Heretofore, only about 200 of nearly 11,000 South Carolina National Guardsmen have been based in Greenville County.
Going forward, however, the state's most populous county will have many more of the men and women in uniform.
Earlier this month, Guard pilots began flying from a new helicopter station at the South Carolina Aviation and Technology Center in southern Greenville County.
The $27.5 million Army Aviation Support Facility is home base for 10 helicopters — six Chinooks and four Lakotas — and 75 full-time soldiers.
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Another 200 part-time Guardsmen will work at the 110,000-square-foot facility, where helicopters will soon be lifting off 30 times a week from a giant concrete pad, according to Lt. Col. Charles Lewis, the commanding officer.
The helicopters were moved from McEntire Joint National Guard Base, which is in Eastover near Columbia and remains home for the Guard's Blackhawk and Apache helicopters and its F-16 fighter jets.
The new helicopter station is Greenville's first military presence of any size since Donaldson Air Force Base closed in the early 1960s, according to local historian Judy Bainbridge.
And more is coming.
In January, the Guard is scheduled to break ground on two other buildings next to the helicopter station, creating a military complex that will perform a variety of functions.
Up to 70 full-time Guardsmen will use one of the buildings to maintain and repair hundreds of military vehicles such as Humvees and trucks for carrying cargo or troops, officers said.
The other building will house an armory for soldiers working with the helicopters as well as a school for training aircraft maintenance mechanics.
The Guard will operate the school in conjunction with Greenville Tech, which will move its existing aircraft maintenance program into the new building.
Graduates will be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for airframe and power plant work.
Guard units in South Carolina and other states need that kind of mechanic to work on Lakota helicopters, officers said.
Skills taught at the school are also sought by private-sector aviation companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp., which refurbishes military planes on a 282-acre campus within sight of the new helicopter base, and The Boeing Co., which builds its 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston.
Lewis said the helicopters were moved to Greenville because they'd outgrown their space at the McEntire base near Columbia.
In addition, he said, the Guard sees strategic benefit in spreading air assets around the state and an opportunity for recruiting in the Greenville market.
The Guard needs manpower with technical skills and has "kind of tapped out the Columbia market," Lewis said.
The helicopter crews will fly to landing zones in South Carolina's Sumter National Forest and North Carolina's DuPont State Recreational Forest as a way to practice low-level flying in both flat and mountainous terrain, according to an environmental analysis prepared by the Guard to satisfy federal requirements.
The pilots will also simulate carrying Humvees by lifting concrete blocks weighing up to 25,000 pounds and flying them to public airports in Anderson, Greenwood, Pickens or Oconee counties.
Lewis said the number of flights per week could rise to 40 during peak training cycles.
Greenville Tech's aircraft maintenance department is currently housed in an older building next to the new helicopter station.
The building doesn't have enough room for all of the nine airplanes and one helicopter that Tech uses for teaching, so some of the aircraft are kept outside and moved inside as needed, said Carl Washburn, head of the college's aircraft maintenance department.
In the new building, he said, Tech will be able to put all of its aircraft inside a hangar shared with the Guard.
"So rather than wasting the time moving airplanes around we're focused on teaching these technicians and making them better," he said.
Once the school moves into the new building, Washburn said, it will be in a position to ask the FAA for permission to expand enrollment from 120 students to 150 and possibly more over time.
He said Stevens Aviation, which refurbishes military and civilian aircraft in a hangar behind the new helicopter base, and a Honeywell plant in Greer that makes helicopter engines are two other local employers that hire the kind of mechanics produced by the school.
Washburn said he wouldn't be surprised if other aviation companies set up shop at SCTAC to be near the school.
Jacqui DiMaggio, Tech's vice president for finance, said the college will spend $6 million on the armory building to satisfy a federal requirement for a 20 percent local match.
About 80 soldiers who were stationed at an existing Guard armory at SCTAC were re-assigned to Spartanburg, said Lt. Col. Andrew Batten, the officer in charge of Guard construction in South Carolina.
National training center
The Guard could expand even more in Greenville if plans for a national training center are approved by the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia.
The proposed training center would teach military units and civilian first responders such as police and fire departments how best to work together in the event of a national emergency such as a hurricane, said Les Eisner, a recently retired major general who came up with the idea of developing the Greenville complex more than 15 years ago.
He said the center could use virtual reality technology as well as real-life exercises to simulate disaster scenarios.
Eisner, a two-star general when he retired from the state Guard in March, said he sees a need for military units and civilian first responders to train together.
"In a combat zone, the military's in charge. Domestically, we're not in charge. We're in a support role," he said. "So the people in charge have to understand our capabilities, our limitations, our strengths in order to better serve them."
Eisner said decision-makers in the National Guard Bureau have expressed support for the training center concept but it remains a "work in progress."
The Guard says it will operate the helicopters as quietly as they can and stay out of designated "no fly" zones that are the most noise-sensitive areas.
But that hasn't stopped some residents near SCTAC from complaining already.
Ed Paxton, who lives about two miles from the helicopter station, scoffed at the Guard's conclusion in its environmental analysis that the training flights would have no significant adverse impact, given the mitigating measures.
"As far as I'm concerned, the only people there will be no significant impact to are those people who are deaf," Paxton said.
Carl Stoner, a retired IBM field engineer and former Cessna pilot, said he knew his house was in the path of SCTAC air traffic when he bought it in 1998.
Noise became a problem, he said, when huge transport planes changed their approaches to the Lockheed Martin campus. Now he's concerned about the addition of helicopter noise.
"If they go west of me I don't care," Stoner said. "If they go east, my way, I do care. I will be extremely ticked off."
Paxton and Stoner also said they think hauling huge concrete blocks suspended from helicopters by cable in a populated area raises safety concerns.
Greenville County Councilman Willis Meadows said he thinks the concerns are legitimate, and he will ask the Guard to conduct the training with concrete blocks somewhere besides SCTAC and stick to a set schedule.
"If you're going to lift 25,000 pounds, it's going to make a lot of noise when it lifts off," Meadows said, referring to the double-rotor Chinook helicopters.
County Councilman Butch Kirven, however, said the helicopter base shouldn't create much more aircraft noise than SCTAC has been producing for a long time.
The 2,600-acre industrial park with an 8,000-foot runway used to be Donaldson Air Force Base.
"I think the worries about the noise have been greatly overblown," said Kirven, a former brigadier general in the South Carolina National Guard.