The successful standardization of the training program enables the school, considered the region’s epicenter for rotorcraft pilot education, to grow.
A delegation of eight representatives from U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Air Force Technical Assistance Field Team (TAFT), visited the Colombian Armed Forces Coronel Carlos Alberto Gutiérrez Zuluaga Helicopter School (EHFFAA, in Spanish) during the first week of May 2018. The mission was to check on the development and objectives of the school’s support program, which the U.S. government sponsors since 2002.
The visitors reviewed the application of all phases of the helicopter crew training program, evaluated the school’s logistics and aircraft conditions, and looked at goal compliance. The EHFFAA campus is located at the 4th Air Combat Command on the Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish) Lieutenant Coronel Luis F. Pinto Air Base, in the department of Tolima.
“The result was satisfactory. After 16 years of continuous support and major investments from SOUTHCOM to bring about the cooperation set out in 2002 under Plan Colombia, the unit’s operation exceeded the delegation’s expectations,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel John Jairo Pardo Torres, commandant of EHFFAA, told Diálogo. “They returned to their country to recommend for continued cooperation in light of the school’s achievements, sustained growth, and plans to evolve in the future.”
The region’s pilot school
EHFFAA currently sets the bar for rotorcraft training in the region. Founded in 2002, its mission is to increase crew-members for Colombian Army, Navy, and Police helicopters to respond to the need for more operations to counter threats from guerrillas, terrorism, narcotrafficking, and ordinary criminal groups.
With guidance from SOUTHCOM, FAC proceeded to standardize the program to offer basic training. The guidance came with 17 UH-1H helicopters to launch the program.
“In 2008, the United States helped Mexico with helicopters, and [Mexico] sent its pilots to Colombia to train,” said Lt. Col. Pardo Torres. “We trained 120 [pilots], and we started to meet another objective: being the region’s go-to school based on a functional, efficient, practical, and standardized program.” Thanks to the Air Force TAFT, the group in charge of cooperation on helicopter pilot instruction in Latin America, EHFFAA also trains service members of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. Colombia’s first female helicopter pilot also graduated from the rotorcraft course in 2018.
The visit from SOUTHCOM coincided with an amendment to the contract to modify ownership of the aircraft that currently belong to the United States. In 2011, the original 17 UH-1H helicopters were replaced by 30 OH-58 rotary-wing aircraft, which were swapped in 2016 for 60 TH-67 helicopters. The school also has 12 Bell 206 Ranger helicopters for training.
“The classes use cutting-edge technology and high-speed connections,” FAC Lieutenant Colonel Camilo Moyano Rodríguez, head of Planning at EHFFAA, told Diálogo. “The training program uses a FAC-designed virtual platform through which students can make academic inquiries around the clock.”
Various factors led EHFFAA to make technological advances for training, including the number and availability of aircraft, capacity to provide 9,500 hours of basic training per year, the availability of four flight simulators to carry out 20 missions with 30 hours of flight intensity, and an airfield with three runways exclusively for training.
“We have a very good track record for operational safety,” said Lt. Col. Moyano Rodríguez. “Standardizing procedures, aviation terminology, manuals, checklists, protocols, safety bulletins, and alerts ensures the program remains on course.”
“The school’s future plans, which focus on internationalization, are another important element the SOUTHCOM delegation identified and valued,” Lt. Col. Pardo Torres said. “We taught two courses in English, with excellent results. Several countries showed interest in our English language training program, and we believe we are ready to take that step.”
Earning a military helicopter pilot license from EHFFAA requires eight months of intense training. The program includes an academic component, two contact phases, a basic instrument course, and a tactical and a night vision phase. The school has 50 instructors teaching the comprehensive program.
“The success of the Triangular Plan—what we call the union of pilots’ experience, support from the U.S. government, and partner nations—wouldn’t be possible if any of these components were missing. Without the financial support of the U.S. government, through resources, facilities, helicopters, maintenance support, fuel, etc., we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to develop the program, learn, and achieve the goals we set,” concluded Lt. Col. Pardo Torres.