This was originally published in The Belle Banner, Belle Missouri September 19th 2018. If you would like to see the current articles as they are published, you may subscribe to The Belle Banner by calling 573-859-3328, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to The Belle Banner, PO Box 711, Belle, MO 65013. Subscription rates are; Maries, Osage, and Gasconade County = $23.55 per year, elsewhere in Missouri = $26.77, outside Missouri = $27.00, and foreign countries = $40.00.
You can enlist to be a pilot. I do not recommend anyone just graduating from high school even attempt it. Ninety nine percent of Army pilots come from the enlisted ranks within the Army.
For almost 50 years the Army has had a program called “High School to Flight School”. It was used a lot during the Vietnam War and some did enlist under that program during the height of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. The Army has three helicopters, the CH-47D Chinook, the UH-60A/L Blackhawk, and the AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter. Until a couple years ago the Army also had the OH-58D Kiowa Light Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, but with defense budget cuts of the last administration, they all went to an aircraft graveyard in Arizona. The Army now wishes it had a light armed reconnaissance helicopter.
The application process to enlist for flight school is long, it usually takes a year or more. Before a person can enlist for Warrant Officer Flight Training (WOFT) they must have an application for WOFT approved. Applicants must be between 18 and 33, score 110 or better on the General Technical area of the ASVAB, plus a score of 90 or better on the Flight Aptitude Selection Test, pass a flight physical, have normal color vision and vision no worse than 20/50 before correction in each eye, plus meet all the other requirements for enlistment. Being selected for WOFT is highly competitive. Considerations are prior aviation experience, college, age, maturity, physical condition and general life experience.
The application for WOFT for active duty soldiers is the same as for a civilian. Most pilots come from aviation units, aircraft mechanics, crew chiefs, and flight engineers. Many of them can already fly a helicopter. The second group most sought after for pilots is Infantry. Helicopter pilots and crews exist to support combat soldiers. They are delivering them into or picking them up from battle, they are delivering supplies or they are picking up wounded soldiers. A pilot who is a former infantryman has a good understanding of what is happening on the ground.
But, a person graduating from high school can enlist to be a helicopter mechanic. The general aviation maintenance jobs are; MOS 15B Aircraft Powerplant Repairer, 15D Powertrain Repairer, 15F Aircraft Electrician, 15G Structural Repairer, 15H Pneudraulics Repairer, 15N Avionic Mechanic, 15R AH-64 Attack Helicopter Repairer, 15T UH-60 Helicopter Repairer, and 15U CH-47 Helicopter Repairer. The last three are the actual helicopter mechanics. AH-64 Apaches have crew chiefs who are responsible for a particular bird, but they don’t fly because the AH-64 is a two seat aircraft that has two pilots. The UH-60 Blackhawk has two pilots and an onboard Crew Chief, who is a 15T. The CH-47 Chinook has two pilots, a Crew Chief 15U, and a Flight Engineer 15U.
Crew chief’s, Flight Engineers, and Flight Engineer Instructors start as aircraft repairers. In the military people are placed in positions by virtue of rank. The senior person holds the senior job. That is not followed in Army Aviation. In the aviation community people are placed in positions regardless of rank. The Crew Chief of a Chinook may be a Sergeant and the Flight Engineer a Specialist, but the Flight Engineer is in charge of the aircraft. Crew Chiefs conduct preflight and post flight inspections, they make sure their aircraft is maintained, safe, fueled and everything ready to fly. Flight engineers have a much more in depth knowledge of the Chinook systems, hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical, etc, because the Chinook is so much larger and more complicated.
All Army aviation schooling is at the Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama. The AIT (Advanced Individual Training) for 15U Chinook and 15R Apache is each 17 weeks, 15T Blackhawk is 15 weeks. Like most schools they teach the basics, and the real learning is found in the units.
