A Pilot's Life: Airborne in the atoll

 - November 1, 2006, 11:47 AM

Bob Fore works for AirScan, a contractor to the U.S. government supporting range activities in the Marshall Islands, a vast isolated archipelago sprinkled about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1,400 miles east of Guam. The company is based with the U.S. Army on Kwajalein Atoll, otherwise known as the Reagan Test Site (RTS).

The RTS looks after missile tracking equipment located on eight (of more than 100, mainly uninhabited) islands sprinkled throughout the atoll. There is a comprehensive suite of precision metric and signature radars, optical sensors, telemetry receiving stations and impact-scoring devices. The RTS provides both mobile and fixed ground and flight safety instrumentation. Its Web site, www.smdc.army.mil/RTS.html, claims that the sensors provide “unparalleled” capabilities to optimize ballistic missile and ballistic missile interceptor testing.

U.S. armed forces have been on Kwajalein Atoll since they recaptured it from Japanese troops in a bloody battle in 1944. Testing has been going on since the mid-1950s and the range has supported several missile-, space- and weather-based missions. Some of the pilots have been flying around the atoll for 18 years and witnessed several program changes. However, Robert Gray, a colleague of Fore’s, spent his childhood in the atoll and returned as a pilot only a couple of years ago. “The place hasn’t changed a lick,” he said.

AirScan won the contract from Raytheon a few years ago. In recent years it has used the Dash 7, Twin Otter, Beech 1900 or Swearingen Fairchild Metro as its primary fixed-wing aircraft, but the old UH-1H has been the rotary workhorse since the 1970s.

Up to seven times a day, unit pilots make a fixed-wing commuter run to the small island of Roi-Namur, 40 miles north of Kwajalein. Fore said, “We also make a helicopter run up to four times a day out to smaller islands–some of which are only big enough for the helipad. We fly engineers, technicians and supplies to the sites so they can operate and maintain the sensor equipment scattered about the range.

“We also provide medevac and search-and-rescue (SAR) services, but our government-issued UH-1Vs are severely limited in those roles. No NVG, no rescue hoist, single engine over water at night–sound like fun?”

Military Flying

Fore joined the U.S. Army in 1968 and trained at the Fort Wolters aviation school in Texas. “I wanted to fly and the army was the only service that accepted high school as well as college graduates for flight training. I did better in the helicopter tests than in the airplane ones, which surprised me, as I’d grown up among airplanes and had never even sat in a helicopter.”

After gaining his wings in the last class to train on the Bell 47 (subsequent classes would use the OH-23 Hiller or TH-55 Hughes 300), Fore arrived in Vietnam in June 1969 and was assigned to the 117th Assault Helicopter Company (known as the Warlords), 222nd Combat Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Brigade. During his first four months in country he served as a copilot in UH-1H Hueys, supporting special forces in the area around Saigon, Tay Ninh, Cu Chi and Long Thanh.

“Our job was to insert and extract special forces teams from landing sites that ranged from heavy triple-canopy jungles to rice paddies and included just about every other type of area you could imagine. Often the extractions would involve the use of McQuire rigs (three 200-foot long ropes, anchored to the Huey’s floor and dropped to the troops waiting on the ground). They would secure the ropes to their harnesses before being lifted from the jungle and flown to a safe location while dangling below the helicopter. We also evacuated wounded troops and helped any units that required helicopter support in our area.”

After four months, Fore transferred to a gunship platoon (UH-1C) that mostly flew night missions using Nighthawk or Firefly devices. The Nighthawk helicopters would use infrared lights to locate enemy positions; then turn on the high-intensity Firefly light to pinpoint the position for accompanying gunships to attack.

At the end of his combat tour, Fore returned to the U.S. and instructed at Fort Rucker until leaving the Army.

Offshore Flying

Fore held a number of flying jobs during the next 10 years, and in February 1981 he took a job with Indonesia’s Airfast Services, flying the Sikorsky S-58T on contract for the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) of India, in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

“We flew out of Port Blair and, on my first work rotation there, took part in the rescue of crewmembers from the Taiwanese cargo ship Primrose, which had run aground on a nearby island. We landed on the ship’s cargo hatches three times in 40-knot crosswinds with only 18 inches of blade clearance on each side from heavy cargo cranes. Thankfully, an Indian Navy fixed-wing pilot flew in on the first lift and provided much appreciated ground clearance from the cranes.”

After the ONGC contract finished, Fore continued working in Indonesia’s Sumatra, Borneo and Sulewesi islands, flying both offshore and oil exploration support for heli-rigs. “I left Airfast in 1984 after the oil industry entered a slump and oil exploration contracts dried up.”

When he returned to the U.S., Fore was offered a position with a new company called Capitol Helicopters in Washington, D.C. “We flew the SA 365N Dauphin II on an operation linking Dulles International, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Baltimore-Washington Airport. Though the operation had potential, the company was short of financial backing. Then one of the backers pulled out and the writing was on the wall, so I took an offer from Carson Helicopters, in Perkasie, Pa., to fly heavy-lift operations around the northeast and north-central U.S. in S-58Ts an S-61s.”

Job Stability

After four years flying tv work for Orange State Helicopters in Zephyrhills, Fla., Fore took the job in the Marshalls. “I started here in August 1989 as a copilot and made

captain in 1993.
“All of us here are high-time pilots with long careers in aviation. Additional missions include photography, security, special missions for missile testing and 24/7 medevac support. With that last task we support not only range personnel but also the indigenous populations located at sites throughout Kwajalein.”

Pilots have to be dual-qualified in both airplanes and helicopters. A typical day involves an early start for both fixed-wing and helo crews, with several airplane flights to Roi-Namur being the norm, and a couple of helo runs to outer islands. There is often a break around noon, before they make the return trips.

Now that he’s 55, Fore says he’s staying “primarily for job stability. As my career begins to wind down–I’ve been flying for 37 years now–that becomes more and more appealing. I have done many things in my aviation career and been to many places. Often, though, I’ve lived with a great deal of insecurity, whether because my employer had limited resources or the industry was going through a recession at the time. Kwajalein has provided me with the chance to fly an important mission with highly dedicated and skilled people from many fields. It’s a challenging and interesting job.

“I guess I might be tempted by other opportunities, such as the chance to fly a new type or a particularly challenging type of mission that I have not flown before, but I do not know if I would be happier. I’m settled now, and that’s a good feeling by itself.”