the throttle, lifting the helicopter gingerly off the tarmac and sending it strafing east 10 feet off the ground like a giant hover board. Gaining altitude, he puts the helicopter into a slight bank and flies us over ocean-side breakers exploding on the reef, putting distance between the helicopter and the island of Kwajalein opening up below. He points the nose of the Lakota north-northwest, and we head toward Enubuj to begin a loop of the small islets making up U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll.
WEARING MANY HATS
For Kilgore and Osterson, not every workday is like this. Flying, in fact, is only about 10 percent of what the Soldiers do as Army aviators.
“Our primary roles out here are not necessarily to be pilots,” Kilgore says later after the flight. As the USAG-KA director of logistics, Osterson approves contractor flights on Army aircraft or DoD-contracted aircraft, reviews flight schedules, grants visitors’ permission to the land at Bucholz Army Airfield and directs airfield operations. And as the garrison’s aviation safety officer, Kilgore share’s Osterson’s duties and has his own special suite of responsibilities. Working as a technical monitor for the aviation portion of the USAG-KA operations contract, the chief assesses the performance of Berry Aviation, Chugach and PAE, all of which occupy different roles in USAG-KA aviation, from Lakota maintenance projects to local Metroliner flights and inbound and outbound ATI and United flights.
It’s a lot of work behind a desk, Kilgore says matter-of-factly, looking down at the Fitbit on his wrist. “I worked 10 hours the other day and only walked about 3,000 steps. It’s amazing how sedentary you can get.”
It’s one of the reasons the two relish the moments they get to swap their keyboards and computer monitors for cyclic sticks and helicopter windshields. As government flight representatives, the two must be rated aviators, and that means time in the cockpit.
“Flying is the number one thing I like about my job,” Osterson says, and
Kilgore agrees: “It allows me to have interaction with the entire community, not just the military. … I get to see more of the atoll than most people get to see, and I get to see it on a weekly basis, sometimes daily basis. The views are spectacular; they never get old. Even though it’s a very small, local flying area, the views are phenomenal.”
Both pilots have a big place in their hearts for the Black Hawk, a larger airframe they’ve spent much of their time in during their Army careers, especially during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. But they point to the lighter utility Lakota as the best fit for the unique missions and geography of the test site and garrison at Kwajalein Atoll. It may not be as sporty, fast or maneuverable as the Black Hawk, but it gets the job done efficiently and at low cost, they say.
During the hours Kilgore and Osterson set aside to get flight time each week, they use the Lakotas to run out Reagan Test Site staff and supplies to garrison islands like Legan, Illeginni, Gagan and Meck. This is the core purpose of maintaining and flying the Lakota aircraft on Kwajalein Atoll, Kilgore says: “It’s a rapid and efficient means of transportation to the outer islands, to get people to work every day and pick them up at the end of the day. That’s the Lakota’s primary function.”
Our flight on this day is different, though. When distinguished visitors and Department of Defense partners stop by the garrison as Army guests, the pilots may use their flight hours to show the individuals around and give them a lay of the land. Much like the security surveillance reef sweeps the pilots perform before any major military operation on the range, a trip like this around the atoll gives guests dense visual packets of information about the range, garrison and atoll they cannot get by skimming PowerPoint slides.
For today’s guests, two Royal Australian Navy sea patrol experts, a reef swap could be particularly helpful. Assigned by the Australian Navy to help the Marshall Islands ward off illegal fishing vessel incursions into the RMI’s exclusive economic zone, they’re invited by USAG-KA Host Nations Director Maj. Dan Lacaria to use the flight opportunity to see, with their own eyes, the layout and vastness of one of the largest atolls in the world. What they learn on the flight may help them determine where the RMI government might dispatch patrol vessels to counter illegal trawlers coming into the region from Southeast Asia.
HUNDREDS OF BLUES
Back on the flight, we coast over Enubuj (Carlson), and the Aussies stare outside the fuselage of the Lakota, wearing smiles. Kilgore issues a barrage of factoids he’s learned about the atoll and its islands, people and history over his roughly two years of service as a government flight representative at USAG-KA. He explains details of the different reef passes in the area—which passes are suitable for large vessels and which passes may beat up on the hulls of larger boats. Strapped tight onto either bench in the fuselage, the Aussies nod, listening to Kilgore’s tinny voice piping in through their headsets. He continues, telling of past search and rescue efforts involving lost or damaged boats in the area. When the Lakota circles the wreck of the Prinz Eugen, he explains the German heavy cruiser’s history, its role during the 1946 Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons tests and how the 700-foot ship ended up turning turtle in the lagoon only meters off Enubuj. Flying north, the pilots give a cursory description of Reagan Test Site mission assets on Legan and Illeginni and boast of the small islands’ importance to the optical imaging mission at the test range. Old, grass-covered pockmarks on the helipad at Illeginni show signs of intercontinental ballistic missile re-entry vehicle strikes performed on the island many years ago.
Entering waters northwest of Illeginni, Osterson takes the Lakota down to a couple of thousand feet, and the air in the helicopter becomes hotter. “We might see some big fish balls and bird piles today,” Kilgore says, switching the topic of his monologue from RTS capabilities and atoll history to the importance of sport fishing to the garrison community. Peering through dark visors shielding their upper faces from the harsh sunlight piercing the cockpit, Osterson and Kilgore peer off their respective sides of the helicopter down at the navy blue water below. On cue, Osterson spots a swathe of water boiling like mad. Hundreds of birds—black noddies likely—flap their wings, diving and rising, a sign of a feeding frenzy happening below. The pilot slows the Lakota down and puts it into a steep bank, turning up the gravity inside the fuselage and pushing our bodies and bellies into our seats. We circle the boiling water to get a better look, and there it is: Like the tongue of Cthulhu rising from the depths, a massive column of mahi mahi shoots to the water’s agitated surface. Their long, blue-green, metallic-looking bodies glint sunlight, and there are hundreds of them, all feeding on small fish huddled together for protection under the water’s surface.
