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Snowbird offers desert training for U.S. allies heading to Iraq

Squadron Leader Simon Elsey inspects his RAF Puma helicopter on the Snowbird ramp at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Oct. 1. Two Pumas were delivered to D-M from the United Kingdom via C-17. The Puma is a medium-lift support helicopter used to transport between 12 and 16 fully equipped troops. (Air National Guard photo by Capt. Gabe Johnson)

Squadron Leader Simon Elsey inspects his RAF Puma helicopter on the Snowbird ramp at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Oct. 1. Two Pumas were delivered to D-M from the United Kingdom via C-17. The Puma is a medium-lift support helicopter used to transport between 12 and 16 fully equipped troops. (Air National Guard photo by Capt. Gabe Johnson)

British Airmen tow a Puma helicopter on the Snowbird ramp at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Oct. 1. The Royal Air Force’s 230 Tiger Squadron will train here as part of Operation Snowbird from Oct. 3 through Oct. 17.(Air National Guard photo by Capt. Gabe Johnson)

British Airmen tow a Puma helicopter on the Snowbird ramp at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Oct. 1. The Royal Air Force’s 230 Tiger Squadron will train here as part of Operation Snowbird from Oct. 3 through Oct. 17.(Air National Guard photo by Capt. Gabe Johnson)

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Before leaving the wet grasslands of Northern Ireland for the arid deserts of Iraq, the Royal Air Force's 230 Tiger Squadron will train here as part of Operation Snowbird from Oct. 3 through Oct. 17.

The squadron's 60 Airmen brought with them two RAF Puma helicopters from Belfast International Airport for essential training in preparation for their upcoming deployment to Baghdad International Airport. The unit will soon depart for a two-month rotation, a normal tour length for RAF squadrons.

Operation Snowbird, an Arizona Air National Guard detachment at D-M, hosts a diverse array of aircraft visiting Southern Arizona; their last stop before deployment.

"Here we have perfect conditions," said RAF Squadron Leader Simon Elsey, a Puma pilot. "We need high temperatures and soft sand which is what we get here."

Their primary objective is to practice landings in the desert sand to gain confidence during brownouts, a situation unique to helicopters when dust overtakes the aircraft from behind reducing visibility. Pilots have compared landing during brownouts to parallel parking an automobile with eyes closed.

"Each pilot in the squadron will practice about 30 to 40 landings while we're here and that experience will be invaluable to us in Iraq," said Elsey.

The RAF visits Snowbird roughly six times per year. This visit is Elsey's second, and his brother, a Tornado navigator, has visited several times as well. Like all Snowbird visitors, they share the wealth of good weather and vast training ranges with D-M's resident A-10s.

"I first came to Snowbird in August for training and I really like Tucson." he said. "My brother told me how great it was to fly here. It's not just for the weather and airspace, it's also the people.

"It is astounding! In the nine years I've been in the air force, and in all the detachments I've been to, I've never see any support like this. Day or night, no matter what the problem, we know help is just a phone call away."

As hosts, Guard and active duty Airmen coordinate airspace, airfield logistics, billeting, communications, weapons and maintenance issues.

"Since 9/11, Snowbird and Davis-Monthan have worked together to provide realistic pre-deployment training to Air National Guard, active duty and international flying units," said Lt. Col. Jeff Butler, Operation Snowbird commander.

"We also make sure they understand the base's traffic patterns and noise abatement procedures," said Colonel Butler. "All of our allies, especially the U.K., fly and fight right along side us in the War on Terror. They're good partners and friends so we take excellent care of them when they're here."

According to Elsey, Puma aircrews that were here with him in August are now in Iraq. "It's through the support and the assistance of D-M, and Snowbird in particular, that it's possible for us to prepare for deployment so quickly."