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Helicopter crews step up training


GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- On mornings when he hasn't had to fly the night before and isn't exhausted, U.S. Army helicopter pilot Melvin Dixon has been getting up at 6 a.m. lately to catch the previous night's evening network news as it's broadcast here from America.

"I figure it must be getting interesting, because O.J. Simpson's getting to be about No. 3 on the list," Mr. Dixon said, adding that practically everyone he knows in the military has been preoccupied with the war in Bosnia in recent days, what with the taking of hostages, the downing of an American F-16 and the growing possibility that some of the 70,000 U.S. soldiers now stationed in Germany might be sent to rescue the beleaguered U.N. peacekeepers in the Balkans.

Sure enough, Mr. Dixon found out Friday that he was being sent over the weekend to Grafenwoehr, a 40,000-acre U.S. Army training range, for some live-ammunition gunnery practice at the controls of an Apache attack helicopter.

"Being fully deployed like this gets us interested," said the 37-year-old Mr. Dixon, although he added that yesterday's thunderous noise of Black Hawk helicopters shooting their heavy machine guns and Apaches firing off rockets was nothing compared to the commotion he saw at Grafenwoehr just before being shipped out for Operation Desert Storm in December 1990.

The army's helicopter exercises got under way the day after Western defense ministers, meeting in Paris, backed the creation of a multinational rapid reaction force with U.S. air support to help protect U.N. troops in Bosnia and prevent further hostage-taking by Serbian forces.

About 1,900 pilots, gunners, mechanics and others from the 11th Aviation Regiment based in Illesheim, Germany, are to spend 10 days checking their instruments, practicing refueling and rearming operations, and trying to hit targets in daylight, in rain and at night.

None of the Apache crews are permitted to practice-fire their laser-guided Hellfire missiles, however, because of safety rules in Germany.

"This is really routine training for us," said helicopter pilot Scott Allen, who said he was happy to get away from his home base and fly, but was not eager for Bosnia duty.

"Any time you start to talk about a conflict, we're the ones who have to endure the hardships," he said. "We're not praying for something to happen so that we can get sent there."

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