Helicopter Pilots for Export
By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo August 15, 2017Wearing an olive green pilot’s uniform, Costa Rican Aerial Surveillance Service Police Officer Yuriana Arnesto Segura faces a great challenge - being her country’s first female helicopter pilot. Officer Arnesto is in the second week of the basic helicopter pilot course at the Colombian Armed Forces “Coronel Carlos Alberto Gutiérrez Zuluaga” Helicopter School (EHFAA, per its Spanish acronym), located at the 4th Air Combat Command (CACOM 4) of the Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym), in Melgar, department of Tolima, Colombia. “It’s an incredible honor and actually, a lot of pressure,” Officer Arnesto said. “I'm the first person to pave the way for the rest of the women in my country. It’s a commitment. I really have to make an effort to achieve this.” To meet her goal, Officer Arnesto begins her daily study routine in the early morning hours. The basic course lasts eight months, and among its curricular activities includes an academic portion, practice in flight simulators, and daytime and nighttime flight maneuvers. With her, students and instructors also begin their study routine. “Foreign personnel are treated quite especially. The course is highly demanding academically,” said Mexican Air Force First Lieutenant Amilcar Valentino García Cárdenas, a military pilot who is taking the basic course. “I’m hoping to achieve the best results so I can be a good helicopter pilot.” The course allows military personnel and police with or without flight experience to graduate as rotary wing pilots. Students are required to be in excellent physical and psychological condition as well as maintain high academic performance. The school “The school’s main objective is to train all helicopter crew members of the Colombian Armed Forces and, at the regional level, for the Americas — from Mexico to Chile — according to the requirements that each country sets through U.S. Southern Command,” said FAC Lieutenant Colonel John Jairo Pardo Torres, the director of EHFAA. Lt. Col. Pardo Torres added that the United States chose to finance the school in Colombia because of its strategic location in the region and its experienced air force. The school was created in 2002, and CACOM 4 took on rotary wing instruction for the country’s military services. “The school is an international model for helicopter pilots with excellent prestige,” Lt. Col. Pardo Torres added. Military and police graduates from Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, and Mexico, among other countries, have passed through the school’s halls. “This is the region’s Spanish-speaking institution for providing helicopter training to Latin American service members.” The basic course awards a certified Diploma in Rotary Wing Aviation by the Colombian Ministry of Education. The plan is to turn it into a master’s program. EHFAA also offers Flight Simulator and Flight Technician courses through interactive classrooms and training in a fleet made up of TH-67, Bell 206 Ranger, Hughes H-500, and Bell 212 helicopters. Over the program’s eight months, students acquire the knowledge and skills to fly an aircraft, conduct assigned missions, respond to emergency flight situations, and maneuver over different terrains. EHFAA has 32 instructors, most of whom are from FAC, but Colombian Army and Navy instructors also participate, as well as foreign instructors. “It’s not just about flying the aircraft but understanding it. They [the students] need to understand what the aircraft can really do and how to troubleshoot it in the event of failure,” stated FAC Captain Miguel Díaz, a pilot instructor for the TH-67 system. In his work, he looks to boost the students’ capabilities so they can operate the TH-67 using cabin flight instructions, aviation terminology, weather knowledge, helicopter control maneuvers, and the use of night-vision goggles, among others. Multifaceted training “Experiencing my first flight was very exciting. It almost made me cry,” said Peruvian Army First Lieutenant Jorge Escudero Escudero, a communications officer who is in his seventh month of pilot training at EHFAA. “The first time I was able to identify myself with the air control tower using my call sign, ‘Escudo’ [Shield], was very exciting.” The experience of flying is not the only challenge EHFAA students face. Interacting with different cultures is part of the training experience. “I didn’t know much about the Colombian Army or Air Force, and I wasn’t familiar with other cultures,” 1st Lt. Escudero added. “This is my first time outside of Peru, and I’m very grateful.” The school not only attracts students who want to fly. EHFAA instructors are driven to teach at the highest quality standards. “I did my basic pilot course at this school in 2005, and now I’m an instructor,” said Colombian Navy Aviation Lieutenant Commander Oscar Armando Molina Osorio, an EHFAA instructor. “I’m carrying on the legacy of my professors, and it fills me with pride today.” Lt. Cmdr. Molina recalled his time as a student when EHFAA began operations and had the goal of becoming a high-quality international school. “Back in my day, there was a vision. Today, it fills me with pride and admiration that FAC has led this program.” Being an instructor is a great challenge for Lt. Cmdr. Molina, as he has a keen sense of the responsibility of what teaching students from “his own country and from sister nations” entails. “This has been of great value to my professional development,” Chilean Air Force Captain Jaime Rodrigo Ulloa, a pilot and guest instructor at EHFAA, said. Capt. Ulloa has been an instructor for six months and he said that his international experience at the school is valuable to his country, both for its educational quality as well as the experiential exchange among the armed forces. “For Chile, this school is of great value because Colombia has combat experience.” International cooperation The U.S. Department of Defense, through its Aviation Technical Assistance Field Team (Aviation TAFT), has collaborated on helicopter pilot training in Latin America by expanding EHFAA. “TAFT oversees and manages the U.S. government’s participation in the Colombian Armed Forces’ rotary wing pilot training and in transforming the EHFAA school into a Regional Helicopter Training Center (RHTC),” said U.S. Army Major Adrian Villa, the head of TAFT. This support, he added, is focused on financial aid and on ensuring that the standardization of pilot training and the program’s oversight, quality control, and safety are maintained. “We’re training FAC on the TH-67 system,” Maj. Villa said. The program has donated 60 TH-67 helicopters. “The capacity that one helicopter gives to a military force is unmeasurable.” As the sun rises over the mountains surrounding the base in Melgar, Officer Arnesto gets ready to make her dream a reality. “I want to carry out my air monitoring duties as a pilot in my country,” she said, motivated at being the first Costa Rican woman at EHFAA. Lt. Col. Pardo Torres recognizes the importance of the quality standards and the brotherhood among the students. “This exchange has strengthened the bonds of friendship and camaraderie among partner nations,” he concluded.