In last night's newscast, we gave you a small excerpt of our coverage of the BDF helicopter training session.
Tonight, we have the full story, including a glowing recommendation by the instructors who are overseeing the training. Daniel Ortiz has that story:
Yesterday, we found BDF Captain Mark Babalola in a training flight of one of the BDF Helicopters.
His exercises involved hovering the rotorcraft just above the Helipad, and maneuvering it to familiarize himself with the precise knife-edge controls needed to pilot one the military's most prized assets.
From our very brief observation, he appeared to be doing spectacularly.
Captain Mark Babalola - Training Captain, BDF Airwing
"If you're used to it, or if you've flown before, it's like riding a bike, alright. Minor muscle memory because I graduated in 2012, so it's been a while, however, it's like riding a bike. You get in there, after a couple flights, it becomes the norm."
But, don't let the Captain's confidence mislead you. Getting to this point, where the BDF Airwing pilots can learn to operate and maintain these aircrafts has been a long journey.
If you'll remember, it started back when the BATSUB downsized in Belize. The BDF lost their helicopter support to move troops to and from the jungle border, and the only way to do that was seek private service at great cost to the Government.
Major Jermaine Burns - Commanding Officer, BDF Airwing
"To be honest, I was a bit discouraged when the British Army Training Support Unit left Belize, because I was once on the borders, and I know what it's like to be able to be so far in the jungle, and not have that capacity to just make a call to get an aircraft to heli-lift one of your men under your command out, particularly in times of injuries or emergencies."
The task of preparing the BDF Airwing to be fully self-sufficient falls to the Company, Belize Aviation. Their experts have extensive US Army Training, and the Belizean soldiers are getting world-class tutelage in all things related to rotary wing aircraft.
Badder Flores - Owner/Quality Engineer, Belize Aviation
"We've been supporting the Airwing since 91, since the inception of the Belize Aviation, and we've been working with Reynold's Aviation for the training, and these are the two instructors that were brought in. It's a one year training. We hope - and we believe from what we're seeing - that the students are pretty good. So, it's should be an easy transition. We're just here to pass on the knowledge, and hopefully everything will go well."
Glis Marin - Director of Maintenance, Belize Aviation
"It has been going smoothly. These guys have been doing a fantastic job."
William Malo - Instructor Pilot, Belize Aviation
"We've had about almost 200 hours of classroom instruction on flying, aerodynamics, parts and pieces of the helicopter, emergency procedures, normal procedures. And then, we started flying, and I was taking them out individually, and doing all of these maneuvers. We'll continue to practice all of the maneuvers. Our program is based off the US Army's training systems. So, both John and I were in the US Army. So, we're basing this system off their system for instruction."
To demonstrate just how well the training pilots have taken to the tough helicopter lessons, the Airwing Commander, and the Belize Aviation instructors decided to allow Captain Babalola to take the media on a brief fly-over.
After going through the safety procedures, we took off from the PGIA compound, and flew over Hattieville. It was a unique perspective, and in no-time, much to the surprise of the press, we were heading back to the Airwing's Helipad. What seemed almost routine, the take off, the fly-over, the turn, and the return journey was proof of the BDF Captain's control of the aircraft. There were no sudden movements in the air, just a smooth cruise through skies.
From the airlift, we got an interesting view of the Philip Goldson International Airport, a few minutes before we landed back at the helipad.
So, while that's from the pilot's perspective, the engineers have also been going through the rigorous motions.
The Belize Aviation's other experts, has been teaching the Arwing's technicians to service and repair their 3 helicopters.
John Fullerton - Maintenance Instructor, Belize Aviation
"We've been in class, with the very basic, this is a helicopter, and going all the way through to having engine classes, transmission rotor classes - all of the things that they need as background information. In the process of some of the flying that we've been doing, we've had a few things that were unusual, that have come up, and they've had to get into the books, and find out what to do. Mostly, I have simply stepped back and mentored. They're doing a beautiful job where they are progressing very nicely, and I am very very pleased with the work."
From a civilian's perspective, getting to know the each and every single part of these mechanical wonders, is a daunting task. The BDF Airwing is not the least bit intimidated. In fact, the Commander says that the the technicians will master it the very same way they mastered the BDF's fleet of airplanes, which once seemed alien to them as well.
Major Jermaine Burns
"From what was outlined, and from the experience we've garnered here with the training team, we are fully confident that we'll be able to take these aircrafts apart when the different servicing bulletins are due, and put them well back together. Even with engine changes and so on, we're confident that, after the package is finished, we will be able to do it. We started off in the early 1990's with the fixed-winged aircrafts, and we may have been asked that same question: are we confident that we have our Belizean people that can do this type of work? And, our fix-winged aircraft engineers have not failed us; our pilots have not failed us."
In that short time, of training under the Belize Aviation Experts, the BDF have already reached a competency level to perform emergency helicopter operations. Hurricane Earl's landfall in Belize required the immediate extraction of soldiers who were operating in the Chiquibul.
Major Jermaine Burns
"Just recently, before the hurricane, we were tasked with getting the guys out from the Machaquilha OP, the Ceibo Chico and the Rio Blanco OP's. And we were able to execute that, of course, under the tutelage of our trainers. So, it feels really rewarding to achieve such a milestone in such a short time. And Just two weeks ago, after the hurricane, we were able to do the said task. And so, whilst, we are still undergoing training, we are very confident, and very excited about the fact that we are getting closer and closer to be able to support our troops in the distant jungles of Belize."
The Experts certainly concur in their own expectations of the Belizean students.
"Well, I was kind of surprised at how well they've been flying helicopters. This aircraft is really easy to fly, and they've taken to it really well. It's just a matter of training on the individual maneuvers of this particular helicopter."
"Sir, by the time the year ends, are you confident that the BDF will be able to not only handle the aircraft but to be able to train their own soldiers to do the same?"
"Yes, I think we will, and that's what we're trying to do, to make these 4 guys the bases of the program. And then, when other students come in, they will continue on, and when we're done, in a year, they will be able to do that."
"The beauty of this old girl, and we have mountains of troubleshooting manuals, parts manuals, all of which are here for the gentlemen to work their way through. A large part of the classes was to learn to find the answer in the book without having to pick somebody's brain. And for them to go on a do that. I see no problems whatsoever."
And for soldier pilots like Captain Babalola, they get to live experiences which civilians only see in those blockbuster action movies.
To him, it's an honor which he would want to impart to young Belizeans hopeful of making a career in the military.
Captain Mark Babalola
"It's a great feeling. It's a great feeling, and I'll take this opportunity to appeal to all the youths out there. If you guys want it, you can achieve it. Hard work, but eventually, it paid off. So, invite all the young guys out there, and girls of course, who want to be a part of this movement. Stay focused in school, study hard, and join the Belize Defence Force. We're here for you."
In a briefing earlier in the morning, the BDF Airwing Commander told us that that having their own choppers for missions is a huge financial relief to the Government of Belize. A flight executed by the BDF and their new helicopters costs about $2,000. To do that same flight using a helicopter from a private company, like Astrum, it's about $35,000. That's a savings on average of $33 thousand dollars per flight. Of course, that's only a part of the picture since maintaining a helicopter carries a cost of its own.