FORT EUSTIS, Va. –
For decades, the whir of rotary-wing aircraft has been a staple at Fort Eustis, as it has at many Army posts. While helicopters have become synonymous with military bases, Fort Eustis lays claim to one of the most mission-critical airfields in the U.S. military, Felker Army Airfield.
Felker sits on the western-most side of Fort Eustis; nestled between the Pines Golf Course, a snaking myriad of swampy rivulets and the expanse of the James River. It is the third-busiest airfield in the U.S. Army - processing nearly 135,000 movements annually.
Per the airfield's manager, retired Army chief warrant officer, former attack helicopter pilot and current Army helicopter pilot, John Musser, movements are defined as "any action by an aircraft that requires the attention and control of air traffic controllers, to include landings, takeoffs, approaches and transitions."
A home for helos
The airfield opened Dec. 10, 1954 as Felker Heliport, becoming the first military heliport in the world. Its namesake was Warrant Officer Alfred C. Felker, the first Army warrant officer helicopter pilot to die in a crash, which occured while on a cross-country flight near Winterville, Ga., February 1953.
The heliport was the first permanent facility of its kind in the United States, designed exclusively for military helicopters. Initially, the heliport boasted a wheel-shaped design, connecting two bi-secting 600-foot air strips and eight landing pads. The wheel design harkened the distinct insignia of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, the "Ship's Wheel".
Today, the airfield's primary mission remains rotary-wing aviation; and while Felker provides a short runway capable of launching fixed-wing assets, nearly all of its movements come via helicopter traffic.
The Army runs several operations out of Felker, including maintenance training by the post's 128th Aviation Brigade. The brigade's 1st Battalion, 210th Aviation Regiment conducts armament and maintenance training in hangars at the airfield, supported by working simulators of the AH-64 Apache Longbow.
The Army Reserve's 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment flies its CH-47 Chinooks from Felker, having deployed in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as fire suppression, civil support and humanitarian relief missions in the U.S. in the past two decades.
The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command operates its two-ship flight detachment, flying the UH-72 Lakota in support of TRADOC's commanding general, undertaking his staff and distinguished visitor transportation mission.
In addition to these functions, the four flying tenants and visiting services operate a large array of rotary-wing aircraft at Felker, including, but not limited to the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, the Navy's SH-60 Seahawk and CH-53 Sea Stallion, the Coast Guard's HH-60 Jayhawk and a series of experimental and test aircraft operated by research, development, test and evaluation outfits on post. In total, more than 25 different airframes take to the skies over Felker.
Felker Naval Air Station?
Of the airfield's approximately 135,000 movements each year, the U.S. Navy accounts for anywhere between 80 and 90 percent of all air traffic at Felker, said Musser.
The Navy uses the airfield and its airspace to train SH-60 Seahawk pilots stationed on the south side at Naval Station Norfolk.
"The Navy uses us for OLF, or outlying field training. The Navy has few OLFs in the region, and sharing them with jets is an issue in training. Also, locals don't want these OLF training areas in their backyards or neighborhoods because of the noise," Musser explained.
Musser said Felker provides a perfect environment for pilots-in-training to perform a wide variety of scenario-based training unavailable in Norfolk.
"Felker provides a great facility because of its location on an island in the James River. Plus, we operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., so [the Navy] can come here until 11 at night without disturbing anybody or generating noise complaints."
Eyes in the sky
According to Musser, the day-to-day operations of Felker would be "impossible" without a team of expert air traffic controllers to manage the daily "hornet's nest" of traffic.
The airfield features several overlapping traffic areas, including a runway, training fields, confined area landing zones, helipads and a slope training area - all requiring the constant attention of the ATCs.
"It's a challenge unlike that at most airfields. At Langley [Air Force Base], the air traffic controllers focus their attention on the runway, running in one direction," Musser said. "Our controllers sit in the tower and have aircraft flying literally all around them."
The skill of the ATCs is reflected in the pristine safety record of the airfield. The last major incident, a Class A crash with no fatalities, occurred in March 1984.
Kevin Wipperfurth, one of Felker's ATCs, said the collective experience and skill of the veteran squad makes running the airfield easier. The six controllers on hand have more than 125 years combined experience working in ATC towers around the world in military and civilian traffic capacities.
However, the swarm of aircraft regularly occupying Felker's airspace, up to 800 operations in an eight-hour shift, gives even the most experienced controllers a challenge.
"This tower is unique in that you have so many different movement areas. It's not straightforward. With helicopters, there are a lot of different things you can do with traffic," said Wipperfurth, a retired Navy ATC. "It's complex but rewarding when you finally get the picture up here. When I first got up here, I said, 'Wow, I can't believe you guys do it like that.' But you learn it and it sticks with you. It's a different place."
Fellow tower controller Lance Baker, another former Navy controller who served alongside Wipperfurth while enlisted, said the airfield begins hosting aircraft around 9 a.m., with operations running well into post-daylight hours. Of these aircraft, a large portion is flown by new Naval aviators from training squadrons in Norfolk, which poses even more challenges.
"We have to look out the window and really look for these guys," Wipperfurth said. "Sometimes they're not where they say they are, being that they're in training out there and have never been in the area here before."
The team's robust Navy service experience has improved the communication between fledgling helicopter pilots and the tower.
"We're ex-Navy guys up here - we know their terminology," Baker said. "It's helped bridge the gap between the Navy and Army and developed a good relationship."
"We've been blessed. After I'd been here flying as a pilot, I was so impressed with the way they maneuvered the traffic and managed the airspace," added Musser. "One day, I landed, buzzed myself in, walked up, and shook their hands and told them how good of a job they do."
"Fast forward 15 years; I've been running the airfield for five years. In my many meetings with Navy personnel, never do pilots or commanders walk out the door without saying, 'Hey listen, we have to let you know these controllers are the best controllers up and down the east coast. They're just plain old sharp,'" he continued.
Despite the hectic flow of helicopters in and out during the busy days, the Felker controllers said they have "the best job imaginable."
"I'd rather do this than anything else," Baker explained. "Sure, some days it is stressful. People don't understand; they'll say 'All you do is sit in a tower in the air conditioning and talk to aircraft.' Complacency kills. You have to be able to take it down and ramp it back up with the aircraft - really stay sharp and on your game up here. But at the end of the day, I just love air traffic controlling. I've done a lot of years as a radar ATC and a tower ATC. You get to see your instructions unfold out there in the sky. I just love it."
Wipperfurth agreed, adding his own view on the professionalism at Felker.
"We like to provide a service, and we're able to do that at the highest level here at Felker," he said. "It's rewarding because we try to give pilots exactly what they want. The best part is when they say 'Thank you' and fly back home safely."