The two large Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters that landed in a very damp, grassy area north of the Warren M. Lee Fine Arts Center on the University of South Dakota campus Friday, Sept. 24 are older – by a couple of generations – than their pilots.
The men that flew these large aircraft to the Vermillion, however, weren't concerned.
The flying machines may look a bit old on the outside. But plenty of the old has been replaced with new – ranging from some of the machinery of the big mechanical birds to the modern technology that helps the pilots fly them.
"We can move vehicles with them, we can move fuel, we can move troops," said Lt. Joshua McClure of the Nebraska Army National Guard, who piloted one of the Chinooks from its base in Grand Island, NE to Vermillion. "There's a pretty wide range of stuff you can haul – we try to keep loads under 20,000 pounds but our maximum load weight is 50,000 pounds."
Friday's cargo included 31 ROTC students from USD and other area schools.
"We'll split them between both aircraft," McClure said as the cadets assembled on the grounds near the helicopters. "If we didn't have our internal fuel tank, we could get all of them on one bird, but it's good training for us to have both aircraft out here working together."
The ROTC cadets used the campus as a gathering point, a place to learn a few lessons on the ground as they awaited their ride to the Austin Training Area, located near the Missouri River between Elk Point and Jefferson. It's a place where more extensive military exercises were being held last week.
A bumpy ride in the back of a military truck wasn't in their future. Part of last week's training included learning the proper way, while carrying all of their gear, to board and ride in the large helicopters.
"We go through a ground portion training with our crew chiefs and our flight engineers," McClure said. "We'll give them a class – train them up on to get in and how to get out of the aircraft. We'll teach them the characteristics of the aircraft so they know what to expect while we're flying and making approaches and landings.
"And then they'll so some practice loading and off loading – this is typically stuff they are going to be doing down the road in their careers either in the Guard or in the active Army," he said. "A lot of this is what our troops presently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing right now."
There are currently five Chinook helicopters based in Grand Island. The base there is scheduled to get a sixth helicopter.
Chinook helicopters were introduced in 1962 as the CH-47 Chinook, and models A, B and C were deployed in Vietnam. As the product of a modernization program, which included refurbishing existing CH-47s, the first CH-47Ds were delivered in 1982 and were produced until 1994.
A central element in the Gulf War, they continue to be the standard for the U.S. Army in the global campaign against terrorism. Since its introduction 1,179 Chinooks have been built.
The helicopter that McClure piloted to Vermillion was built in 1968. It was modernized, or "modded" according to the terminology of the aircraft's flight crew, CH-47D, or Delta model, in 1987.
"It's been around for awhile," he said. "The modernization of the aircraft included upgrading a lot of the avionic systems up front, and they upgraded the engines with new engines that lift more and does more computerized stuff so you don't have to work as hard up front.
"Most of these aircraft are 20 to 30 years older than the pilots," McClure said.
The Chinook model is still around because of its design and workhorse capabilities.
"This is a good airframe. It will lift more and go faster and do anything that the Army needs a helicopter to do," he said. "It's a stable platform; it's really easy to fly. It's very pilot-friendly. The crew chiefs and flight engineers that we have love it. There is a lot that we can do with this aircraft that we can't do with the Apaches and the Blackhawks.
The Chinook primarily was designed to move troops, ammunition and supplies. The versatile machine, however, plays several secondary roles, ranging from medical evacuation and disaster relief, to fire fighting, parachute drops, search and rescue and heavy construction.
"We do a little bit of everything," McClure said. "Normally we have three hooks (on the exterior) and we can do center front hook loads, center hook loads and aft hook load, or we can do a tandem load in the center. We also do a lot of external load lifting of such things as water buckets.
"A couple of our aircraft went out to California to fight wildfires three or four years ago," he said. "We train for carrying water buckets and fighting fires. We also do hoist work, we were sent down after (Hurricane) Katrina, and we've got a 150-foot cable that we can use to pull up people for rescue."
Lt. Col. Tom Martin, a professor of military science in the Military Science Department at USD, was happy Friday that the weather cooperated, allowing the Chinooks to fly from Nebraska and land on the university campus. He was also thankful that the large aircraft were available, because the number of ROTC cadets is growing.
"We've just about doubled the size of the cadet battalion, so it's nice to have the numbers back, where we number over 100 cadets enrolled in ROTC," he said.
He believes better marketing, combined with word-of-mouth from existing cadets, has helped encourage more young people to enroll in ROTC.
"We have very high quality young men and women, and they bring a lot more high quality young men and women back into the program," Martin said.
The ROTC cadets represent a cross-section of the university community.
"They are of just about any major you can think of. We have cadets who are in the business school, in arts and science, and the many majors in that area," he said. "Some of the cadets come from Mount Marty over in Yankton, and Briar Cliff and Morningside down in Sioux City. And we had some who came down from Dakota Wesleyan. We have a broad spectrum of students."
Last Friday, Martin looked more the part of a soldier than a professor, but so did the local students taking part in the training. Both Martin and the cadets were dressed in camouflage U.S. Army garb.
"This is all part of our fall field training exercise," he said, shortly after the cadets lifted off in the two Chinooks. "We'll be in the field from today (Friday) and then we come back Sunday afternoon. We'll stay overnight Friday night and Saturday night."
After slowly gaining altitude, the pilots of the two cadet-loaded Chinooks steered them in a westerly direction toward Yankton.
"They'll hit Gavins Point, and then they'll follow the river down to our training area which is basically south of Elk Point along the river," Martin said.
While at the training area, the cadets received lessons and experience in land navigation, working with maps and compass both during the day and during night.
"They'll be doing something called a field leader's reaction course, where they're given a problem and have to solve it," Martin said. "They may be given an obstacle, for instance, and have to figure out to get their people and equipment across. And a lot of it will be just the basic how to be a soldier out living in field conditions."
Friday afternoon's warm temperatures and sunny skies were scheduled to be short-lived.
"We may get a little cold and wet tomorrow (Saturday)," Martin said, "but that's okay. It's all part of the training."
Training that included the unique experience of being transported in a type of aircraft not even based in South Dakota.
"It's some hands-on experience in a military aircraft, and we've never had a CH-47 aircraft in Vermillion or on campus, so this is something brand new for us," Martin said, "and for the cadets to see a larger cargo helicopter is something very unique. It's great that Nebraska was able to help us out."
Adding some flying time in a Chinook only added more realism to the cadet's weekend training exercises, he said.
"A lot of the cadets who are in the program who are former enlisted soldiers who have served overseas already – this is familiar to them – but for the others, this was something brand new," Martin said.
His next task after watching the two Chinooks safely take off and fly toward the Missouri River was to drive to the training grounds.
"Some of the students had exams or other academic requirements where they couldn't fly, so I'll pick them up and drive them down to the grounds later this afternoon," Martin said, "because with our program, it's academics first and the training part comes second."