Army birds drop in on Richmond / Helicopters in urban exercise

Tuesday, August 8, 2000

Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Yawing in the quartering tailwind, dodging power lines and light poles, stirring dust and tipping trash cans, four drab green helos settled, hopping, down on their struts.

Then in a whirr, a whupp-whupp and rush, the giant leafblowers lifted up yesterday and flew away, their crew chiefs leaning out of windows, waving at the folks who came to see their tax dollars at work.

"Oh, this is so cool," one woman said, eyes on the four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters rumbling over The Diamond in the afternoon's hot haze.

"We hit the ground and we're gone," said Lt. Col. Bob Hess of Fairfax County, commander of the 101st Aviation Regiment's 1st Battalion. "It's a bad place for us to be when people are shooting at us."

Last night, only cameras took shots at the airborne soldiers.

Hundreds of kids, parents, dogs, TV reporters, cops, Diamond workers and local Army recruiters came out to watch 13 Black Hawks skirt 22 light towers and a power line and set down in "Landing Zone Robin," The Diamond's 12-acre parking lot.

The Army's famed 101st Airborne Division flew into Richmond to train for what it calls military operations in urban terrain, said Maj. Andy Cornett, the regiment's executive officer.

"We're preparing for the ever-increasing peacekeeping missions, such as Kosovo and Bosnia," he said.

Chief Warrant Officer James Plzak, the lead Black Hawk's pilot, explained: "Coming here we learn the ins-and-outs of navigating through a large urban center. Navigating over a city is a little different than we're used to."

Walter and Stacy Alexander brought their three children from Glen Allen to watch the mock air assault.

"My kids love it," Walter Alexander said. So did he: Alexander flies radio-controlled model airplanes as a stress-reliever. When one of the Army bird's rotors stopped turning, he jumped into the pilot's seat, hoisting his young children in after him.

Last night's mission simulated putting a security force on the ground to protect a local government distribution center as part of a peacekeeping mission, Hess said.

The exercise was a likely scenario for an Army that has soldiers keeping the peace in Kosovo and Bosnia right now.

Though the division has fought from Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge to Vietnam, from Panama to Iraq, yesterday's mission was the first time the 1st Battalion of the 101st Aviation Regiment had trained in a city.

Even when the aviators aren't in combat, Hess pointed out, "our business is inherently dangerous anyway."

As a result, the Army aviators flew in during daylight hours yesterday, and with that experience under their helicopters' chin bubbles, they came back again after dark.

Landing in confined metropolitan areas presents Army aviators with challenges they don't normally confront.

"Lights, wire hazards, towers," Cornett said. "We don't have that at Fort Campbell. You don't find that many buildings over two stories on a military post."

Bitter lessons learned from the Army's experiences in the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt in 1980 and in Somalia underlined the need to train in metropolitan areas.

Getting called is a present possibility for the battalion: It is part of America's rapid-deployment force, ready to move out at a moment's notice anywhere in the world.

The country has 10 Army divisions, soldiers say, but the nation has 14 divisions' worth of demands for the Army's skills.

Since 1990, U.S. armed forces have been ordered overseas more than 60 times to fight or to keep the peace. In contrast, in the 45 years from 1945 to 1990, American forces were sent to foreign soil fewer than 50 times.

Military analysts see the 21st century as a looming time of borderless wars involving terrorists and "nonstate" enemies, producing a blurring of historic standards for military combat.

The aviation battalion has deployed 13 helicopters and about 100 soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., to Fort Pickett for the training around Richmond.

At 5:35 p.m. and again at 9:35 p.m. today, the sky troopers will take their helicopters into the Interstate 64-295 cloverleaf west of Richmond, Cornett said.

Mayor Timothy M. Kaine greeted the airborne soldiers at LZ Robin.

"It's important for us to help the services train for the environments they're in," Kaine said. "We're glad to do it. It's like voting: It's a civic obligation."

And the city didn't charge the Army for the use of The Diamond's parking lot, according to Stuart Weems of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, which operates the baseball park.

The Army's appearance in Richmond has stirred considerably less public controversy than last year's similar but more extensive training by the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit here.

The Army went to some lengths this year, as did the Marines last year, to make the public aware of the maneuvers.

"We decided to be very specific about what we're doing," Hess said, "so there would be no questions, no suspicions.

"I'm proud of what I do and I'm proud of what my guys do."

That pride has a long heritage among the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne.

Howard Tess wore his master parachutist wings on his cap yesterday. Tess, who lives in Mechanicsville, joined the Army during World War II and retired as a sergeant major in the 101st Airborne Division in 1965.

"They're fine people," he said of the soldiers at The Diamond yesterday. "They've got guts enough to stay in an air assault unit. They've got to be good people."

Contact Peter Bacqué at (804) 649-6813 or

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