Ft. Rucker, Alabama is the primary flight training base for Army aviators. Robert W. Moorman explores how training there has evolved over the years, including some candid historical perceptions and comparisons from the Vietnam era.
The first hint that one is in the Deep South comes from the installation’s name, Fort Rucker, after Civil War Confederate General Edmund Rucker. This sprawling facility, located in the southeast corner of Alabama, is home to the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, which has handled the initial and primary training for all Army aviators of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft since 1973, when Ft. Wolters, Texas was closed.
The path to becoming an Army aviator is an arduous one for Warrant Officers and Lieutenants. Long before flight training, prospective Warrant Officers go through an accessions process as a civilian or in-service soldier. The candidates first go to the Warrant Officer Candidate School at Ft. Rucker. The school is an element of the Army Warrant Officer Career College, whose higher headquarters is the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For newbies who just joined the Army, there is a seven-week course. For Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs), the course is five-weeks long.
Candidates are pinned WO1s once they’ve successfully completed the course, explained Randy Godfrey, Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) of the Aviation Branch. Which is a change from when Godfrey went through training 27 years ago. At that time, candidates were pinned at the same they were pinned Army aviators. The process changed in the 1990s to make the warrant officers more equal to officers.
The Big Picture
Godfrey gave MS&T a big picture quote about the helicopter training program at Ft. Rucker that students have no doubt heard before: “We don’t train helicopter pilots here,” said Godfrey. “We teach candidates to become expert combat leaders. The helicopters are just the tools to accomplish the mission.”
Warrant Officers, and the Army Lieutenants taking the aviator track, begin their initial rotary wing aircraft training immediately following their WO1 pinning. The training consists of two-weeks of preflight instruction, which provides students with basic knowledge of flight control systems, aerodynamics, weather and start-up procedures. Pilot candidates also undergo Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, which includes learning in a nearby pool how to escape from a submerged, tipped over helicopter.
Phase Two consists of ten-weeks and 60 flight hours in the turbine powered Bell TH-67/206B-3 Creek training helicopter, a commercial off-the-shelf rotorcraft. In this phase, students learn flight fundamentals, make their first solo flights and perform approaches and basic maneuvers. Emergency procedures and instrument training also occurs during this phase.
The TH-67 primary trainer is to be replaced eventually with the Airbus Helicopters UH-72A Lakota/EC-145. In October and November 2014, the Army ordered 31 UH-72As; it also ordered 3 additional cockpit procedural trainers. Training on the UH-72A is slated to be fully operational by 2019.
The order for the Airbus helicopter, however, is not sitting well with competitors. AgustaWestland filed suit against the Army, claiming that the sole source contract should have been open to competitive bidding. The Army countered saying the bid was part of a 2006 Light Utility Helicopter contract with Airbus Helicopters and allows the service to acquire up to 500 UH-72As. The legal issues remained unresolved as of this writing.
Phase III of initial training consists of eight weeks of instrument instruction, including 30 hours in the flight simulator and 20 hours in the TH-67. In Phase IV, pilot candidates transition to the OH58C Kiowa, in which they learn basic war fighter skills and low-level navigation.
From there, student pilots begin their Advanced Graduate Flight Training. Selection of the advanced aircraft is based on students’ Order of Merit place during pilot training and available aircraft slots. If, for instance the student graduates first in the class, he/she gets the first pick of aircraft and so on down the line.
“Which is why the Order of Merit, derived from their classroom and flying grades, is so competitive,” said Ft. Rucker Public Affairs Officer Lisa Eichhorn.
There is one exception. National Guard pilots know what they are going to fly before they get to Ft. Rucker.
Choices of advanced aircraft include: the Sikorsky UH-60A Blackhawk, the twin-engine Boeing CH-47D Chinook, OH58-D and the Boeing AH-64A/D Apache. Courses for these aircraft range between 14 to 23 weeks.
The WOs will fly their chosen aircraft throughout the remainder of flight school during which they also learn advanced skills, such as flying with night vision goggles and night operations training.
Once this module is completed, the students learn to develop and execute a simulated mission, which is followed by an After Action Review.
Godfrey described advanced helicopter pilot training as “very intense” because many of the missions these pilots will fly could be combat related.
