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Black Hawk helicopters a part of Tampa Bay scene

CLEARWATER

The sounds of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter start as a droning whir.

A soldier in several layers of heavy sand-colored flight gear leans out the back, acting as a side-view mirror as the 64-foot military chopper taxis to the takeoff point.

The blades start to turn, and wind picks up as they beat against the air at an accelerating speed. Up close, the sound is deafening when the menacing helicopter hovers a few feet over the tarmac before heading south.

"It's an awesome aircraft," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Blaine Tirendi, a standardization pilot for the Army Reserve.

At 5:30 on a Tuesday afternoon — delayed almost two hours due to weather — the four-person Reserve crew is following one of its typical flight paths: St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport to Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg for training.

If Tampa Bay area residents see a Black Hawk passing over their neighborhood, they're likely from the fleet of 23 based at Clearwater's Army Reserve Aviation Support Facility.

The hangar at the St. Pete-Clearwater airport is home to two companies that train in the area, often in conjunction with the troops at MacDill Air Force Base.

On top of land-based exercises — such as practicing combat flight maneuvers, paradrops and roping down from the helicopters — they use the bay for training water-based operations. The troops practice helocasting, which is when a soldier wearing scuba gear jumps from the helicopter into the water, as well as landing on naval ships.

Alpha Company, which performs general support work, came to Florida in 2001, backed by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. It was the first Army Reserve unit to have helicopters, following a period in the 1990s when the branch reduced its utility assets.

In 2009, Foxtrot Company joined as the first medical evacuation unit for the Reserve since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Adam Stein, a standardization instruction pilot. Despite the pressure of starting a unit from scratch, he said Foxtrot performed well in Afghanistan just a year later, setting a standard for Army Reserve medevac companies.

More than 100 soldiers deployed with Foxtrot Company to Afghanistan, where the unit saved about 1,200 lives by transporting people with medical needs in Black Hawks equipped to provide ambulatory care. Every soldier returned alive to Clearwater last October.

"We went, we completed every mission we had in Afghanistan," said Stein, who has a wife and two sons, 3 and 5. "Given that we had such a junior company. … I would say it was a success."

Alpha Company is preparing for a mission that requires them to "deploy to Clearwater," said Tirendi, 45, who also returned from Afghanistan last year. Alpha is participating in a first-time joint task force mission with civilian agencies to react to any sort of disaster in the United States, such as an attack.

In the event of a large-scale disaster, certain army Black Hawks, including those with Alpha Company, would be the only aircraft flying in and out of the disaster zone. Tirendi said past situations that required frequent airlifting, like Hurricane Katrina, when there was little coordination and communication between civilians, showed the need for one group to manage the airspace.

"It was a mess in the air," he said. "Assets from civilian agencies and military agencies converged. It was a beehive in there."

He added that the company's quickly established reputation is why it was chosen for the task.

Stein noted that, as a small facility, many of their higher-ups are located in other states. They rely on the airport and local Florida businesses for many services and supplies. Even though the facility is less well known because it is tucked away and possibly overshadowed by MacDill, Stein said he has felt strong local support.

Because they're located in a high-density area, where it's difficult to fully avoid flying over homes, Tirendi said the facility occasionally receives noise complaints. The pilots try to "fly friendly" and avoid the areas where the complaints come from.

"We don't like to fly under the moniker of 'It's the sound of freedom,' " he said. "We understand that these people spend good money and taxes to live where they live, and we happen to be here."

Lauren Carroll can be reached at (727) 893-8913 or lcarroll@tampabay.com. Follow @LaurenFCarroll on Twitter.

Black Hawk helicopters a part of Tampa Bay scene 09/03/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 1:59pm]
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