Apache battalion prepares for battlefield
"We have troops in contact. We're taking fire from a black truck 500 meters northwest; moving eastbound, can't reposition due to an injured Soldier and we're pinned down."
That's one scenario out of 13 that Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, had to master during AH-64D Apache helicopter gunnery exercises, Sept. 27.
The qualification tables marked their final live-fire events before deploying to Afghanistan. More than 400 Soldiers from 1st Bn., 2nd Avn. Reg., are scheduled to depart in January with 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, from Fort Shafter, Hawaii.
The attack battalion has three companies, which are each assigned 10 Apaches, said Capt. Mark Handloff, 1st Bn., 2nd Avn. Reg., operations officer. The pilots are trained for air-to-ground assaults, aerial escorts and reconnaissance missions, using aircraft designed to destroy armored forces with precision strikes.
The Soldiers were graded on day and night operations during their qualification tables, said Handloff. They were also completing two months of high-altitude mountain environment combat maneuver training.
Apaches are the most advanced armed helicopter in the world, according to the Federation of American Scientists, an independent, nonpartisan think tank of scientists and engineers. The nonprofit membership organization was founded in 1945 by scientists involved in the first atomic bombs.
The Army considers Apaches "the workhorse of attack helicopter operations," according to an AH-64D Apache informational paper filed March 22, 2010, by the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala. The aircraft has received various software and hardware enhancements since 9/11.
"Apaches have the same flight controls as any other helicopter," said Capt. Jesse Wagnon, Company B, 1st Bn., 2nd Avn. Reg. "The biggest difference is the night vision system, and that's the hardest thing to learn.
"The weapon systems are about crew coordination," said Wagnon, one of several pilots reading scripts during the qualification tables. "One person is focused on flying while the other person is focused on the weaponry."
Two-person teams, a pilot-in-command and a co-pilot gunner, reported to a forward arming and refueling point at Range 115, where they received one of six available aircraft. A heavy expanded mobility tactical truck, hauling a 2,500 gallon fuel tank, was refueling each of the Apaches' twin-turbine engines.
While the pilots performed pre-flight inspections, an armament crew inserted belts of 30 mm bullets, packed launchers with folding-fin aerial rockets and connected Hellfire missiles. With a "thumbs up" from the ground crew, the aviators lifted into the air and traveled to Range 109 for nearly an hour of combat drills.
They rehearsed tight turns and rolls, while listening to a script reader. When necessary, they determined the most appropriate weapon system: an M230 chain gun, Hydra 70 rockets or Hellfire missiles. On impact, the training rockets flashed with a burst of smoke. The missiles only required a target lock.
Before leaving Range 109, each team touched down near the tower to receive a written record of their accuracy with their rockets and bullets. Judging Hellfire success would depend on the infrared video and audio footage recorded by the Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight system.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Nathon Woelke, an instructor pilot and one of six master gunners assigned to 1st Bn., 2nd Avn. Reg., said the aviators traversed several training tables before attempting a formal qualification round. Woelke was reviewing in-flight performances inside a tent at Range 115.
"I give them a detailed after-action review," said Woelke, while seated with an Apache team in front of a projection screen. They handed him their range report and M-TADS system hard drive. He focused on each crews' ability to discover, acquire, identify and verify targets.
Woelke also explained unsafe situations, such as starting rocket dives too close to the ground, or flying at altitudes that left them vulnerable to enemy forces.
"We're looking for improvement, especially with the narration," said Woelke. "Should I even pull the trigger in the first place? The ground guy, if he's under a lot of distress, he may be calling for engagement. It's our job to determine if there's hostile intent. I can be a deterrent by just being there."
"What techniques do you use and weapon systems to minimize collateral damage? How do I engage an enemy on top of a house without destroying the house?" he explained.
"We're trying to get the crews to think about more than how to successfully engage a target," he said. "Did they discuss the rules of engagement? Did they positively identify the target and did they discuss the potential for collateral damage and did they use the appropriate weapon system?"
"Did they conduct a damage assessment? We want them to think about everything that's around the target, too. We want to minimize collateral damage and civilian deaths -- the goal is zero," Woelke said.
"It's about the mission," said Wagnon, discussing his decision to become an Apache pilot after almost a year of aviator school at Fort Rucker in 2009. The upcoming deployment with 1st Bn., 2nd Avn. Reg. begins his first battlefield experience in an Apache.
"That's what they ask you all during flight school: What mission do you want?" he said. "Our mission is air-ground integration and close combat attacks. Our main job is to support the guys on the ground and keep them safe."
Article by Dustin Senger, Fort Carson