Past vs Present
MS&T asked the Army experts to compare the training of helicopter pilots today to instruction during the Vietnam War. “Most pilots trained from that era that come here would see three big differences,” said Matthew Hall, who heads up the Warrant Officer Training at Ft. Rucker.
One: The Army now uses multiple types of simulation devices for flight training, he said. Two: the cadre of instructor pilots is more diverse today. Trainers at Ft. Rucker are either senior Army pilots or Department of Army Civilian (DACs) instructors. Three: the pilot candidates begin initial flight training in a civilian rotorcraft, which wasn’t done years ago, said Hall.
I arrived at Ft. Wolters, Texas in August 1966 and went through a month as a “Snow Bird.” Meaning, I was not yet in flight school, but did get some basic instruction in helicopter aerodynamics and weather. The simulators we used then were the “Blue Boxes” developed for WW-2. Instrument training was done with the most basic instruments available. In September, I began flight training in the then new piston-powered Hughes TH-55; half the class learned in the TH-55, the other half in the TH-23. I did this for four months; the first two months consisted of basic flight training, learning to take off, fly around the airport and land. Additional flight training filled the next two months.
In January, I went to Ft. Rucker, Alabama or Mother Rucker as we called it. The first month dealt with instrument training in the Bell TH-13. For advanced training, everyone learned in the turbine-powered Bell UH-1As or UH-1Bs Huey. I graduated from flight school in June 1967 and most of us went to Vietnam as Huey pilots. However, those students who graduated with exceptionally high scores could be chosen to attend the CH-47 Chinook or AH-1 Cobra schools. Ft. Wolters closed down in 1973 and all Army aviator training moved to Ft. Rucker. The barracks we stayed in at Ft. Wolters is now part of a minimum-security prison -- Douglas Nelms, retired CW4 Army aviator and current aviation journalist.
The use of advanced full flight simulators and sophisticated flight-training devices today provide significant savings in training costs and help maintain a more efficient operation.
In 2003, Ft. Rucker conducted 18% of flight training in simulators. That number has jumped to 39% today, according to Eichhorn. Helicopter simulator training today, on average, costs 1/10th the amount it takes to train in an actual helicopter. So called live training costs range from $1,100 per hour in a TH-67 to $10,000 per hour in a CH-47. Use of simulators over one full day avoids the need for 40,000 gallons of jet fuel, Eichhorn said.
Simulators have been particularly helpful in replicating high altitude flying and landing. Flying over Vietnam and Iraq occurred below 1,000 ft. MSL mostly.
“Afghanistan really opened our eyes and taught us expensive lessons on power management,” said Hall. “That is something else we bring to the table here.”
When my initial helicopter pilot training classes began at Fort Wolters, Texas, we had half-days of academics and half-days flying the 55/Hughes-269. We affectionately called it the “Mattel Messerschmitt.” Most everyone soloed by eight to 12 hours of flight time. Solo days were a real sweat time. Some candidates just couldn’t handle it and were washed out early. They went straight to Vietnam as infantry grunts. One of my stick-mates and his instructor crashed and died around the two-week training point and the next day 12 guys quit. You see, I was in that helicopter ready to fly back with the instructor pilot because my stick-mate was late for training. He showed up just before we pulled pitch to go home. The instructor threw me out and put my stick-mate onboard. They crashed going home when the main rotor froze and they fell like a streamlined crow bar.
After four months of primary helicopter training at Ft. Wolters, we went to Ft. Rucker for our advanced training. There, we learned to fly instruments in a TH-13T Whirlybird (Mash helicopter) and then flew the Huey 1Bs for tactical training. We learned confined-area landing and take-offs, pinnacle approach and departures, formation flying and combat assaults in and out of Landing Zones.
We started with 200 candidates and nine months later, graduated 99. My helicopter training all occurred from March to December 1970. I graduated second in my class and could pick whatever aircraft I wanted. I thought about Cobra’s, Chinook’s, Sky Cranes, but decided on the OH-58 Jet Ranger since it had some practical usefulness after the war -- Tom Simonian, former Army CW4 helicopter/fixed-wing pilot and retired United Airlines pilot.
