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Drop zone could boost state's role as training center

Kenny Kemp
A pod of four 50-gallon drums begins its descent to a new West Virginia National Guard drop zone near Fola in Clay County during a training exercise on Tuesday.
Kenny Kemp A pallet carrying nearly two tons of cargo drifts toward a target marker at the West Virginia National Guard's new drop zone in Clay County.

FOLA, W.Va. -- Flying at about 1,000 feet above the hills of Clay County, a trio of West Virginia Air National Guard C-130s approached a 360-acre drop zone on an expanse of a reclaimed surface mine, opened their cargo ramps, and reduced their air speed to 150 miles per hour.

Near the center of the drop zone, a bright orange triangle called a raised angle marker, or RAM, marked the bulls-eye point for the impending airdrop. Next to the RAM, members of a ground crew activated a smoke canister, sending a yellow cloud billowing upward and into a brisk current of air, marking wind direction for the crews aboard the approaching aircraft.

A small extraction chute appeared at the rear of the first C-130, and as it fully deployed, began pulling a two-ton pallet of railroad ties off the ramp and into the air. As the pallet began to drop, two 64-foot parachutes attached to it filled with air and began curbing its rate of descent.

 The process was repeated twice more, and within a minute, six tons of cargo were on the ground, all within about 100 yards of the RAM.

"That's a good example of why the guys on the ground in Afghanistan want West Virginia guys flying their loads," said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the state's adjutant general, who was among those watching an airdrop exercise at the West Virginia National Guard's new Fola drop zone on Tuesday.

The new drop zone, made available to the West Virginia National Guard at no cost by Consol Energy, replaces a practice airdrop area in Mason County previously used by the Guard. When the owner of the Mason County property opted out a lease agreement about a year ago, Guard personnel began looking for alternative sites within brief flying distance from the 130th Airlift Wing's base at Charleston's Yeager Airport.

"We heard they were looking for a new drop zone, and we had this reclaimed land available," said John Goroncy, general superintendent for Consol Energy's Fola Operations, a complex of mines, reclaimed mines and forest in a 12,000-acre tract along the Clay-Nicholas County border. "We try to be a good corporate citizen, and this was one way to show that we are. And how could you find a better way to support our troops?"

Before the new Fola drop zone opened, aircrews from the 130th had to travel to drop zones near Fort Bragg, N.C, or Youngstown, Ohio, for training drops.

The hills and valleys surrounding the Fola drop zone give aircrews the opportunity to practice terrain masking, or ground-hugging flight, to reduce their radar profiles and defeat anti-aircraft weaponry.

The 130th Airlift Wing's lack of a first-rate drop zone within a short distance of its base was cited in 2005 as one of the reasons why the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commission initially considered decommissioning the Charleston airbase.

When the 130th Airlift Wing comes up for BRAC review again, having the Fola drop zone in use will strengthen the unit's position, Hoyer said.

The drop zone has been certified for use by other military air transport units, which is expected to bring flight crews and aircraft from across the nation to Charleston in the months and years to come.

"Like the Memorial Tunnel and the MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle] course next to it, this is part of our ongoing plan to make West Virginia a national leader in fulfilling Department of Defense training needs, while saving the nation money," Hoyer said.

 In the meantime, the drop zone is being used several times weekly by aircrews and aircraft from the 130th, which will take part in another deployment to Afghanistan in March.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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