Oklahoma National Guard Bedlam Exercise
Operation Bedlam was an Oklahoma National Guard joint training mission encompassing multiple units and other agencies for air assault and personnel recovery exercises in Oklahoma and Arkansas
US Army, January 28, 2016 - LEXINGTON, Okla. by Staff Sgt Christopher Bruce - It seems like a simple task on paper, but with 10 aircraft, five teams and more than 140 personnel communicating with each other at the same time in two states, it was bedlam.
Operation Bedlam was an Oklahoma National Guard joint training mission encompassing multiple units and other agencies for air assault and personnel recovery exercises in Oklahoma and Arkansas on Jan. 12. It included Army and Air Guardsmen as well as Air Force personnel from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
“There are so many moving parts and pieces to this mission that it creates a sense of chaos,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tyson Phillips, of Owasso, Oklahoma, a member of 1st Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment, Oklahoma Army National Guard, who coordinated the training mission. “We purposefully planned things to introduce the potential for bedlam, like introducing some things late so the crew would have to adjust.”
Bedlam is a word used to define a scene of uproar and confusion. To most Oklahomans, this term is synonymous with the rivalry of the state’s two largest universities as they compete in various sports throughout the year. But now, some Oklahoma Guardsmen may remember the sights and sounds of combat when they hear the word.
“The operation name ‘Bedlam’ ultimately came about because we were planning the mission about the same time of the [bedlam] football game, and we are an office divided between fans,” Phillips said. “But the term bedlam describes the environment we wanted to create, and we did.”
Before any helicopter left the ground, the aircrew received a weather briefing from Air National Guardsmen of the 125th Weather Flight from Tulsa, Oklahoma. The airmen kept the aviators informed of the latest weather changes throughout the mission as well.
As the mission began, five teams consisting of both Army Guardsmen and active duty Airmen were dropped off deep in the woods of Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The helicopters were flying as close to the ground as possible looking for the designated landing zones.
The large Chinook aircraft kept a low profile as it landed in a small clearing of trees. Soldiers and Airmen were standing inside the aircraft ready to exit, holding weapons and carrying large equipment packs on their back. They rushed out the spine of the massive helicopter, holding weapons ready to combat the enemy while looking for concealment in the dense woods. The helicopter lifts off as the last team member steps out.
From there, each of the teams moved tactically to their assigned selected pickup zone. As night fell, the teams moved through dark, dense wooded areas as temperatures dropped below freezing. As the teams moved, they communicated via Combat Survivor/Evader Locater (CSEL) radios to coordinate a rescue.
The 12-hour mission started with two CH-47 “Chinooks” leaving Lexington, Oklahoma, with a team of “survivors” around 2 p.m. The Chinooks linked up with UH-60 “Black Hawks” mid-air for a multi-ship formation near Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma. All aircraft dropped off their “survivor” teams at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, before flying to Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, to re-fuel.
On the ground at Fort Chaffee, the teams began communicating via the CSEL radio.
“We have to navigate a few obstacles to get to our intended point where we are expecting further instructions or extraction,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2, Joseph Browning, of Fort Worth, Texas, a member of 1st Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment, who was on one of the five “survivor” teams.
“We are also trying to keep out of exposed areas, road crossing, creeks, trying to keep ourselves as hidden as possible as we navigate this terrain,” Browning said.
As the teams worked their way through the woods to their rescue points, two important communications aircraft were high above the scene coordinating information to get them the quickest rescue possible. A UH-72 “Lakota” aircraft and an E-3 Sentry AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, interconnected teams on the ground with all the aircraft simultaneously.
Aircraft teams had to plan while flying and coordinate with the AWACS to find the teams in a fast-paced environment. The AWACS brought the capability of radar from high in the skies and communications equipment capable of talking to all the assets in the air and on the ground. Airmen communicated with each team to give them extraction coordinates, and then relayed those coordinates to the correct helicopter crew for search and rescue operations.
“The AWACS was very involved in working with us,” Phillips said. “It gave our guys an opportunity to talk to Air Force assets that we’re not accustomed to ... It gave us an opportunity to see the world at a different angle and to build those relationships [with Air Force].”
As the sun began to set around 5:30 p.m., the Black Hawk and Chinook aircrews received a new mission. The AWACS crew had locations of all the “survivor” teams ready for pickup. Two-by-two, helicopters returned to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, on a search and rescue mission. The helicopters flew just above the tree lines, evading enemy detection, looking for any hint of an illumination from people ready to be rescued from the cold, dark woods. Once the team was spotted, the helicopter landed in a small tree clearing, carefully maneuvering to the ground. Each of the five teams rushed to their helicopter to be swiftly lifted away from the simulated combat area.
Phillips said the mission’s goal was to help everyone manage the confusion and adapt to planned and unplanned changes they could see on the battlefield.
“We wanted to build a realistic combat environment for the crew,” Phillips said.
One of the late changes was the order in which the helicopters were aligned to extending the mission. The aircrew and support elements adjusted to refuel times and airspace allocations.
Additional ground support was coordinated to refuel the helicopters at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma.
Sgt. Marcus Jenkins, of McCaskill, Arkansas, a member of 1st Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment, is a petroleum supply specialist. He and his crew operated two refueling stations called forward arming and refueling points (FARP).
“We are working with new Soldiers,” Jenkins said. “They are going over the procedures and steps on how to correctly connect to an aircraft safely. This is exactly what we would be doing if we were to get deployed.”
In the midst of chaos, communications and safety is the key mission for a group of air traffic controllers.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 R.J. Harris, of Norman, Oklahoma, led a team of four air traffic controllers. Harris said their task was to provide air traffic service for the “safe, orderly and expeditious movement of the aircraft.”
However, they had a crisis of their own prior to the start of the training mission.
“In this particular training scenario, the tower team was struggling to get their aircraft radios working,” Harris said. “It wasn’t a bug we built into the scenario, it was just something that happened. From a leader’s perspective, I was glad it was happening, because it really created a training opportunity for the air traffic controllers to see they can’t just expect to go flip on their radios, and do their job.”
All the aircrews, ground and support teams met at Davis Field Airport in Muskogee, Oklahoma, for an after action review (AAR) to discuss the bedlam that ensued on the mission and how to be better prepared for the real-world situation they could encounter.
“The training is critical because it’s the train as you fight concept,” Phillips said.
And war can often seem like bedlam.
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Oklahoma National Guard US Army Aviation