So You Want to Fly Army?

If you’re a regular to the annals of BogiDope, odds are pretty high that you’re fully aware of the United States Air Force’s beginnings. You’re, no doubt, deeply educated about Billy Mitchell (WWI pilot – Army officer) pitching airpower to the United States War Department, stating that wars would become truly three-dimensional and that the team that controlled the air would win (then) future conflicts. Despite the very public dismantling of Mitchell’s career, WWII (and subsequent conflicts) proved him prophetic and he was subsequently rewarded with two stars posthumously by FDR. The war expanded the Army Air Corps (which became the Army Air Forces) rapidly and its implementation was utterly critical in the eventual victory of the Allies, just as Mitchell said it would be. 

If you aren’t aware of these events and would like to learn more, there are several good biographies about Mitchell. Or, for broader history, I highly recommend the book Masters of the Air: How the Bomber Boys Broke Down the Nazi War Machine by Donald Miller (incidentally, the subject of the next Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg miniseries). But even without this history, you certainly know that the Army Air Forces became the United States Air Force shortly after WWII.

Far from being the end of aviation in the United States Army, the creation of the new branch of service, along with the advent of rotary-wing flight, simply served to redefined what flying soldiers would be doing as many of their former mission sets became the expertise of their Air Force brethren. Today, the Army very nearly has the same number of aircraft as the Air Force, and, just like the Air Force, the Army is having a hard time hanging on to experienced aviators and quality officers to fly those aircraft. The civilian opportunities that for so long targeted Air Force, Navy and Army (yes, Army) fixed-wing flyers have expanded to offer amazing training and transition opportunities to the rotary-wing pilots of all branches. It’s for this reason that BogiDope.com will, starting now, be breaking into the world of Army Aviation. To inform, educate and encourage motivated, quality candidates on how to become aviators in the most advanced rotary-wing aircraft in the world (or to fly fixed-wing for the Army if you’re into wearing Tevas, Hawaiian shirts and Ray-Bans as part of your uniform).

It’s our goal to not only ensure a consistent flow of these quality candidates into the front seats of Army aircraft, but to help those same quality candidates to maximize the benefits of being an Army aviator while hopefully avoiding some of the pitfalls so common to the unaware and/or inexperienced. But before diving into the various avenues to enter Army Aviation, the training and prerequisites, etc., a brief overview of the aircraft flown by the Army and the mission sets that they accommodate seems appropriate. Because as any good Joe will tell you, “Knowing is half the battle!”

Table of Contents

  1. Army Aviation’s Mission
  2. GUNS, GUNS, GUNS!!!
  3. Air Assault and Air Movement
  4. Aeromedical Evacuation
  5. Conclusion

Army Aviation’s Mission

The officially stated mission of United States Army Aviation is to “find, fix and destroy any enemy through fire and maneuver, and to provide combat support and combat service support in coordinated operations as an integral part of the combined arms team, fully integrated within the joint operational framework,” (as a reference point, one who likes to dive DEEPLY into military doctrine without first taking a couple breaths of standard human-speak air should look up FM 3-04: Army Aviation). In more palatable words: Army Aviation’s job is to support the people on the ground in doing their job, which is, in short, to take ground away from the bad guys, by force if necessary.

The aviation assets of the Army can help in this task in an almost innumerable amount of ways, particularly given the capabilities that rotary-flight offers. These applications began to be tested and used at a small scale in Korea, but found their baptism and large-scale use during the Vietnam War. The concept of Air Assault was propagated to such a degree in that conflict that it has since been dubbed by many as “The Helicopter War.” News reels, films and books about Vietnam all invariably bare images of the UH-1 “Huey” dropping soldiers in hot landing zones (LZs) and picking countless wounded up almost simultaneously. Who can forget the most iconic use of the song “Flight of the Valkyries” as Bob Duvall and company laid waste to a small village in Apocalypse Now?

