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THROUGH THE LENS: Army Helicopter Training in the Sonoran Desert

THROUGH THE LENS: Army Helicopter Training in the Sonoran Desert

Story and photographs by Barry Griffiths

March 29, 2016

Tucson, a desert city located in Southern Arizona, is well-known as the home to both Davis-Monthan AFB, with its A-10 Warthog squadrons and Boneyard (AMARG), and the Arizona Air National Guard Base at Tucson Airport with its Dutch, Iraqi and USAF F-16 squadrons.  It is recognized around the world as a hotbed for military aviation and has long been a magnet that attracts North American and international aviation photographers to its airfields.

However, there is another military aviation facility, only 35 miles to the north of Tucson that has more or less slipped under their radar. As part of our ongoing Through the Lens series, Aviation Photography Digest focuses on the Western Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (WAATS), located at Silverbell Army Heliport (SAHP) and Picacho Stagefield Heliport (PAC).

Here, in a sparsely populated area of the beautiful Sonoran Desert, the Arizona Army National Guard operates the Western Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (WAATS). The WAATS, based at Silverbell Army Heliport, is the premier training site for attack and aero-scout helicopter training for the Army NG and provides active duty and National Guard aviators, along with personnel from several foreign countries, with AH-1 Flight Weapons Simulator and AH-64 Combat Mission Simulator support, plus intensive hands-on flight training.

Silverbell Army Heliport is the base for a number of Army aviation training programs and hosts Army aviators training on UH-72 Lakota and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. In addition, the 1st Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment (The Desert Hawks), a unit of the Arizona Army National Guard, with its 20 AH-60D Apaches and more than 400 trained soldiers is stationed at the facility.

Picacho Stagefield, located a few minutes flying time north of Silverbell, is a WAATS satellite helicopter training facility heliport. This heliport, in the shadow of spectacular Picacho Peak, was a WWII two-runway airfield that lay abandoned until the late 1990s. Since it was located in close proximity to Silverbell Army Heliport, it was proposed as an ideal site for a helicopter emergency training facility.  As a result, Picacho was developed into a state-of-the-art Army aviation stagefield with a control tower, four 1500`x 75`asphalt emergency procedure training lanes, a crash-fire rescue team on site, and the space to bivouac an entire Apache battalion.

On any day of the year, Picacho can be relatively quiet or a bee-hive of activity. When it is busy, it`s possible to observe a mixture of Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawks,  Boeing AH-60D Apache Longbows, Bell OH-58A Kiowas, and Eurocopter UH-72A Lakotas flying circuits, performing emergency and high-speed tactical landings, or conducting off-field desert tactical landings.

The Sonoran Desert training area is ideal for the WAATS for, in addition to its excellent year-round weather and flying conditions, it has a flight training environment second-to-none.  Its large training range includes a large, sparsely populated low level and tactical training area, aerial gunnery training at the live-fire Barry M. Goldwater Gunnery range, and helicopter emergency procedures training at nearby Picacho Stagefield. This allows Army pilot instructors to maximize their training efforts on student performance without distractions or wasted enroute time.

The following Army helicopter training photographs were all taken at Picacho Stagefield Heliport.

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Arizona Army NG, 1st Apache Helicopter Attack Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Arizona Army NG, 1st Apache Helicopter Attack Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Steep approach training: Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk, Arizona Army NG, 2nd Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment (Assault Helicopter) AZ at Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Steep approach training: Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk, Arizona Army NG, 2nd Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment (Assault Helicopter) AZ at Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Bell OH-58C Kiowa, AZ Army National Guard @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Bell OH-58C Kiowa, AZ Army National Guard @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

AZ-Army NG, Bell OH-58A Kiowa & Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

AZ-Army NG, Bell OH-58A Kiowa & Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Arizona Army NG, 1st Apache Helicopter Attack Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Arizona Army NG, 1st Apache Helicopter Attack Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Bell OH-58C Kiowa, with Pilot Instructor and trainee pilot, departing Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Bell OH-58C Kiowa, with Pilot Instructor and trainee pilot, departing Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow & Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk, Arizona Army NG, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow & Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk, Arizona Army NG, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Picacho Peak Flyby: Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk, Arizona Army NG, 2nd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Picacho Peak Flyby: Sikorsky UH-60L Black Hawk, Arizona Army NG, 2nd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment @ Picacho Stagefield Heliport, AZ

Click on an image below to be able to page through the gallery:
Barry Griffiths on EmailBarry Griffiths on Flickr
Barry Griffiths
Barry Griffiths is a published author, wildlife photographer and naturalist. After a successful career as an educator, he became founder and President of Quest Nature Tours, a company specializing in worldwide nature tours and expedition cruising. On his retirement from these endeavors, he continues to photograph wildlife and pursue his lifelong interest in all aspects of aviation.

Barry can be reached at: [email protected]

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