“That’s a good one,” one of the pilots says in our headsets, releasing us from our banking ellipse and pointing us onward. A gleaming white yacht, is spotted. Osterson slows the Lakota to get a closer look at the catamaran, something the pilots often do when they find boats on the ocean. “Whenever we see boats ocean-side, we tend to just go circle them real quick and make sure they’re OK,” Kilgore explains later. “You never know when you may fly over a vessel out there in the water that may be in distress and may not have radio communication for whatever reason.”
No apparent problems with the vessel crew below, Osterson points the aircraft northeast toward Roi-Namur and puts on the brakes about 15 miles away. We can’t fly over Roi today due to radar operations, Kilgore tells us, and the Aussies look out the starboard window, eyeing the island in the distance. The hulking metal body of the ALTAIR radar is easily discernible—little, white pimple perched atop a small flat green pancake bridled by the Pacific.
“How high can you take these helicopters,” I say into my headset as we turn back southeast. 14,000 feet, Kilgore replies—about three times the cruising altitude of the Metro flights most USAG-KA residents are used to.
“Want to go up?” he asks, and the pilots fly us slowly toward the long, lonely, landless stretch of reef between Gagan and Gellinam known as the Takamushikan Reef. A few silent minutes pass as we ascend. Kilgore points down at the diminishing reef to a splotch of dark residue covering a swathe of reef. “That’s the remains of the RO-60 submarine,” he says. The WWII-era Japanese sub had been attached to the Japanese Navy’s Fourth Fleet at Kwajalein Atoll. A participant of the Dec. 1941 invasion of Wake Atoll, it ran aground onto the reef about 17 miles south of Roi-Namur during its return from Wake. There it lay for decades before enough Japanese and U.S. explosive disposal operations and target practice reduced it to the coal-black skid mark it is today.
The RO-60 blemish shrinks as we continue our ascent, and the air in the fuselage becomes colder.
“We come up here for a little air conditioning,” Kilgore says as we crest 10,000 feet and hold. Looking over my shoulder, I see Osterson has popped open a little side window panel to his left to let in the cool air, which has reachd nearly 10 degrees Celcius cooler than the balmy heat we experienced at lower altitudes.
The whirring of the rotors and the vibrations running through the fuselage do nothing to shake the serenity of the view. Small puffs of low-lying cumulus clouds march slowly westward, casting slight shadows on the flat, featureless ocean sprawling to the horizon. We’re too high to discern any white caps on the water’s surface. A gradient of 100 blues stretches from horizon to zenith.
Circling back south, we leave the Takamushikan Reef and fly onward, passing Gagan, Meck, Gugeegue, the causeway islands and Ebeye. Osterson, Kilgore and Lacaria talk host nations stuff with the Aussies. They touch briefly on the history of the island causeway linking Ebeye to Gugeegue, the recent passing of Leroij Seagull Kabua, the story of Ebeye and more. We motor back to Kwajalein and hover over the lagoon while waiting for an incoming ATI flight to land. From our height, the Boeing 757 looks like a toy model scooting down on a tiny landing strip, a counterpoint to the sheer largeness of everything our eyes took in a short time ago at 10,000 feet. The pilots busy themselves pointing out to the Aussies some of the garrison’s marine assets lining the western rim of the island, and within a few minutes word comes over their radio we’re clear to land. Osterson touches the Lakota down onto the tarmac and shuts the engine down. When the rotors stop moving, the Australian Navy personnel leave with further questions for the Host Nations director, and the pilots turn the Lakota over to the ground crew outside the terminal building. They come inside to chat and grab a cup of coffee.
The mission of the Lakota aircraft on the garrison and the test site is monumental, the pilots explain, and they make it a point to emphasize the importance of the helicopter maintenance crew on USAG-KA, where weather conditions—salt spray, wind, humidity and so on—are 22 times more corrosive than they are on average in the States, they say. “Our helicopters spend more time outdoors than the Metroliners,” Kilgore says. “And so, they’re very labor intensive, very maintenance intensive aircraft. … [The maintenance crew is] working on them every day, whether that’s washing them, waxing them, turning wrenches on them, whatever the case may be. They’re putting in a lot of hours on these birds to keep them flying.” It’s clear the pilots could go on for an hour talking about how grateful they are to the mechanics putting in the legwork on the helicopters. I divert them with another question.
Asked whether they’ll continue to fly well into the future, Osterson says he’s sure of it; whether he transitions to fixed wing airframes or stays with helicopters, only time will tell, he says. I assume the chief will continue flying, essentially forever; I can’t not see it. “You go where the jobs are,” he counters. “I hold my FAA rating, so I can go into the civilian community and fly if I want to. So that is one option. But I have other options as well. You can only fly as long as you keep passing your physical,” he adds, laughing.
Regardless of what lies in their futures, the pilots say they’re grateful for the positions they currently hold. “Nowhere else in the world can we have a job like this as Army aviators,” Kilgore says. “It’s very unique. And it’s very unique in what we do every day. And the type of flying that we do, and just the roles and responsibilities and what we contribute to the garrison and hopefully contribute to and give back to the community by what we do. It’s very rewarding.” Turning away, the pilots head back into the airport base operations office and prep for their next flight set to depart in less than an hour. This time it’s a passenger transport run to the outer RTS islands we flew over only minutes ago.