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Homeland Security

Army Guard Helicopters Primed for Southwest Border Duty

Apr 06, 2007
BY Sgt. Jim Greenhill

GULFPORT, Miss. (Army News Service, April 6, 2007) - The first of three-dozen upgraded and overhauled OH-58 Kiowa helicopters are scheduled to arrive on the U.S. border with Mexico this month to boost the National Guard's support to the U.S. Border Patrol in Operation Jump Start.

National Guard Bureau officials say the helicopters will provide a significant boost to the air surveillance part of the mission as the operation to deter illegal immigrants from entering this country begins its second year.

The majority of the aircraft - 22 of them Vietnam-era - are being refitted at the Mississippi Army National Guard's 1108th Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot at the Trent Lott National Guard Training Complex near the Gulf of Mexico.

Other Kiowas are being worked on at the National Guard's three other AVCRADs in California, Connecticut and Missouri. AVCRADs provide depot-level maintenance to Army National Guard aircraft. The 1108th AVCRAD serves nine Southeastern states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Like the proverbial cat, the Army's scout helicopter introduced in 1968 keeps being reincarnated in the National Guard.

After conducting final flight testing March 23 on one of the first Kiowas prepared for the border mission, Maj. Bille Miller, supervisory maintenance test pilot, said: "The aircraft we just flew in was a 1971 model airframe. So, what's the return on investment? That aircraft has been flying for 36 years, and now it's been upgraded into a different configuration."

Unique to the National Guard, the four AVCRADs have wrung decades more service out of the relatively low-cost Kiowas than the aircrafts' originally projected 20-year lives.

For the border mission, where the Kiowas will help boost the Border Patrol's ability to spot and interdict those who traffic in people and drugs, the aircraft are being upgraded with a half-dozen 21st-century law enforcement devices.

The upgrades include radios that enable National Guard Soldiers to communicate with Border Patrol agents and other civilian law enforcement officers; moving maps that show pilots and passengers exactly where they are; radar altimeters that give the exact height above the ground during flight; night vision equipment; and two-million candlepower spotlights.

Higher skids are being fitted to raise the height of the helicopter. The aircraft are being rewired, fitted with new monitors and mechanically scrutinized from their rotor blades to their undercarriages.

"Upgrading it to these new systems is going to help the pilots tremendously," said Ronald Groce, a civilian contractor with the AVCRAD whose military career included surviving 13 helicopter crashes during two tours in Vietnam. He rejoined the 1108th AVCRAD as a civilian after retiring from a 28-year National Guard career.

"Everything we're doing enhances their flying capabilities," said Sgt. 1st Class Charlie Bond, an avionics mechanic. Some examples:

The moving map increases navigational accuracy by day and night. "A police officer can type in an address in the back seat or you can type it in in the front seat and it will take you from point A to point B," Miller said. During the journey, passengers can follow geographical and manmade features on computer map monitors.

The night vision equipment makes the helicopters - which can be flown so that it can barely be heard from the ground - useful at night. "We can ... see people moving because of their heat signatures," Miller said. "We can find people at night on the border."

The Soldiers of the 1108th AVCRAD have juggled deployments to Operation Iraqi Freedom and recovery from Hurricane Katrina - which damaged troops' homes and the hangar where they work - in addition to their contribution to the OJS mission.

Up to 6,000 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are assisting the Border Patrol on the nation's Southwest border. President Bush announced Operation Jump Start in May 2006.

(Sgt. Jim Greenhill writes for the National Guard Bureau.)

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