160th SOAR performs MEATS Training at Moses Lake
US Army 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (4-160th SOAR) and Navy Special Boat Team 12 (SBT-12) conducted a Maritime External Air Transportation System (MEATS) training in Moses Lake, Washington, May 21 2014
* 4-160th SOAR and SBT-12 training together at Moses Lake, Washington
US Army, October 17, 2014 - MOSES LAKE, Wash by Sgt Christopher Prows - As a military journalist, I have the opportunity to visit and meet people from all walks of life. During one particular assignment, I was given the chance to interact with some of the elite forces of the military, the 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Navy Special Boat Team 12.
My experience with these Soldiers and Sailors gave me insight into an aspect of the military some have only seen in movies. Looking back on how this chance came to me, I am still amazed at the journey this adventure took me on.
Sitting in my office, reviewing a story, my officer came and asked me a puzzling question, “Can you swim?” Not knowing what the context behind the question, I answered with a simple, “Yes.”
The answer I got left me speechless, “You are going to cover a training mission for 4-160th SOAR in a few weeks. Their exercise is going to last four days.”
Thoughts swirled through my head like a tornado tearing through a small town. What could I possibly be covering with SOAR?
During the weeks prior to my mission, I constantly asked questions on what I was going to witness during this adventure. Not many details were provided.
The day finally came to embark on this journey. The details were still shrouded in secrecy about what was going to happen.
As I stepped onto the flight line, the silhouettes of the helicopters reminded me of sentinel guardians of old.
Just as a child admires a new toy, I stood in amazement in the presence of the beautiful pieces of machinery sitting idle on the tarmac. Mechanics buzzed like bees preparing the three helicopters for the voyage.
As I sat in my jump seat looking at the barren interior of this aircraft my heart jumped as the engines began to run. There isn’t much to grab inside a Chinook, gripping my hands together I took a deep breath and waited for the moment the helicopter would take off.
The whine of a turbine engine starting above my head caused a ringing in my ears, even with earplugs, and made my heart race.
Sitting motionless a few feet off the ground gave me an idea of the capabilities of this machine. With the hover check complete, our journey began.
The ride to the city of Moses Lake, where the training was going to take place, was filled with magnificent views of mountains, towns and rivers.
Gliding through a mountain pass, skimming the treetops it seemed, gave a sense of peace looking at the details of the earth from above.
The sign of flat land indicated we were almost to our destination. The airport loomed in the distance gaining size and details as we approached this remote area of eastern Washington.
My night was restless with anticipation of the training exercise. As the first day commenced, the sun shone through patches of puffy clouds dotting the sky, a mechanic walked around the aircraft checking to ensure this piece of aviation machinery was fit to fly.
The countless hours that the mechanic put into each nut and bolt ensured that an indication of any problem could be heard or felt with the slightest fluctuation. He lifted panels high on the rotor hub and inspected every piece of equipment, ensuring the aircraft was ready to perform the task required.
He checked and rechecked his manual for a complete and successful preflight maintenance inspection. The sound of him yelling “clear” made the turbine engines came to life.
The hydraulics whined as it was put through its full range of motion, circuits clicked on and off ensuring no faults were found, and finally the rotor blades themselves started to spin as powerful engines transferred energy to the blades.
As I wait for my chance to join on their experience, the wind stirred the once quiet ground beneath my feet as the helicopter took flight.
Pieces of sand and gravel whipped across the pavement like a mini tornado. The use of safety glasses is a must for anyone on the flight line.
The helicopter became a faint black spot on the horizon then disappeared. Their mission is underway.
As I received my chance to join the Soldiers and the helicopter lifted into the air, a rush of excitement flowed over me. I actually get to experience what only a select few get to do.
As the lake came into view, black dots on the vast clear blue water slowly became boats as we got closer. The Chinook swooped low between the cliffs bordering the lake and revealed the details of the environment below.
As the helicopter descended I could no longer see the boats on the water. I looked through a hatch and wondered where the boats were.
To my surprise, the water was less than 20 feet from the bottom of the helicopter.
Out of nowhere a rigid inflatable boat appeared filled with sailors gazing through the thick mist stirred up from the spinning helicopter blades. With expert skill, the Sailors secured two lifting straps to hooks on the underside of the helicopter.
With the simple signal of thumbs up, the helicopter lifted the boat, freeing it from the waves and the sting of swirling mist it endured just seconds before.
