SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
Roughly 3,000 feet above sea level in the mountainous valleys of Honduras, there is a familiar, rhythmic thumping that can be heard. Sometimes faint, and sometimes boisterous, the sound is unmistakable and it is something the residents of Honduras not only tolerate, but have also come to appreciate.
The thumping belongs to the helicopters assigned to the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, a subordinate command of U.S. Army South. The unit is responsible for promoting and executing aviation operations to facilitate U.S. Southern Command's strategy of engagement and security in theater.
As the only forward-deployed aviation asset in theater, the Winged Warriors of the 1-228th have a crucial mission. Partnering with the militaries and law enforcement agencies of the other countries within the Central American region to detect, deter and disrupt common security challenges, the unit is a major factor in enhancing regional security and stability while building partner nation capacity.
"Our mission is to support all the rotary requirements to Joint Task Force-Bravo within the Central America area of operations," said Maj. Ryan C. Hedberg, the 1-228th Aviation Regiment's operations officer. "We support all of the medical readiness exercises that our Medical Element unit executes here. In addition, we support humanitarian relief and disaster response operations within the Central America area. Our unit has even gone as far as Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake."
In 2011 the 1-228th, working with JTF-Bravo, supported 15 medical readiness exercises that treated more than 41,000 patients throughout Central America. In addition, 1-228th conducted support to other aviation missions, which included counter illicit trafficking operations, personnel recovery, humanitarian disaster responses and other operations for U.S. and partner nation personnel in Honduras and surrounding area.
The U.S. and Honduran forces have worked together for many years. The opportunities offered by having U.S. forces at Soto Cano Air Base provide the ability to conduct invaluable training and daily real-world operations. This year, U.S. Army South will plan and conduct a series of Beyond the Horizon exercises in Honduras utilizing the Winged Warriors of the 1-228th as a major tool in completion of that mission.
To complete their myriad of missions, the men and women of the 1-228th place an emphasis on working efficiently to maintain their fleet of aircraft. The unit consists of only 14 UH-60 Blackhawks and four CH-47D Chinooks.
"One of the biggest parts of our mission here is aircraft maintenance to ensure safety in the air," said Hedberg. "Last year, we logged more than 3,900 flight hours as a battalion. That's pretty significant for the size of our unit."
The flight hours also ensure readiness and training for the Soldiers and keep them primed to conduct contingency operations at a moment's notice. Through cooperative operations, exercises and activities with Honduran forces, the Soldiers of the 1-228th receive excellent training opportunities while improving conditions for communities in partner nation countries, something the Hondurans have surely recognized.
"Our relationship with the Hondurans is very warm," said Spc. Justin Finch, a UH-60 Blackhawk crew chief assigned to Alpha Company, 1-228th Aviation Reg. "We interact with different organizations and people, and when we train with them, it's very smooth. The Hondurans are always glad to see us and they always wave as we fly by. Every time we land somewhere the locals always want to take pictures with us."
"I've been in small villages and moderate cities. When we arrive, the people know exactly why we are there and they greet us with open arms," said Staff Sgt. Michael E. Tomlinson, a crew chief instructor assigned to Bravo Company, 1-228th Aviation Reg. "Any kind of positive interaction we have with the people definitely helps them out and I'm sure they're spreading the word to their friends and family."
In addition to building relationships and capacity with host nations in the region, the service members of the 1-228th have a unique chance to combine annual training requirements with real-world missions in one of the most challenging environments on the planet.
"You can't go more than an hour in any direction without running into a completely different environment, whether it's the ocean, triple canopy jungle or flatland," said Tomlinson. "It's extremely unique and it builds a lot of different training challenges for us."
While the terrain poses its own challenges, Hedberg adds that it's not the only obstacle to flying the Honduran skies.
"This is an extremely challenging environment to fly in due to the semi-tropical terrain and the weather patterns we get here," Hedberg said. "Because of where we are located in the hemisphere, we get a lot of weather patterns from the Caribbean and the Pacific that collide here."
Although there is accurate weather forecasting near Soto Cano Air Base and around many of the major cities, Hedberg maintains that the challenge for the crews of the 1-228th comes when they reach the in-between points, where there are little to no weather assets capable of providing accurate, up-to-date reports.
"Sometimes you can leave here and think you have great weather, until you cross the next ridgeline and it can be a completely different story," Hedberg said. "It teaches a lot of hard lessons first hand. It teaches the pilots and crews to be cognizant of the weather and how to read it."
Despite difficult conditions to fly in, the Soldiers of the 1-228th realize that the training hours they put in and the missions they complete while in Honduras are crucial to their professional development as they move on with their careers.
"Every single time we fly off post here, whether flying in adverse weather, jungles or mountains, the training we receive lends itself to creating an environment essential to maintaining safety and awareness and really being on your game," said Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Ryan Rooks, a pilot with the 1-228th Aviation Reg. "I think this is a great place to come down to if you're looking for real-world opportunities."
"There is a mission down here and it's been ongoing for many years," said Hedberg. "It's a very challenging mission and very rewarding mission."
For the Soldiers assigned to Soto Cano Air Base, each sunrise presents another set of missions and opportunities to keep them sharp. For the residents of Honduras, each morning presents another day filled with thumping noises from above and the reassurance that the Winged Warriors of the 1-228th Aviation Regiment are flying over them, contributing to the effort for a safe and secure region.