Saber Junction and bruised Bananas. Not the phrase you expect? It makes sense when you realize that the strikingly camouflaged UH-72 Lakota helicopters used by the US Army’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in Europe are dubiously nicknamed after a certain bruised fruit. Saber Junction confronts Lakota crews with three weeks of energy-packed exercise.
Earlier in April, Airheadsfly.com witnessed the kick off of Saber Junction at the US 7th Army Hohenfels training area in southern Germany . The area is the epicenter of the exercise for much of April. It is also a regular training ground for Airbus Helicopters UH-72A Lakotas, of which the US Army ordered well over 400.
The JMRC and it’s Lakotas exist to provide visiting forces with realistic training, and thus better prepare them for actual warfare. All is done under the watchful eye of an Observer-Controller-Trainers (OCT), all experienced officers who are quick to see where improvements are to be made.
Today, warfare seems to be limited to a sling load exercise and formation flying across the forest and fake villages of Hohenfels. In one of these villages, a minaret gives a clue about the scenario’s fought out. In a similar fake village, the minaret is replaced by a church. Elsewhere, tanks and other military vehicles cross the fields, signaling things are actually happening on the ground.
The relative peace in the Lakota’s cockpits contrasts with the actual numbers of this year’s Saber Junction: nearly 5,000 participants from 16 nations join forces and seek tactical interoperability. The exercise is originally meant to evaluate the readiness of one two US Army combat brigades in Europe. This year, the 173rd Airborne Brigade is at the focus of Saber Junction. On 12 April, the brigade showed itself in a massive airdrop near Hohenfels, using C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft.
Other airborne assets are UH-60 Black Hawks, CH-47F Chinooks and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. In fact, the Lakota is outnumbered by many; only eight are available at Hohenfels, four in standard green camouflage plus another four in the bruised banana scheme. The former is used for obervation flights mostly, while the latter acts as an opposing force.
The Lakota is however not the primary aircraft for those flying it, says chief warrant officer Thomas E. Weekley, one of it’s pilots. “We are all Black Hawk, Apache or Chinook pilots. We fly the Lakota specifically for the period we are here. After that, we transition back to our primary aircraft. In about a year, I will be back on the Apache. I have about 2,000 hours in that helicopter, including tours to Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Experience is what JMRC’s pilots have in common, which is the reason they fly the Lakota as an OCT. It’s a sought after position within the US Army, even when it involves flying a helicopter nicknamed ‘bruised banana’. It’s rewarding job, according to Weekely: “It’s great to see units improve with our coaching and sustain the things they already do well.”
Behind Weekely, a formation flight of three Lakotas returns to the flight line. They are readied for the next day’s flying, but mostly for all that’s to come next during Saber Junction.
More on this exercise will follow at Airheadsfly.com.
© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Video filming, editing and © by Vincent Kok – Orange Avenue Filmworks
Featured image (top): Its camouflage earned this Lakota a dubious nickname. (Image © Dennis Spronk)