It was also during this war that the effective application of helicopters in an attack/support role was tested, proven and stamped as dependable and necessary. The AH-1 Cobra became the Army’s first designated “attack helicopter,” built solely for the purpose of finding and chewing up those of ill-intent. Following the conflict in Vietnam, the demands of the Cold War and the many worldwide skirmishes that it caused led to the continued evolution of the Army’s aviation platforms and their capabilities and missions. The fiasco at Desert One in Iran led to the formation of the first ever Special Operations aviation outfit. Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Somalia, right up to the conflicts of the past 20 years have served to shape and modernize what the Army, its aircraft and its pilots do to support those soldiers on the ground who are, still to this day, working to take ground from the bad guys.

Here are the instruments those pilots are wielding:

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GUNS, GUNS, GUNS!!!

There’s a common joke among Army aviators about the type of pilots that fly attack aircraft. Mostly that they’re jock-ish, loud, boisterous, overconfident and incredibly proud of/obsessed with the weapons that they bring to bear. For the most part, all of this is absolutely true. But who can blame them? Sincerely, try and blame an Apache pilot for thinking that being an Apache pilot is cool:  

                             

The AH-64 Apache is the primary Attack Helicopter used by the United States Army. It was developed to replace the AH-1 Cobra in the decades following the Vietnam War and was designed specifically with a conflict against Russian armored columns in mind. It’s for this reason that the Apache can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles: four aircraft in a platoon, eight in company, multiply that by 16…you get the idea. It also has that 30mm cannon (yes, the one that follows the pilots’ heads to point where they’re looking) and the capability to shoot rockets. But with the Cold War freezing up, the Apache didn’t fall into hibernation. It’s maiden combat mission kicked off Desert Storm and it’s been proving its value in deep attack, escort, reconnaissance and air support of troops in- and out-of-close-contact with the enemy ever since. It’s certainly gained notoriety among the United States’ enemies as something to be avoided. 

But the Apache is not the only attack platform in use by Army Aviation. The others are a modified (MH)-60 Blackhawk Direct Action Penetrator (DAP) and the AH-6 Little Bird, both of which are used exclusively by the Special Operations Aviation community. Anyone aspiring to fly these airframes will have to look specifically to that organization for the opportunity, whereas the Apache can be found at most Army bases and in four states as part of the Army National Guard. All of these aircraft serve those same aforementioned purposes in support of the ground-pounders:

  • Reconnaissance
  • Find the bad guys
  • Kill the bad guys (whether they’re close or far from the good guys)
  • Secure the good guys so the bad guys stay away. 

               

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Air Assault and Air Movement

Remember that Apocalypse Now clip that I mentioned earlier? Cue the Dick Wagner. The Air Assault is among the most impressive sights one can see in the world of aviation. We don’t live in a world or fight wars anymore where massive amounts of troops are operationally jumping from airplanes that are flying wing-to-wing like in WWII. The Air Assault is the modern equivalent. Most people with an interest in militaria have seen Blackhawk Down and can recall the scene that begins the battle for which the movie was made. Dozens of aircraft flying in close formation loaded with bubble gum-chewing door-kickers with enough Rip It in their collective bloodstream to awaken the residents of Pompeii.

Both of these scenes more or less accurately depict the role of an Air Assault. Movement of friendly forces by rotary-wing aircraft for the purpose of engaging and destroying enemies and seizing/holding key terrain. We Were Soldiers and its depiction of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley also comes to mind. Interesting to note is that such a simple description, though entirely accurate, is used to introduce what is undoubtedly among the most intricate and complex missions for which air assets can be used throughout all of military aviation. 

Air Assaults are primarily conducted by the pilots flying the UH-60 Blackhawk and the CH-47 Chinook, though the MH-6 is also used in the Special Operations Aviation community. These aircraft are built with the purpose of moving people and things quickly and, if necessary, eating a lot of rounds without having to leave the fight. They have a long history of distinguished service in accomplishing this and I need not dive too deeply into it. For those interested in some excellent stories regarding these machines and their pilots/crews, I recommend reading The Night Stalkers: Top Secret Mission of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment by Michael Durant (one of the pilots shot down in the Blackhawk Down affair), Robert Johnson and Steven Hartov.

Air Movement is the other primary mission that these platforms conduct, and in the conflicts of the last 20 years, this has certainly been their most common use (outside of the Special Ops world). Air Movement can also be very simply defined: moving people and things from one point to another. Unlike an Air Assault, Air Movement is not an inherently kinetic task and, in fact, shouldn’t be. It’s used for resupplying, reorganizing the placement of troops and equipment and even giving aerial tours to “the Stars,” among other things.

