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NEWS | July 30, 2013

Hidden in the hangar: elite chopper pilots

By Airman 1st Class Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

In the isolated hangar housing two helicopters used for transporting the Training and Doctrine Command's commander, three pilots schedule flight plans, check the status of their choppers and tally up flight hours. The fluorescent buzz of overhead lighting is the only sound aside from the occasional question or comment. All in all, another quiet day in the office.

It may be a surprise to discover these three pilots have put in more than 10,000 flight hours combined, deployed more than three times each and have all been in harm's way on numerous occasions.

The pilots at the TRADOC flight detachment are not novices to the art of flying helicopters. While their job today may not be as dangerous as a deployment, their experiences overseas earned them the position they hold.

"We've all had a lot of close calls before this job," said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Scott Cotriss, TRADOC flight detachment and scout helicopter pilot. "Personally, my scariest moment was when a round went into my co-pilots helmet."

While deployed to Afghanistan, Cotriss and his crew were scouting when they came under small-arms fire from below. While pulling away from the situation, a stray round pierced the cockpit and struck the co-pilot's helmet a mere foot away from Cotriss. Luckily, the co-pilot survived and they returned to base without sustaining any serious damage, said Cotriss.

These experiences are shared by the other pilots. Rob Schoerner, TRADOC flight detachment and retired medical evacuation pilot, demonstrated the necessity of quick thinking when called in for a medevac.

"I received a call at two in the morning to get in my chopper and prep for take off," said Schoerner. "In the air, I was told a refugee bus hit an [improvised explosive device] and I would be transporting them to nearby medical facilities."

With little time to coordinate, Schoerner and his team recovered all 18 survivors from the wreckage.

One pilot saw the fruits of his labor while driving through Fort Drum, N.Y., shortly after a deployment. U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Smith, TRADOC flight detachment and scout helicopter pilot, said he had the opportunity to meet and speak with Soldiers who he had personally assisted during one of his missions.

"I was passing by Fort Drum and stopped by a bar one night," said Smith. "I started talking to a few guys who were stationed overseas at the same time I was, and they swore up and down I had saved their lives."

During one of Smith's combat tours, he was told last to provide short-notice support for nearby Soldiers who were under fire. Smith provided cover fire and set a perimeter while another chopper airlifted the injured. What he thought was another day on the job turned out to be the saving grace for those Soldiers.

After all of their deployments, missions and experiences, the three pilots used their varied experiences learn what was truly important.

"What we did out there was to ensure everyone made it back home," said Smith. "At the end of the day, it was always about taking care of one another."

After a long moment of silence, Cotriss's phone buzzed; he had to get back to scheduling the next flights for the month. Smith left to speak with one of the crew chiefs, and Schoerner returned to filtering through the day's email traffic, leaving only the faint buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead to break the silence.