September 24, 2004
Virginia Army Aviators support Canadian exercise
By Gary Watts
SANDSTON, Va. - Virginia Army Guard aviators of the 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation recently deployed to and returned from Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, New Brunswick, Canada. Soldiers of the 224th Aviation traveling by C-17 left their home station in Sandston, Va. on Aug. 21and aircrews traveling in the unit’s UH-60 Blackhawks left Sandston on Aug. 23. All of the aviators returned to Sandston the Aug. 28. Their mission while at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown was to support and train with members of 35 and 36 Brigade which are reserve components of Canada’s Land Force Atlantic Area Formations.
The Soldiers of the 224th had been invited to participate in Area Reserve Concentration (ARCON) 04 by the Canadian Land Forces Atlantic Area commander. The 1,600-Soldier live fire exercise is an annual event at Gagetown but was unique this year with the integration of Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers with the traditional part-time Soldiers of Land Force Atlantic Area. Military airlift from the US Air Force, along with the increased capability of the Army’s Blackhawk helicopters added a new dimension to Canada’s ten-day training event. The deployment challenged the Virginians with not only learning to work with the military of another country but also with the difficulties that only Mother Nature can create.
The aviators of the Virginia Army National Guard are not strangers to Canadian forces. They have supported the Princess Louise Fusiliers with their UH-60 Blackhawks for the past three years at the Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett. The time came when the t’s had been crossed and the i’s had dots, so the unit headed for Gagetown in late August as part of the continuing National Guard Bureau effort to refine cross border training opportunities. The 224th was the first unit of the Virginia Army National Guard to go north of the longest undefended border in the world and participating in a training exercise of this nature. The Virginia Guardsmen soon found it was not the same as attending annual training at an installation in Virginia.
The 172d Airlift Wing, Mississippi Air National Guard, provided a C-17 Globemaster III to airlift the majority of the Soldiers and all the vehicles used in the exercise between Sandston and Fredericton International Airport in New Brunswick, Canada. The weather proved to be the most significant obstacle at both the 2nd Battalion’s home station and Fredericton International Airport. Loading and unloading the C-17 in the rain confounded the efforts of the Soldiers and frustrated the normally unflappable Capt. Kevin Warfield, battalion assistant operations officer. Delays in leaving Sandston severely impacted the 224th aviators’ ability to meet mission timelines once they arrived in Canada. Once the C-17 was loaded it departed Sandston and arrived at Fredericton without incident, although weather continued to play a role.
When the Sandston Soldiers arrived at Fredericton International Airport aboard the C-17, the weather there was more representative of the notoriously fogbound Saint John harbor to the southeast than a point 90 kilometers inland. Rain was coming down in Biblical proportions, the ceiling was down on the deck and the visibility was abysmal. A check of the weather showed the same phenomenon from Prince Edward Island down to the deep South in the United States. Not an auspicious start to the $2.4 million ARCON 04 exercise and for the Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers preparing to deploy from Fredericton to Gagetown. But the wet, foggy, dreary weather up and down the Atlantic coast did not dampen the spirit or enthusiasm of the Soldiers from the 2d Battalion, 224th Aviation. Apparently it didn’t lessen the desire of some of our neighbors to the north to come out and see the much heralded US Air Force C-17. The Soldiers of the 224th and the Airmen of the 172nd were greeted by dozens of Canadian aviation enthusiasts whose sprits were not dampened by the heavy rain. The arrival of the gigantic C-17 at Fredericton had been announced in the local media and many people braved the downpour just to catch a glimpse of aircraft.
But the weather would not be the only obstacle for the Old Dominion aviators to overcome. C-17 airlift capacity prevented them from bringing all the ground transportation equipment necessary to be fully mission capable. This dilemma virtually disappeared when the Canadian 36 Brigade learned of the shortfall. What had presented as a problem turned into a viable and real world training opportunity for the Canadian combat service support units involved in ARCON 04 as they provided transportation assets for their American cousins.
In addition to the challenges presented in Fredericton the miserable weather would also thwart launching the Blackhawks as scheduled on their 900-mile journey from Sandston across an international boundary into Fredericton and on to Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. 1st Lt. Aaron Loy was anxious to lead this long cross-country flight as the air mission commander and the weather delay was maddening. After a delay of 24 hours, the Blackhawks were finally departed the Army Aviation Support Facility but were flying into a significant headwind that slowed their progress. There were more weather related delays the next day but the pilots and crews finally joined the main body at Fredericton International Airport and were immediately “thrown into the breach” with the Canadian Griffin helicopters of the 430th Helicopter Squadron leading the first mission with the Canadian infantry.
During the exercise Soldiers of the 224th had an opportunity to sling the Canadian artillery C-3 cannon. They were the first to sling this long-barreled 105 mm howitzer at the Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett in February 2004 and now it was a novel sight to the infantry as they flew nearby with personnel and equipment from the 1st Field Artillery Regiment and the 84th Independent Field Battery. Flying in a Blackhawk while slinging the howitzer is more fun for the “gunners” than traversing the 1,500 miles of roads and trails on Gagetown dragging the 5,300 pound cannon behind a vehicle.
Soldiers of the 224th were not limited to interaction with the infantry and field artillery. The food service personnel were integrated into the dining facility operation at Camp Petersville, which the Americans shared with personnel from the Royal Canadian Regiment. The unit members were astonished at the quantity and quality of the food presented at mealtime. Not to be outdone, the communications personnel cross trained with the Canadian Forces signalers in a tactical environment and mandatory helicopter maintenance could not have been completed without the assistance of 35th Service Battalion. In fact, the task force consisted of Soldiers from every line company and staff element within the battalion and each of the specialists and aircrews interfaced with their counterparts at the brigades or the Gagetown staff at some point during the deployment. The level of cooperation received by the Virginians was exemplary and the deployment might have been less successful without the support delivered by the Canadians.
Gagetown fascinated the Soldiers of the 224th. The opportunity to see moose and porcupines in a natural setting, enjoy “October in Virginia” temperatures during August, view magnificent vistas and experience great flying weather provided a unique opportunity for these Virginia Soldiers. This was truly value added and prompted numerous comments about returning to Gagetown in the future and several discussions about re-enlisting. The members of TF 224 returned to Sandston tired but filled with a sense of adventure and a firm belief in their ability to operate in a joint or combined environment as they meet their wartime mission.