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Reaching the peak of mountain flying

The Southern Alps hummed with the sound of No. 3 Squadron’s helicopters recently as the NH90s and A109s practised mountain flying.

04 March, 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the exercise over the past couple of years, but a tightly controlled health plan meant the training could get back on track.

“It was a really good exercise – we got a lot of flying in. The weather was good and morale was high,” detachment commander Squadron Leader (SQNLDR) Jamie Wallace said.

The two-week exercise was based out of Dip Flat, at the base of the Saint Arnaud Range.

Normally the exercise takes place during winter to give aircrews practice working in a snowy environment, however, disruptions to the programme over the past two years due to Covid meant the event was delayed. 

“We developed a set of Covid-specific orders for the exercise. Everyone who was down there had to be screened or tested before they went and once we were down there we were very tightly controlled. Essentially we became a Covid bubble of our own,” SQNLDR Wallace said.

The command team consulted with health experts and put contingency plans in place if somebody became ill and needed to be isolated during the exercise or if someone discovered they were a close contact, he said.

“We thought through everything, so if in the unlikely event we did get a case down there, we already knew what we would do. Learning to operate with Covid is a key difference this year.”

Helicopter Loadmasters from No. 3 Squadron training during Exercise Blackbird

The exercise was an opportunity to deploy the squadron and to work with all of its supporting units more closely than at the base, SQNLDR Wallace said.

“We’re in a camp environment with communications, refuellers, security forces, with logistics and firefighters.”

The event was also an opportunity to take on some Department of Conservation (DOC) taskings.

“It was largely track maintenance, so we were delivering building materials and DOC personnel up in the hills where they would work and pick them up again a few days later.

“It’s win-win really because we deliver on the mountain flying, but we’re also helping another government agency at the same time. It provides an additional sense of achievement as well.”

The conditions were near-perfect for the flying, with the NH90s and A109s racking up nearly 177 flying hours, which was almost unheard of, SQNLDR Wallace said.

The exercise was also an opportunity to take on some Department of Conservation (DOC) taskings.

It was Corporal (CPL) Brilee Jordan’s fourth time on the exercise, but the first time as aircrew.

“I was a communication and information systems (CIS) technician before, but now I’m a helicopter loadmaster under training.”

It was an opportunity for CPL Jordan to learn what hazards come with mountain flying.

“When doing pinnacle or ridge approaches, you need to be aware of the constantly changing picture and how flying at high altitudes affects aspects like the helicopter’s power. The relationship between the pilots and loadmasters is quite important so everyone’s on the same page about where to go if things go wrong.”

CIS operator Aircraftman (AC) Matthew Chipping’s role was to communicate with the aircrew during flights, make sure they remain safe and in communication with the operations team on the ground, and provide IT and internal email support for the entire camp.

“We needed to make sure we had the ability to move a lot of our equipment and ensure we had packed for every eventuality, as we weren’t able to simply return to base and pick up something we missed, whether it was  radio equipment or spare laptops for people to use.”

NH90 and A109 helicopters training in the mountain ranges to learn what hazards come with mountain flying

AC Chipping’s team deployed with a FA-240 satellite dish providing the camp with internal email and phone services, as well as a commercial KU-Band satellite dish that provided internet for the operations team.

“We were able to link to the aircraft using radio antennas, a 100W Dipole, Delta and Discone, as well as a MILSATCOM antenna,” he said.

Helicopter pilot Flying Officer (FGOFF) Hayley Vincent said there was a “scale shock” comparing flying around the ranges near Base Ohakea with the Southern Alps.

“In one of the sorties I was flying a lot faster than normal because the valleys were so much larger than I was used to flying around.

“The weather was amazing, but I still had to be very conscious of the winds when we were flying around there – where the turbulent spots were and where the up and down drafts were going to be.”

It was fun being away from the base and flying in different environments, she said.

Read more about our A109 and NH90 helicopters.