AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — Two-wheel landings on snowy Afghan ridge tops are more exciting, but managing the exodus of a 4,000-strong brigade during the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq provides its own challenges for one deskbound helicopter pilot with 82nd Airborne Division.
Army Capt. Catherine Omodt’s job is to orchestrate the movements of incoming and outgoing personnel and equipment of two “advise-and-assist” brigades as they swap places in Iraq’s expansive Anbar province for the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the beginning of Operation New Dawn.
As the officer in charge of “Team Pax,” Omodt provides command and control for the deployment of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade and the redeployment of her own unit, the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade, to the United States.
The former 101st Airborne Division UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and current brigade aviation planner said that knowing the abilities of helicopters – such as how many people they can carry and how much cargo they can take – and the ability to advise soldiers unfamiliar with the planning of the movements of large numbers of people are the most important skills she brings to her current role.
“In different times of the year, you can take more or less weight based on aircraft capabilities of heat, cold and other environmental and mechanical conditions,” Omodt said. “When 18 people show up with five bags each – you can fit 22 [passengers] on a [flight of] Black Hawks – I have to tell them they’re not going to get on with that equipment. Instead of having to call aviation, we have someone in the brigade that has that knowledge to be able to give realistic expectations.”
As a freshman at Vanderbilt University in 1999, Omodt’s expectations included neither helicopters nor the Army. With one sister working as an equestrian in Kentucky and the other heading off to work in interior design, Omodt set her sights on civil engineering. However, Vanderbilt’s $35,000-a-year fees spurred Omodt to investigate the ROTC program. By her sophomore year, the Army was paying for most of her education.
Five years later, she was flying Black Hawks in Iraq.
“Flying seemed like a fun way to spend my time in the Army,” she said. Omodt had listed medical service as a secondary branch choice, but received her first, aviation. “Some officers in medical service are also sent to flight school,” she explained.
Omodt’s first deployment was in September 2005 with the 101st to Forward Operating Base Speicher, a rotary-wing hub north of Baghdad, where she flew Black Hawks in general aviation support. Two years later, she was at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, again in the cockpit.
“Flying in Afghanistan was awesome,” she said. “I was there mostly in wintertime, and it was ranges upon ranges of mountains covered in snow. We could fly through passes and do two-wheel landings on top of ridgelines. It was both fun and beautiful.”
With more than 770 hours of flight time, Omodt’s third deployment landed her at a desk in Ramadi, Iraq, as her brigade’s aviation planner. The job was far less glamorous, but equally important, she said.
Her husband, Michael Omodt, a Black Hawk pilot deployed most of the year to Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, also was bound to a desk doing aviation liaison duty.
“We commiserated,” she said.
As the leader of a team of 11, she oversaw control of Anbar airspace at the lower altitudes where helicopters fly, paying particular attention to restricted operation zones and firing ranges. She coordinated everything from standard movement of passengers around the airspace to being the link between infantry companies and aviation during air assaults. “What surprises people the most is that they can’t always fly immediately,” Omodt said. “For some types of aviation travel, they have to schedule days in advance, and they can’t reserve seats.”
Knowing the ins and outs of the many different reservation systems for normal ring routes, special air movement requests, cargo flights, and fixed-wing flights and who controlled them was how her team helped the most, the captain said.
“For us, the biggest challenge was that the systems were constantly changing,” she added.
Late last month, Omodt and Team Pax began operations in Al Asad, where they will remain until the brigade is fully removed from Anbar. The hours are long and the work is at times tedious, Omodt said, but good aviation logistical support saves time, expense and stress on soldiers, and ultimately, it’s what gets soldiers back with their families.
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