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Student-pilots graduate ready for combat

Sep 4, 2009

By Emily Brainard

FORT RUCKER, Ala.--After completion of Initial Entry Rotary Wing training on the TH-67 Creek helicopter, flight school students begin the final phase of their journey to become Army pilots.

Students here follow one of several advanced aircraft tracks including the CH-47D Chinook, AH-64D Apache, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and UH-60A Black Hawk. Course lengths vary, ranging from about 13 weeks for Black Hawk training to nearly 23 weeks of training for the Apache.

After completing their advanced airframe training, students proceed directly to graduation, Maj. Ryan Miedema, D Company, 1st Battalion, 145th Aviation Regiment commander, said.

Getting to that point, however, takes hard work, according to some students and instructor-pilots (IP). Due to the helicopters' varying natures and missions, specific training on each aircraft varies.

Chinook student-pilot 1st Lt. Mark Thompson, D Co., 1st Bn., 145th Avn. Regt., said he completes several stages during advanced aircraft training. The first class, systems, includes how the aircraft works, hovering and traffic patterns. Stage two is instruments-only flight. Next follows basic combat skills (BCS), where he learns "nap-of-the-earth" flight, preparing him for low-level combat flight. The final stage consists of nighttime and night-vision goggles training. Chinook students also perform sling-load training, Thompson said, which is carrying cargo under the helicopter while flying.

He advises other flight school students to enjoy training. "Flight school's the greatest time of your life," Thompson said.

Chinook student WO1 Eric West, B Co., 1st Bn., 145th Avn. Regt., who anticipates an Afghanistan deployment after flight school, said, "This place has taught me good habits as far as learning how to get ready for combat."

The dual-bladed, cargo-carrying Chinooks are not the only aircraft Wiregrass and post residents see flying overhead, however.

IP CW3 Bruce Haskins, A Co., 1st Bn., 14th Avn. Regt., said Apache students first learn to fly the aircraft and perform emergency procedures, then conduct BCS, including land navigation and tactical tasks, before moving into the bag phase, preparing them for night flight. The "bag" is a vinyl cover in the cockpit window used in the daytime to simulate night flight. After a successful "bag flight," students move on to actual nights, where they learn to fly with night systems and night-vision goggles.

Apache pilots must also conduct gunnery training, where they learn the aircraft weapons systems and engagement techniques, Haskins said. Apaches are equipped with Hellfire missile systems, Hydra 70 rocket systems and M230 30mm chain guns. "It'll prepare them to learn how to fly in an actual combat environment," he said.

IP and Student Management Officer CW3 Matthew Welborn, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Aviation Regiment, trains students on Kiowa Warriors at Hanchey Army Heliport.

He said during the first phase, students concentrate on emergency procedures. Welborn said manual throttle training, where students manually manipulate the throttle in case of system failure, comes next. Kiowa Warrior students must conduct BCS, complete a night and instruments transition phase and night vision qualification.

Kiowa Warriors, like Apaches, are equipped with weapons systems, so students also complete gunnery training. Welborn said this consists of live-fire training with .50-caliber machine guns and 2.75-inch aerial rockets. They also receive training with live laser operations and the Hellfire Missile System, he said.

"The Kiowa Warrior mission is very diverse, and the instructors at Hanchey strive to teach the student-pilots not only to fly, but to think in a manner that will contribute to the overall success of the air and ground mission," Welborn said.

Department of the Army civilian IP Spike Condon, E Company, 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation Regiment, trains Black Hawk students, and said his students also conduct pre-flight, basic flight maneuvers, emergency procedures, instruments, BCS and night training.

"The most challenging task for students seems to be learning how to apply what they learn in the classroom to the cockpit," Condon said.

WO1 Jeffery Decker, B Co., 1st Bn., 145th Avn. Regt., one of Condon's students, said he has been able to apply everything he's learned so far during flight school to his UH-60 training, with Condon's help.

Fellow classmate and unit member WO1 Erik Buckley said flight school has pushed him to learn more than he imagined possible. "It's amazing how much a person can pick up and how much a person can endure," he said.

Buckley also noted the faster pace of advanced aircraft training compared to his six months spent in the TH-67. "It's time for performance now," he said. "It's time to take it seriously. This is the aircraft we'll be flying in combat."

Whether graduating students deploy directly out of flight school or not, the training here is designed to prepare them for whatever lies ahead.

One new Aviator, 1st Lt. Brian Peterson, graduated Aug. 5 and said his experience here exceeded his expectations. "Fort Rucker gave me the building blocks to build a strong base for my future and upcoming duties," he said. Peterson now moves on to Ansbach, Katterbach Kaserne, Germany, where he will fly Chinooks.

For these students and many others, the pinning of their wings is not merely the end of training, but also the beginning of their Army Aviation careers.

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