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U.S. Army UH-72A - High Desert "Dust Off"

Posted 9 years 241 days ago ago by Admin



by Lyn Burks

The US Army National Training Center (NTC) located at Fort Irwin, California, provides realistic joint and combined training at battalion task force and brigade levels. With over 1,000 square miles of terrain, Fort Irwin is an optimal area for military maneuvering. Up to 12 times a year, Army units from around the nation come to Fort Irwin for two weeks of intense training. Accidents and medical issues in the field are inevitable, thus Fort Irwin maintains an air ambulance unit for medical contingencies.

The 2916th ‘C’ Company Army Air Ambulance Detachment (AAAD) is based at the main post helipad.  With the call sign “Dust Off,” the unit flies six Eurocopter UH-72A helicopters, the latest helicopter procured by the Army for non-combat roles in the US.  All six aircraft are set up in the air medical “medevac” configuration and each includes an external Goodrich hoist. As a matter of historical record, these six aircraft were the first operational UH-72As within the Army: 72001-72006.

For air medical missions, the UH-72A’s flight crew consists of a pilot, co-pilot, flight medic, and a firefighter/paramedic. If a hoist operation is required, the firefighter/paramedic gets replaced with a crew chief/hoist operator. The unit maintains approximately 15 pilots and 10-12 crew chiefs/flight medics. A crew is on duty 24/7/365 and there is a second back-up crew available within 15 minutes.

Pilots’ opinions of the UH-72A are generally good. The aircraft has a large cabin and is stable in a hover. The avionics package is well regarded and gives the crews a true IFR platform. Still, with summer temperatures reaching well over 100º Fahrenheit, crews find the need to manage the UH-72A’s power and weight carefully. With the main post helipad located at 2500 feet, and the highest peak within Fort Irwin at 5295 feet, power management is a critical component for UH-72A operations.

Equipment carried for air medical missions consists of two litters, a defibrillator, oxygen, and aid bags carried by the flight medic and firefighter/paramedic. Aboard for hoist missions are a jungle penetrator and a Skedco personnel immobilization device.

The most common mission for Fort Irwin’s AAAD is “field picks,” which is flying into the tactical training area (known as “the box”) and retrieving an injured solider. Injuries can be anything from a broken bone to a head injury, but many are heat casualties from dehydration during hot summer months. The AAAD also medevacs civilians on base to outlying hospitals. Examples of such situations include a soldier’s child having a skateboard accident and a base worker having a heart attack. Such cases can be flown out using the AAAD’s UH-72As.

When an injured party needs medical attention in the field, the procedure for a “Dust Off” call out begins. The call first goes to range control staff that have approval authority to launch an AAAD helicopter. Upon approval, the request is passed to the 2916th’s flight operations office and an alert is sent to the waiting flight crews. Having already pre-flighted the aircraft for the day, the crew converges in the ready room where they do a weather check, locate were they will be heading, and obtain other mission details. Once at the aircraft, the crew does a quick walk around and takes off.

Next, the crew calls Fort Irwin’s Flight Following Facility (known as “Desert Radio”) and advises them they are on a medevac mission. An air traffic advisory is sent to all sectors to stay clear of the flight. Finding the landing zone is usually easy during the day because colored smoke is used as a marker. After landing zone reconnaissance is complete, next comes what is usually the hardest part of the mission according to crews – landing.  Very fine dust is prevalent at Fort Irwin and maneuvering through it can get quite intense. These challenging landings are practiced as often as possible.

Once the patient is loaded aboard the aircraft, he or she is brought to the base’s hospital. If it is determined the patient needs more specialized care than can be provided there, then the AAAD transports to hospitals like University Medical Center in Las Vegas or California hospitals in Loma Linda or Victor Valley. Severe burn injuries are often directed to Arrowhead Hospital.

Dark Duty

Night medevac missions are flown with night vision goggles (NVGs), which adds a layer of complexity to the mission due to their 40-degree field of view, lack of depth perception, and their monochromatic nature. Identifying the landing zone at night can be more difficult. Usually the zone is marked by strobe lights, which are carried by the troops. The pilot needs to be looking at the right place at the right time to ensure that he does not loose visual references. Examples of references include identifying a bush or a rock to land next to that will not blow away in rotor wash. Takeoffs are often guided by instruments with the eyes of other crewmembers intensely looking for the dust cloud to clear. One of the biggest challenges of flying medevac in the high desert is how dark it can get. Because NVGs intensify light, they need ambient light to work. This light often emanates from cities and towns. When this lighting is minimal, and there is also little or no light from the moon or stars, NVG capability is significantly reduced.


Hoist operations are a rare event at Fort Irwin, although crews are certainly trained and prepared to perform them. Hoist equipment and procedures are needed when an injured party is in a location where it is impossible to land, such as high-angle mountainous terrain or swift running water. Hoisting operations require all crewmembers to work closely together with precise coordination. Pilots maintain flight position and are careful not to exceed aircraft limitations. The hoist operator / crew chief gives instructions on positioning the aircraft and watches for obstructions. The medic rides the hook down and prepares the patient for lifting into the aircraft.  Night hoists under NVGs are particularly challenging due to the lack of visual contrast.

Finally, something not well known is that Fort Irwin’s AAAD UH-72As are available for civilian air medical support. This availability occurs only after all civilian resources are exhausted. Once all other local air medical assets have been activated, AAAD can be requested and launched to the scene.

 As can be seen the 2916th AAAD “Dust Off” is an essential part of Fort Irwin’s operations. The aircrews know this and take great pride in dutif
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