Supervisors in aviation maintenance units keep checklists of the skills each mechanic has mastered, which helps them to determine who is ready to become a crew chief and who is not. A Specialist Flight Engineer said; “A lot of it has to do with your work ethic. What we look for are the Chinook mechanics out on the line with us, asking us, ‘Do you need any help?’ They come up to us and ask us about flight. The guys who show us they like to work, they like to learn about the aircraft, and usually those who are more squared away than their peers.” Becoming an excellent mechanic is not the only challenge a potential crew chief might face. Crew chiefs often arrive before and leave well after the pilots to ensure the safety of all aboard. Crew members are limited to a 12-hour duty day. In a typical duty day, a crew chief has about two hours to get the aircraft ready, including inspecting the aircraft, gathering gear and maintaining the logbook. If it takes longer than that, the aircraft may not meet its take-off time. After a flight, the crew chiefs must do a post-flight inspection, put away gear, make entries into the logbook and prepare the bird for its next flight. Crew Chiefs generally perform crew-level minor maintenance, basic “keep it flying” maintenance. Big things go back to the Maintenance Company. The Flight Engineer has a much more in depth knowledge of the aircraft systems than a Crew Chief is required to know. One Command Pilot said of Crew Chiefs and Flight Engineers; “These guys are the consummate professionals. We couldn’t do our mission without them”.
Specialist Bayley Deputy the Crew Chief of a UH-60 Blackhawk in the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina says; “Being a Crew Chief is ‘Can you do the job, and can you continue to do the job?’ We repair the helicopter, it’s a very humbling job. You have go above your duties. When you’re in the air it’s not about you anymore, it’s about the pilot and the rest of the crew and the passengers. We also man the machineguns, one on each side. If something happens and we have to put the aircraft down and we have to evade, we’re trained for that. The 82nd Airborne is very serious, but I like that because I want to be with a unit that takes things seriously. We have fun, but we work hard, we make sure that our aircraft is ready to go whenever duty calls.”
The AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter is just that. The troops in Afghanistan say that Apaches make the Taliban disappear. It has been called a flying tank. It can carry 16 Hellfire missiles, 70 “2.756 inch” rockets, and 1,200 rounds for its 30mm Chain Gun. It can fly 175 MPH, it can do loops, vertical banks, and rollovers. It can hover along inches off the ground and jump over walls and rocks and back around obstacles. It is the most lethal helicopter in the world.
The UH-60 Blackhawk is the tactical workhorse for transporting troops. When deployed, it flies with two Crew Chiefs who each man a machinegun. It can carry 11 combat troops and has a cargo lift capacity of 8,000 pounds. I can cruise at 174 MPH.
The CH-47D Chinook can carry 55 combat troops and can carry inside or sling load up to 26,000 pounds. Assumed by many to be a big cumbersome, slow moving machine, is just the opposite. It is actually the fastest at 195 MPH. When the war heated up in Afghanistan, the Blackhawks had trouble in the extreme high altitudes of the mountains. The more powerful Chinook became the workhorse moving troops, equipment and supplies around the rough terrain.
My first experience with Army aviation was in Vietnam. I was a Staff Sergeant when I went through “P training”, the in-country introductory course in the 101st Airborne Division. I went through with another Staff Sergeant named Krag Bullis who was a helicopter mechanic. We became friends and when we finished P training we went to our units. He was a maintenance platoon sergeant in the 17th Cavalry. Huey helicopters. We were only one camp apart so we got to visit occasionally. He said that he didn’t know how many hours he had unofficially occupied the left seat of a huey, because the unit was short pilots. He could fly as well as any pilot. He arranged for me to hitch hike a couple times on his birds. That was his fourth tour in Vietnam, he didn’t make it back from that one.
I’ve have known a few Medal of Honor winners, and those I knew did what had to be done at the time, but helicopters pilots, as a group, were some of the gutsiest people I saw. There were medivac pilots in the 101st in Vietnam, who would go in and pick up casualties while being shot up while they did it. Medivac birds weren’t armed. If you see the movie “We Were Soldiers” with Mel Gibson and Sam Elliot, it is a very real portrayal of the “Battle of Ia Drang Valley” in November 1965. Two helicopter pilots received Medals of Honor for repeatedly flying ammunition in and casualties out of that battle, while getting their birds shot to pieces.