Lt. Col. Anthony Somogyi retires after 12 years at High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum
EAGLE — Lt. Col. Anthony Somogyi, of the Colorado Army National Guard, hadn’t even flown a mission yet when he uncovered his dream assignment — the High Altitude Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
The age-old winning combination of hard work and good luck helped make Somogyi’s dream come true and for the past 12 years he has proudly served at HAATS, first as executive officer and later as the site commander. Last week, he officially retired after 20 years of military service during a ceremony that was bittersweet for Somogyi, his family by blood and his family by service.
Lt. Col. Somogyi is only the fifth officer to command HAATS.
“That is basically unheard of for a military unit,” Somogyi said.
But then, HAATS isn’t your average military assignment.
“I never got sick of flying in the training area, not once,” said Somogyi during his retirement ceremony. “But the thing I will miss the most is the soldiers. This place is what it is because of you.”
Western Slope Native
Somogyi is a Western Slope native son who grew up in Palisade.
“I wanted to fly helicopters since I was a little kid,” he said.
An early flight experience solidified that desire. He recalled how one cold spring, Clark Orchards hired a helicopter to hover over a remote orchard to push down warmer air in an effort to save the peach crop. Somogyi’s dad wrangled a ride for his son, but timing was an issue — the helicopter flight would make him late for school.
“The pilot said ‘I’ll just drop you off at school,’” Somogyi said. “I remember going into the office and saying ‘I’m sorry I’m late, I just flew in.’”
Somogyi went on to attend Palisade High School where he was a wrestler and where he met his wife, Korey. He was thinking about joining the U.S. Coast Guard, but he couldn’t get an aviation assignment guarantee. Eventually he attended the University of North Dakota on a ROTC/Air Battle Captain scholarship.
He was home on leave from college when he first heard about a helicopter training site at the Eagle County Regional Airport. Somogyi was both impressed and discouraged when he starting looking into the opportunity — impressed with the operation and discouraged about the odds.
“My dad and I both thought there’s no way I would end up there,” Somogyi said.
But he did reach out to then-Cmdr. Joel Best to ask about an assignment.
“He wrote me back, and it was the same basic response I have had to send out to kids over the years,” Somogyi said.
Basically, Best told Somogyi thanks for the interest but warned him there weren’t many openings available at HAATS.
After college graduation, Somogyi was assigned to Fort Rucker, Alabama, and he and Korey were married. His next move was to Fort Hood, Texas, where he was a platoon leader. His next assignment took him across the globe.
Somogyi was deployed to Iraq in 2003.
His deployment came just after U.S. troops had taken Baghdad.
“It was before car bombs were a big deal and IEDs were a big deal,” he said. “The rules of engagement were wide open. The flying was so demanding and it was so much fun.”
That deployment lasted for eight months. After he returned home, he enrolled in his captain career courses, something he had put off twice but needed to complete to further his military career. Turns out, his timing was impeccable because shortly after he left Iraq, the military extended the deployment terms to 15 months.
That time in Iraq was exceptionally tough for the Somogyi family.
“While I was in Iraq, there were no internet satellites set up and there were no phones,” he said.
What’s more, there was a three-month delay in regular mail. He recalled getting a letter from Korey saying their toddler daughter had suffered a concussion, but he had no way of knowing how serious the injury was.
After completing his captain’s course at Fort Rucker, Somogyi finished up his eight-year Army career at Fort Polk in Louisiana and Fort Lewis in Washington state. After eight years as a pilot, Somogyi was looking at flying a desk instead of a helicopter if he continued as an active duty Army officer.
“He’s not happy if he isn’t flying,” Korey said.
Somogyi figured he would transition into the civilian world and become a medical helicopter pilot. But while he was winding up his active duty career, Somogyi impressed a National Guard general who urged him to consider a full-time Guard posting. Upon hearing that the Somogyis wanted to return to western Colorado, that general put in a good word at HAATS.
Cmdr. Best and Executive Officer Josh Day, who would eventually take over as HAATS commander, decided to take a chance on Somogyi and invited him to take the one-week HAATS training course.
“That was my job interview, basically,” Somogyi said.
