Iraq — Face of Defense: Deskbound Pilot Aids Drawdown

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.

UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot
Army Capt. Cather­ine Omodt checks incom­ing flight sched­ules in her office at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, June 27, 2010, while coor­di­nat­ing the rede­ploy­ment of her brigade to Fort Bragg, N.C. Omodt is a UH-60 Black Hawk heli­copter pilot on her third deploy­ment.
U.S. Army pho­to by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod
Click to enlarge

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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)