The pilots of both Chinooks and Blackhawks work in tandem with crewmembers in the operation of their aircraft and thus certainly more closely resemble the bulk of the Army Air Forces’ during WWII. The pilots fly the aircraft, but they require a crew to effectively carry out their given missions. Those interested in flying (or serving as a crewmember in) these aircraft can rest easy knowing that they are present at almost every Army base around the world, and, in the case of the Blackhawks, in the National Guard of just about every State and Territory in the Union. So your options for where you can live are, quite literally, anywhere the Army is. 

But here is a shameless plug for those who elect to fly or crew ‘Hawks or ‘Hooks in the Army National Guard. Your mission set broadens even further once you get to your State, as you can begin training in both Aerial Search and Rescue and, particularly for those in the Western States, Aerial Firefighting. I will go further into these missions and the opportunities that experience therein will open to you in the world of civilian aviation in a future article, but for now simply take this into consideration: within eight months of returning home from Flight School, a friend of mine flew 160 hours in a UH-60 over the course of two months on two of the (then) largest wildfires in California State history. Many may recall that just last summer, seven crewmembers from the California Army National Guard were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the actions they took in rescuing civilians who were caught in a fire. Consider what that kind of varsity flying experience is worth both on a resume and in gaining street credit with your grandkids.

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Aeromedical Evacuation

The aeromedical evacuation mission is one that I don’t think I need to explain. Most people who read those two words in combination will be able to put together what it means, so I won’t belabor it. The actual MEDEVAC mission in the Army is traditionally done by the HH-60 Blackhawk. Chinooks are also capable of being fitted for CASEVAC, but this is neither the time nor the place to begin discussing the differences between MEDEVAC and CASEVAC. Suffice it to say, if you’re flying MEDEVAC, you’re unarmed and you’re flying from point A to point B as fast as possible to save someone’s life, limb or eyesight. And it will most likely be in a ‘Hawk.

Just like an in-depth explanation of what Aeromedical Evacuation is feels utterly superfluous, describing the civilian applications for which this experience would be ideally suited is likewise an exercise akin to predicting that the sky will get darker when the sun goes down. But the opportunities for pilots with this kind of experience are plentiful and nationwide. And for many, the MEDEVAC mantras of “That Others May Live” and “When I Have Your Wounded” speak to something deeper in the soul.

Interesting to note, again, for those who choose to fly in the Guard is that you will also have the potentiality of flying this mission in the LUH-72 Lakota. This is the newest aircraft in the Army’s line-up (a source of no small amount of controversy) and is the first aircraft in which a flight student will wiggle the sticks during Flight School at Fort Rucker. It’s not a “go to war” aircraft, meaning it can’t deploy to combat zones, but it regularly deploys to the borders for patrol missions, participates in  most states’ Counter-Drug missions and, as stated, also serves in a stateside MEDEVAC capacity. Again, the civilian applications…are many.

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Conclusion

I would be remiss if I didn’t follow-up on the remarks above about the Army’s fixed-wing inventory. The Army flies the C-12, C-26, UC-35 and C-37 operationally, with the first two being the most common of the four. These aircraft fly everything from reconnaissance and intel-gathering to executive transport, and most States’ National Guards have at least a small contingent of these. The fixed-wing community in the Army is relatively small and, due to the Army’s modernization objectives, is getting smaller. It’s a viable option for anyone entering the Army in the short-term, but will likely not be an option in the not-too-distant future as the Army pushes towards “Future Vertical Lift” (undoubtedly the topic of a future article). 

And there you have it! Again, this is a VERY condensed overview of the actual missions flown by Army aviators but should give you a good idea of the aircraft you’d fly and the purposes for flying them that you’d encounter if you elected to become a pilot in the Army. The training, opportunities and experiences that are available to Army aviators go so far beyond just the fundamentals of flying or even beyond the flying itself. Keep checking in over the next weeks and months to learn more about such opportunities, Flight School and everything inherent therein, the differences in the life of an Active Duty aviator and a Reservist (whether Guard or Army Reserves), etc.

Until then, go turn on an episode of Airwolf…and enjoy.

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