Posted: Monday, October 3, 2016

FORT RUCKER – At the risk of using a worn cliché, this Army post of around 5,000 in southeast Alabama really does resemble a bee hive of activity.

Imagine being 4,000 feet in the air. The hundreds of helicopters leaving the posts six stagefields throughout the day certainly resemble bees, buzzing around the usable airspace, performing training maneuvers and settling back comfortably inside.

Meanwhile, a bevy of unseen work goes on at Fort Rucker. Inside the main headquarters, a commander and his staff crunch numbers and plan ahead. Soldiers inside non-descript buildings work on the next generation of Army Aviation, hammering out standards for aircraft that haven’t been invented yet. Concepts for the current and future use of Unmanned Aerial Systems are studied in another building. Supervisors are whipping a new class in shape at Warrant Officer Career College. Visitors are taking in the latest display at the Army Aviation Museum. Civilians and soldiers are squeezing in a quick round of golf at the Silver Wings Course. Medics are learning all things Medevac. Men in the Combat Readiness Center lab are taking apart a flight recorder box to analyze the data behind the latest accident. Somewhere in the woods, flight students are learning Survival, Evasion and Resistance training.

Dozens of other steps are being taken simultaneously to make sure Fort Rucker does its part to get the Army ready to fight. The post, which has been a part of southeast Alabama since 1942, rises and falls in population based on the Army’s needs. During simultaneous actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Fort Rucker and its supporting nearby industries were popping in an effort to produce war-ready pilots.

While operations have been reduced now, 22,000 soldiers came through Fort Rucker last year. Several thousand soldiers and civilian support personnel are active at Fort Rucker at any given time, despite the Army’s recent budget cuts.

Although helicopters have been an integral part of warfighting for many years, never has a helicopter (and its crew) been asked to do more in a war setting.

“(Army Aviation) gives the combatant commander the capability of reach, maneuver, surprise and lethality,” said Russell Hall, Deputy to the Commanding General at Fort Rucker. I think, over the last 14 years, it is even moreso now because of the types of operations we do in the mountains of Afghanistan and Iraq, because of the reach it gives you, and that surprise. We have been extremely busy, if you will, over the last 14 years.”

It appears Army troop strength will be reduced soon and so will the overall Army Aviation budget. That means fewer helicopters will be ordered to cut costs and fewer pilots will need to be trained so the Army can hit its overall number.

“We have to work within the numbers we’re given,” Hall said. “It’s like having 24 cylinders and someone saying, I’m just going to put this one cylinder on a higher rpm. You can’t run this rpm with this cylinder without the others matching it. We’re all in this together.”

The helicopters, along with their student and instructor pilots, are the most visible part of Fort Rucker’s mission. However, the post is home to many other Army operations as well.

» U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center: The center serves as the single source of safety and occupational health information for soldiers, connected civilians and contract employees. The center trains aviation safety officers and ground safety officers. The center investigates all accidents involving a fatality or total disability, accidents involving property damage of $2 million or more and other accidents deemed worthy by the center’s commanding general.

» U.S. Army Warrant Officer Career College: The college conducts active and reserve warrant officer courses, including the Warrant Officer Candidate School, Warrant Officer Basic Course, Warrant Officer Advanced Course, Warrant Officer Staff Course, and the Warrant Officer Senior Staff Course.

» U.S. Army School of Aviation Medicine: The school conducts rotary wing aeromedical training for aviators and other aeromedic personnel.

» U.S. Aeromedical Research Laboratory: The Laboratory provides several services, including developing return-to-duty standards for soldiers suffering from concussions or other head trauma. The laboratory also researches helicopter crashes, visual systems, helmet impact, aeromedical evacuation equipment, hearing protection and communications.

» Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization: The directorate evaluates every Army Aviation unit including guard and reserve to make sure the units’ training meets Army standards.

“A lot of people, of course, don’t see all that goes on at Fort Rucker,” Hall said.

Fort Rucker is also active in Unmanned Aerial Systems. Fort Rucker is the site of the Army’s centralized and overall coordinator for all combat and training developments and user activities associated with Army UAS.

Hall said the term “unmanned” is a misnomer because someone has developed the technology, established the standards of operation, determined the targets or reconnaissance area and operates the vehicle, albeit remotely.

“Obviously we see UAS as a growth industry,” Hall said. “But there are a lot of philosophical questions that come when you are talking about UAS. If you talk about completely unmanned during an operation and, at the last second, you need to abort, a machine doesn’t know that,” Hall said.

Hall said the Wiregrass has been a kind neighbor to Fort Rucker, and the post works to be active in area communities through service projects and city events.

“Our primary concern, of course, is the mission the Army has given us,” Hall said. “We look at what we have and we try to operate within what we are given and try to be the best. But, definitely, we’re thankful to be among friends in southeast Alabama.”

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