By Joe Beck
Look. Up in the sky. The noisy whomp, whomp, whomp of rotor blades cutting through the air Saturday at Front Royal-Warren County Airport marked the dramatic descent of an Air Force helicopter before a small group of firefighters and home school students.
The firefighters were there as part of a training session showing them what they can expect to find if they enter the interior of a helicopter in an emergency. The helicopter, a UH-1N Huey, is part of the 1st Helicopter Squadron operating out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
The squadron has become a familiar sight around the airport since the middle of last year when its helicopters began flying intermittently into Front Royal on training missions. Much of the training is done at night at altitudes of 100 feet above the highest trees.
About a half dozen firefighters gathered near the cockpit to hear 1st Lt. Casey R. Doane offer advice on what to do in the worst-case scenario of a crash.
"All the dangerous stuff is back here," Doane said, gesturing toward the fuel tanks, engine and transmission in the rear.
Doane said the Huey was designed in the 1950s and built in 1969, an old workhorse that can be counted on to deliver passengers safely to their destinations. Its mission at Andrews is to ferry key civilians and military leaders and other VIPs around the Washington area. It's also available for search and rescue operations and emergency medical evacuations, possibilities that Doane said were very much on the minds of squadron members as Hurricane Sandy blew through Washington.
Doane spoke with affection and respect about the helicopter he was sitting in during an interview.
"It's a good bird, but it's loud and rickety," he said.
After Doane finished with the firefighters, the students happily climbed into the aircraft and seated themselves next to Doane as he explained to them the aircraft's instrumentation and controls.
The students from the Northern Blue Ridge Home School Association based in Stephens City were there at the invitation of Magan Patch, the airport's assistant operations manager.
Patch said she organized the squadron's visit after it was unable to make a scheduled appearance at this year's airport air show. She described part of the reason for the visit as a chance for squadron introduce themselves to residents of the area.
"They were the ones that initiated this," Patch said of the squadron leaders.
Capt. Nathan Leake, who accompanied Doane on the flight from Andrews, said the squadron members needed a training site outside of the Washington metropolitan area to avoid flights around concentrations of tall buildings. He said the squadron's principal landing zone is a piece of land just north of the airport, which the owner gave them permission to use.
"This is the nearest area we have, except for a small area in Southern Maryland," Leake said.
Leake said residents shouldn't be concerned about the squadron's training for an emergency landing.
"These are really reliable aircraft," he said, adding that the training was conducted to prepare for the "off chance" that a helicopter would need to make an emergency landing.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org