David Elsberry was smiling, but inside the Apache helicopter pilot for the Idaho Army National Guard felt heartsick on Thursday.
“This is a sad day,” said Elsberry, waiting for the start of a ceremony sending off the Guard’s Boeing AH-64 attack helicopters.
Six Apaches stationed at Gowen Field are being sent to a National Guard center in West Jordan, Utah. There, they will be inventoried and redeployed, along with other Apaches from Army National Guard bases across the country.
In exchange, the Guard is receiving new Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to supplement their existing stable of those helicopters. The Guard is expected to have nearly two dozen Black Hawks after the new ones arrive.
“It’s my honor to be here with you today on what I think is probably seen by most of us as a bittersweet occasion,” retired Maj. Gen. James Cozine told a crowd of more than 300 National Guard members, former members and family members. “For some of us, I suppose, it’s mostly bitter. And, I suppose, for some of you, it’s all bitter.”
The audience also included Gov. Butch Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little.
Cozine flew attack helicopters during the Vietnam War and served in the Idaho National Guard from 1970 to 2005. He said he sympathized with the pilots, mechanics and other crew members who hate to see the Apaches go, but he was optimistic and excited about the future of the 183rd Aviation Battalion.
He said there had been great changes since the local Army Guard obtained its first fixed-wing aircraft in 1952 and its first helicopters in the 1960s. Battalion members have always embraced the missions handed them and maintained a commitment to excellence, he said. The transition to an all-Black Hawk fleet will be no different, he said.
“I believe the culture is what endures,” Cozine said. “This culture is one where we see an opportunity where others may see something completely undesirable. We see an opportunity to excel, not just meet a standard.”
National Guard members have also always had the ability to rebound, he added.
“I’m confident that that’s the culture in which you find yourselves, whether you’ve really thought about that or not,” Cozine said. “I’m excited to watch you take on the next mission, the next responsibilities.”
The Black Hawk is more versatile for state emergency use, said Col. Ralph Myers. It can be fitted with a water bucket to help fight fires and it has a cargo area that could transport injured people and medical personnel. The Apaches only have room for the two pilots.
The Apache pilots, mechanics and other personnel will undergo training so they can operate the Black Hawks.
Elsberry was one of 10 pilots to lift off Thursday morning in five Apaches from Gowen Field (the sixth one was out of service). Two Boise Airport fire trucks created a water arch for the helicopters to pass through on their way to the Gowen Field runway.
The helicopters then flew over the Idaho Statehouse and circled back to Gowen Field before heading to Utah.
“This is my world,” said Elsberry, who grew up in Emmett and who works in his civilian job for the Boise Fire Department. “I love the aircraft.”
Pilot Bob Ware, the battalion’s chief test pilot, has been flying since 1992. He said he will also miss the Apaches, but looks forward to getting trained on the Black Hawks.
“I have to start over,” he said, laughing.
Ware’s son, Staff Sgt. Jake Ware, will also have to make the transition. He serves as a non-pilot crew chief for an Apache group.
“It’s kind of sad. I’ve spent my entire 13 years on this aircraft,” Jake Ware said.