Just then, an aviator reached for a rope ladder lying on the helicopter’s interior and lowered it to the boat suspended from their machine. Without hesitation, a crewman from SBT-12 grasped the ladder and began to climb up through the belly hatch of the helicopter. The ladder was pulled up and a rope lowered in its place.
The same Sailor grabbed the rope and descended to the boat just as quickly as he ascended to the helicopter. With the rope pulled safely back on board, the helicopter descended returning the vessel to its place among the waves.
A Soldier flipped a switch causing the boat’s straps to unhook from the aircraft making the helicopter gain altitude quickly.
The task lasted less than seven minutes. As the crew continued to lift and drop the boats on the water, the Sailors and Soldiers became more proficient at the task with each passing hour.
As we headed back to the airport, I gazed at the exhausted crew, the faces reflected the pride of their accomplishments and their confidence seemed to lift as lively jokes passed between them.
The next day, I was given the opportunity to experience the other half of this exercise by seeing the Sailors' perspective.
Seeing the lake from this view gave me a whole new perspective on the task that I had witnessed the day before. Clear blue water sitting still, the reflections from the surrounding cliffs expressed the same details if you looked at the cliffs directly.
The Sailors challenged each other to races when I arrived. The sound of cheers echoed against the rocks as two of them swam for a buoy, both wanting to win the challenge.
The call came in that it was time to start the training. Without delay, we boarded our respective vessels and headed off across the vast waters towards the designated pick-up zone.
The water splashed over the side of the Zodiac, a small inflatable boat, providing a refreshing relief to the hot sun overhead. As we neared the zone I started to notice the height of the cliffs that bordered the lake. These daunting faces of rock gave light to the dangers of performing an operation like this.
No sooner than we arrived, a familiar sound emanated throughout the canyon. The low pulsating sound of a helicopter’s rotors echoed against the rocks strengthened with each passing second signaling the training was about to begin.
Listening to the sound, I looked over my shoulder and saw the faint outline of a helicopter crossing between the canyon walls towards the water.
As the helicopter dropped altitude and descended toward the water a wall of mist surrounded the aircraft creating what seemed like a force field protecting it from the surrounding environment.
The boat’s driver didn’t hesitate to move his watercraft into position under the helicopter through the wall of mist.
I lost sight of the boat as it moved under the aircraft.
A few moments later the helicopter provided power to its engines. Seeing this from an outside perspective allowed me to fully appreciate the complexity of the exercise.
As the boat became free from the water, I was impressed at the sight I witnessed.
The helicopter hovered above the water’s surface, and I saw the same ladder from the day before being lowered to the boat.
The same process I witnessed from inside the helicopter played out again and again as the day progressed.
The Sailors on the Zodiac with me explained that this is the first time they have actually done this type of training in a real-world environment. They were a friendly bunch; most joking on how they should have brought a fishing pole to enjoy the lake a bit more.
Throughout the day, the helicopter and boat teams perform 28 successful hook-ups and drop-offs.
Once dusk neared, we headed back to the dock for a quick bite to eat before it was time to perform night certification. The Sailors became engulfed in conversation about the exercise, swapping witty remarks of each team’s performance.
In the armed forces, service members are required to be certified in both day and nighttime environments.
Once darkness had set in, we started the engines on our boats and set out once again to the designated spot for training. The lake transformed from a sparkling blue to a black abyss beneath our boat. There was no wind crossing the water.
The stars sparkled and reflected off the water giving me a sense of flying through the sky. As we reached our destination, the lake fell silent. Sitting in the boat awaiting the helicopter, there was a quiet feeling about the surroundings. The waves splashing against the rock were the only noise that I heard.
Some search for a calm place to meditate or just unwind after a hard day. The lake after dark made me feel alone in a world cluttered with so many different distractions. It was, for me, a peaceful sensation.
The sound of a helicopter broke the silence, and I knew it was about to get interesting. As I peered through the blackness that surrounded me, I noticed the stars lacked enough light to see the helicopter and boat with my naked eye.
Gazing through a set of night vision goggles, I witnessed a demonstration of pure talent by both crews.
With the same skill, as I witnessed earlier that day, the boat and helicopter crew’s performed their task with ease even with limited visibility.
With their training complete we retire back to the docks and the helicopter to the airport. We all were exhausted from this long day.
Looking back on the training that only few have performed, it amazes me at the complexity of missions that these Soldiers and Sailors are able to accomplish together. I will not forget the few days I was given to know these professionals.