He said pilot instructor Carl Gray put him through the paces to make sure his flying skills were up to snuff and between his flying and his bonding with Best because of their shared high school wresting experiences, Somogyi was assigned to HAATS in December 2006.
Home at HAATS
In its 32 years of operation, HAATS has become a renown program that offers a unique training methodology based on aircraft power. Known as Power Management, the training process requires power accountability of the pilots in all flight regimes. The mountain training area enhances the Power Management process and also provides high altitude and rough terrain training. It is the only Department of Defense aviation school that trains pilots to experience this outside of the classroom.
The school caters to military helicopter pilots from all over the world, with a one-week course for U.S. military pilots and a two-week course for foreign pilots.
The HAATS contingent includes 31 soldiers, four contract instructors and one Coast Guard instructor. During the course of a calendar year, approximately 380 pilots will go through the training.
During all of those training flights and all of his years of active duty, Somogyi has been involved in just one helicopter accident. It happened on Feb. 23, 2007.
“I hadn’t been here very long and we had two exchange officers from India,” Somogyi said.
The HAATS crew figured the Indian pilots would be familiar with high altitude procedures, but they later found out there was a vast difference between flying in the Himalayas and flying in the Rockies.
An Indian officer was piloting the helicopter and both Somogyi and Day were riding along when wind conditions contributed to a crash in the Deep Creek area. Somogyi recalls hanging upside down by his seatbelt following the crash, but amazingly, no one sustained serious injuries.
Afterward, the pilot asked Somogyi if it was his first crash. “He said ‘This is eight for me.’”
Korey has her own recollection of that day.
“I called Korey afterward, to say we had to take Josh to the hospital because he was in an accident,” Somogyi said.
“It was two hours later when he told me he was in the accident, too,” Korey said. “As the spouse of a helicopter pilot, you are always scared when they go out to do their job because they are at high risk. You are always worried but you don’t show it. That accident was a reality check because their students are not as qualified as they are.”
But getting their student-pilots to high proficiency is what HAATS is all about.
“You can’t put a number on the amount of accidents we have prevented,” Somogyi noted. “This training saves lives.”
In that same vein, HAATS has formed a partnership with Vail Mountain Rescue Group, pioneering a hoist rescue program. Somogyi has flown many search and rescue missions with the entity and his involvement with VMRG will continue past his retirement as a ground volunteer.
“That piece of flying I am going to miss a lot. That’s where you apply everything you are teaching,” he said.
For the second time, Somogyi was been given a difficult career choice. If he wants to keep flying, he needs to move on.
“I love HAATS, but I know I am not going to be able to stay here forever,” he said.
If he wanted to continue his Guard career, he would have to move to a desk assignment. Instead, he is retiring with 20 years of service and starting a new career as a civilian commercial pilot.
“Never, in a million years, would I have thought I would fly for the airlines,” he said.
Somogyi will be piloting jets for United Express, stationed out of Denver. The Somogyi family will continue to make their home in Gypsum.
On Nov. 16 a group of military and local officials and HAATS troops gathered in the helicopter bay in Gypsum to formally celebrate Somogyi’s retirement. They shared some serious stories and some funny memories. They honored not only Somogyi’s 12 years of HAATS service, but also Korey’s devotion and the sacrifices made by his daughters, Noelle and Andee, who had to share their dad with his military duties.
Like the four men before him, Somogyi has left an indelible mark on HAATS.
“His drive and his strategic vision has really kept HAATS moving forward,” said Executive Officer Mayor Nicholas Tucker. “We have basically built the military’s mountain flying program.”
Beyond being a tremendous leader, Tucker noted that Somogyi has been a true brother in arms. That sentiment is reciprocated.
“You can’t be in same place for 12 years and just cut yourself off. These people are like family,” Korey said.
But as he takes his leave, Somogyi plans to give the next commander the same opportunity he was given to make a mark on HAATS.
“I am going to do my best to be like Josh [Day]. When he went to Denver he said, ‘It’s all yours now,’” Somogyi said.
Somogyi believes the next commander will soon come to the same realization he did.
“In my mind, there is not better place to work in the entire Department of Defense,” he said.