2's Company 400's a Crowd - Air Force Academy manages one of the world's busiest flight lines

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
Swirling winds pick up without warning; thunderstorms roll over the mountains out of thin air; lightning strikes light up the sky with hair-raising frequency. It seems this would be one of the last places you'd want to establish an airfield for two missions - parachute and glider training - with more than a combined 400 sorties and jumps per day.

But for the U.S. Air Force Academy airfield located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs, Colo., it's business as usual. Not only do they overcome significant weather obstacles, they sport the busiest visual flight rules airfield in the world with the youngest student pilots in the Air Force. They fly more than 200 glider sorties per day and do nearly as many parachute jumps.

"For the amount of sorties we do a year, we have an amazing safety record," said Capt. Keith Henderlong, 306th Flying Training Group flight safety officer at the academy. "Our safety record is one of the (best) in the Air Force."

As a matter of fact, the academy's last Class A mishap (those that cost $1 million or more) occurred in 2002 when a glider experienced a structural failure. The cadet bailed out, suffering no injuries. The glider, however, was a total loss.

"When talking about parachutes and gliders, the wind can wreak havoc," said Capt. Tammer Mahdy, 306th FTG safety officer. "You can only do so much with a parachute. If a strong wind takes your chute, it takes you."

Weather challenges student training every day. And with so much activity going on, this 4,500-foot airfield can tend to seem small.

"We need to carefully coordinate our (flying activities) to make sure everybody is clear so nobody has any mid air collisions," said Cadet Josh Gunderson, glider instructor pilot. "The gliders, parachutists and the Twin Otter aircraft could easily cross paths. The fact that they don't very often is amazing."

With a combination of inexperienced students, bad weather, gliders, parachutes and Twin Otter aircraft, the Academy had to establish some safeguards to protect their students.

For instance, on the skydiving side, they switched from round chutes to square chutes in 1995 to give students more control when landing. This cuts down on off-field landings (such as on roads) and injuries. For the gliders, there are alternate landing fields near the airfield just in case the students can't make it back to the runway safely.

Additionally, when crossing the runway there is an alarm to let students know when aircraft are approaching.

"The cadets do great safety-wise because of their training and supervision," Henderlong said. "We are not trying to make outstanding pilots or skydivers out of them. We are trying to provide leadership through airmanship, and safety is a huge piece of that. They are getting exposed to safety early on in their careers and will be able to take that experience with them wherever they go."