The aviators who landed Friday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord made some history: They flew the first Apache attack helicopters to be stationed there.
As sunlight glinted off their windshields, the formation of 10 Apaches and six Blackhawk helicopters made a lazy loop over Lewis-McChord, passing over its main headquarters building before touching down at Gray Army Airfield.
They are the first aircraft assigned to the 1st Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment to arrive at the local base as the unit moves from Fort Hood, Texas. It took three days and more than 2,200 miles to reach their destination, but the aviators couldn’t have asked for better weather in the home stretch.
“It was beautiful,” said Lt. Col. Geoff Crawford, the battalion’s commander, shortly after stepping out of his bird. “Perfect weather coming out here today, and beautiful scenery all day long.”
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The arrival of the battalion continues the buildup of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, which introduces air combat power to a base that redefined ground combat through its critical role in the development of the Stryker brigades.
Crawford, the battalion commander, said residents should expect to see a lot of helicopters from his unit flying around, starting in early August.
They should expect to hear them, too.
A study of the effects of moving the brigade to Lewis-McChord noted a “substantial increase” in noise from the growing number of helicopters training at the joint base.
At full strength, the brigade will have about 1,800 soldiers and 85 aircraft at Lewis-McChord. An estimated 1,400 soldiers have arrived, and the rest will relocate by early fall, said Capt. Jesse Paulsboe.
The brigade headquarters completed its move from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, in August.
Some of the Blackhawk support and transport helicopters and Kiowa reconnaissance birds already have arrived.
The Apaches bring the firepower: hellfire air-to-surface missiles, rockets and 30mm chain guns.
The first Apaches entered Army service in 1984 and were developed to destroy Russian tanks if the Soviets were to invade Western Europe.
Their role has evolved during the current wars to support ground troops in battle. The regiment is expected to receive the latest version of the Apache in 2013; it will fly a total of 24 attack helicopters.
Chief Warrant Officer Rob Teague, a 19-year Army veteran, said he provided air support for Stryker soldiers during a prior deployment and is excited about meeting the ground troops he may be assisting.
“We bring a unique capability,” he said. “They have a unique capability, and we can do a lot of good things together.”
Residents in surrounding communities should expect to hear more noise from the air.
Base officials have said pilots are instructed to stay above 2,000 feet and avoid flying over densely populated areas to keep the peace with nearby residents.
Crawford said he’d work to minimize the impacts of training on surrounding communities.
“We do understand that we have a relationship with the community, and if we don’t have the support of the community, it makes our job that much harder, so we have to respect that and work with them.”
Noise is not the only part of combat aviation training that invites public scrutiny. Accidents do, too.
Earlier this month, the brigade released its investigation of the mid-air collision of two Kiowa helicopters Dec. 12 on a Lewis-McChord training area in Thurston County.
Four aviators were killed in the accident.
Pilot error and blocked radio transmissions and radar signals contributed to the crash, the report said.
Paulsboe, the brigade’s spokesman, said the unit and its helicopters are continuing to train.
Teague, who was born at Fort Hood, said the aviation brigade’s move to Washington is bittersweet for him as he says goodbye to family in the South but looks forward to a change of scenery.
“This is a new chapter, not only for me and my family but for our unit as well,” said Teague, who will drive back to Texas later this month to help with his family’s move.
“Again, I’ve always heard about Apaches coming here, but now it’s finally true.”
christian.hill @thenewtribune.com 253-274-7390