Joint Base Lewis-McChord Army helicopter crews that spent much of last year navigating Afghanistan’s mountains are heading to Pacific Northwest waters next week for their first drills training to land on an aircraft carrier.
Apache and Blackhawk helicopters from JBLM’s 16th Combat Aviation Brigade are expected to spend Monday flying in the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the Bremerton-based carrier USS John Stennis.
The Army and the Navy are not inviting media to watch the training, but it’s a newsworthy exercise that signals a different direction for land-based aviation crews that have spent more than a decade deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, the Army wants its West Coast units to prepare for more assignments along the Pacific Rim. That means JBLM Army helicopter teams have to get comfortable working from aircraft carriers that can haul them across the ocean.
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Brigade Commander Col. Paul Mele announced plans for over-water exercises just after he returned from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan in November.
Since then, soldiers in the brigade have been traveling to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where they have used a Navy simulator to practice survival techniques.
For the past two years, increasing numbers of Army helicopter units have practiced aircraft carrier landings. They also have participated in overwater operations in Haiti, South Korea and the Persian Gulf, the Army said. Those are the kinds of assignments that usually are taken by Navy and Marine aviators.
The Stennis is stationed at Naval Base Kitsap. It recently completed a 16-month dry dock renovation. It spent three weeks at sea in January and February training along the West Coast.