Even with the next generation of full flight simulators and FTDs, and a more diverse group of trainers supporting Flight School XXI, there are some old school methods that will remain.
“The best training these pilots can get is time in the aircraft,” said Hall. “Simulators are great tools. But nothing replaces the actual aircraft.”
Warrior Hall, a contractor owned and maintained simulator facility, is the centerpiece of Rucker’s Flight School XXI program. With a 20-year simulation services contract in hand, awarded in 2003, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and other subcontractors purchased land off-post and built Warrior Hall from scratch. Training started in 2005. CSC serves as program manager, working with their partners to provide and schedule the facility, simulators, transportation and security for the pilots, as well as other essential services. Simulator and training partners include FlightSafety International (FSI) and L3 Link Simulation and Training. Frasca International and Rockwell Collins are among other vendors contributing to the simulator and training device suite.
FSI has a substantial presence. The company provides simulators and support for the TH-67 Creek and the UH-60 Blackhawk. FSI provides 24 TH-67/Bell 206 helicopter simulation devices, of which there’re two types. One group is the full-motion simulators, Operational Flight Trainers (OFTs). The other simulators are fixed instrument flight training devices (FTDs).
FSI also provides two simulators for the USAF’s training helicopter, the TH-1H. The TH-1H helicopter is an updated UH-1H with a modern cockpit.
For advanced helicopter instruction, FSI provides UH60, CH45-F and Apache simulators and support.
Helicopter simulator technology is light years ahead of the training devices used during the Vietnam War era and every bit as complex as airplane simulators.
“In some ways, the full-flight helicopter simulator of today is more complex than its fixed-wing counterpart. An example is the non-symmetrical visual system that provides more down view from the pilots eye point compared to one for a fixed-wing aircraft. A helicopter simulator requires enhanced visual cueing because of the close proximity to the ground and the contact training you need to teach an ab initio student, even advanced students,” said Bert Sawyer, FlightSafety’s director of government programs and business development.
Because of the advanced simulator technology, the U.S. military can perform up to 80% of the helicopter pilot training tasks in the simulator and 20% in the actual aircraft, said Sawyer. FSI’s primary and advanced simulators Ft. Rucker even have brownout related technology built into them.
L-3 Link Adds Trainers
L-3 Link Simulation & Training (L3 Link) is adding two additional CH-47F Chinook Operational Flight Trainers (OFTs) to the program. CSC announced the modification to an existing contract in late 2014.
The simulators will be second and third CH-47F training devices for the program. The first CH-47F OFT, also provided by L-3 Link, began training Chinook aircrews in 2013.
The two new CH-47F OFTs come with a high performance visual display system and LED projectors for out-the-window display. L3 Link said this is the first use of LED projectors for out-the-window on any Flight School XXI training device. L3 Link claims this simulator will offer longer operational performance at a reduce maintenance cost. Aircrews will be able to use actual night vision goggles when conducting simulated nighttime missions.
L-3 Link has provided a total of 17 OFTs and 18 Reconfigurable Collective Training Devices (RCTDs) for the program.
The 18 RCTDs can be reconfigured to support aircrew training for any of the following helicopters: AH-64D Longbow Lot X, CH-47D, UH-60A&L, OH-58D Block II.
Operational Flight Trainers (OFTs) currently in use are: 8 UH-60A/L OFTs; 3 UH-60M OFTs; 1 CH-47F OFT; and 1 CH-47D OFT.
OFTs under contract and in production for the program are: 2 CH-47F OFTs to replace the CH-47D OFTs; and 3 UH-60M OFTs to replace 3 UH-60A/L OFTs.
Frasca International, known mainly as a provider of training solutions for civil general aviation and rotary wing aircraft provides fixed flight training devices (FTDs) for the Army’s primary training helicopter, the TH-67 Creek/Bell 206 and UH-1H Huey as well as a full flight simulator for the OH-58D Kiowa. Frasca also provides an FTD for the UH-72 Lakota/Airbus Helicopters EC-145, the designated new primary trainer for the Army. Frasca is partnering with CAE USA on the Army’s Lakota training program.
Rockwell Collins has built two (2) OH-58D Full Flight Simulators as a sub-contractor to L-3 Link.