2010 Articles

JUL 06 2010
Day and night at AAC Middle Wallop - Hampshire's Fort Apache

Middle Wallop in the heart of the Hampshire countryside and the sun is setting at the end of a beautiful summer's day. But on this particular day, work for the Army Air Corps' (AAC) main aviation centre is by no means complete. We're standing adjacent to a ramp surrounded by a tall electric fence, "threat of death" signs prominent all around us, and we're faced with not one or two, but eight Apache Longbow gunships; APUs whirring, MTADS and PNVS turrets rotating as their crews prepare for flight. This is 673 (Training) Squadron in action and, as our day at Middle Wallop comes to an end, for these crews, their night is just beginning.

Arriving earlier in the day, with the exciting prospect of night time departures to look forward to, we were greeted by our host for the day Maj Mal Robb, a contact of Karl's via the Air Warfare Centre and a hugely experienced Gazelle pilot, now heading towards a new role as OC (Officer Commanding) of one of the Apache Squadrons at AAC Wattisham in Suffolk. Mal's Apache CTT (Conversion To Type) course with 673 should have just about finished at the time of our visit but harsh winter weather and volcanic ash put paid to that schedule which was good news for us as, for similar reasons, our visit had already been postponed a couple of times. As the day panned out however, it would prove to be well worth the wait.

The opportunity to see the Apache close-up was one of the reasons for our excitement ahead of this visit and, having followed a cycling Mal round to the squadron buildings, he wasted no time in taking us out to see one of these impressive aircraft at close quarters. The Apache is a twin-engined attack helicopter developed by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing), which entered service with the US Army in 1984 and has been exported to Egypt, Greece, Israel, Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and of course the UK which decided to open a production line in this country to manufacture most of the 67 aircraft ordered. The AAC is currently actively engaged on operations in Afghanistan with the Apache in support of our forces on the ground and their ongoing battle against Taliban insurgents.

The size of the Apache never fails to surprise, especially when you've seen what the aircraft is capable of when airborne. At more than 50 feet long and with a rotor span of 45 feet, Apache is around 12 feet tall at its highest point (minus radar) and weighs in at approximately 12,000 lbs empty. It's a monster in other words and Mal confirmed that, for a former Gazelle pilot like him, strapping in to a WAH-64D for the first time was something of a culture shock!

Mal gave us free rein to wander around the Apache and pointed out some of the key features. The 30mm chain gun mounted beneath the fuselage is always of interest to visitors and, like the sensors fitted to the Apache, can be slaved to the pilots via a monocle mounted an inch in front of the right eye which displays symbology and thermal imagery. Essentially, wherever the pilot moves his head, the helicopter knows and the sensors will follow. So yes, this does mean that Apache pilots learn to operate their eyes independently and yes, it is a tough skill to master, resulting in headaches all round for the first few weeks of the course. The monocle is clearly an extraordinary piece of technology which, ironically enough, is accommodated in quite a rudimentary way, with a piece of the visor on the pilot's helmet literally being sawn off to make room!

Moving round to the nose of the aircraft, the MTADS and PNVS (pronounced Pinviss) dominate. These two turrets are the Modernised Target Acquisition Designation Sight and Pilot Night Vision Sensor and in many ways are the eyes of the Apache. Without these, linked to the crew's monocles as they are, the Apache would go precisely nowhere. MTADS contains stabilized electro-optical sensors, a laser rangefinder and laser target designator and the unit, mounted beneath the PNVS, can independently rotate +/- 120 degrees from side to side and elevate +30/-60 degrees. When MTADS is slaved to head movements its images are projected onto the crew's helmet-mounted optical sights as discussed above. PNVS, meanwhile, contains an infrared camera, again slaved to the pilot's monocle. PNVS can rotate +/- 90 degrees horizontally and +20/-45 degrees in elevation but with a higher rate of movement (120 per second) so as to accurately match the head movements of the pilot. There is therefore some delay in relative movement where MTADS is concerned and this is one thing that crews must become acclimatised to. These sensors basically allow the Apache to fly safely at low altitude in total darkness and adverse weather (PNVS) and see ground targets, and destroy them at stand-off ranges (MTADS).

One of the most notable differences between the AAC's WAH-64Ds and the earlier variants of the Apache is the unmistakeable shape of the AN/APG-78 Longbow dome, installed over the main rotor and looking not dissimilar to a large Edam cheese. This houses a Fire Control Radar (FCR) target acquisition system and its elevated position allows detection and missile engagement of targets even when the helicopter itself is concealed by an obstacle. In addition, a radio modem integrated with the sensor suite allows a Longbow equipped Apache to share targeting data with other AH-64Ds that do not have a target within their own line-of-sight, which means that Apaches can engage multiple targets revealed only by the Longbow of a single helicopter. In addition to the 30-mm M230E1 Chain Gun which is capable of firing just over 600 rounds per minute and was described to us as being "very accurate", the Apache carries a range of external stores on its stub-wing pylons, typically a mixture of AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles and CRV 7 (2.75 inch) rockets. The Apache can carry 19 rockets in each pod with a mix of Flechette, HEISAP (High Explosive Incendiary Semi-Armour Piercing) and PD (Point detonating) rounds.

The cockpit in many ways resembles that of the Eurofighter Typhoon - not the first parallel with our visits to RAF Coningsby and a subject I'll return to later - with only the rear cockpit including any 'traditional' instruments. It is dominated by the MPDs (Multi Purpose Displays) and one of the most comprehensive HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick - if you can still call it that in a helicopter!) systems around. I lost count of the number of buttons on the cyclic and collective and aircrews must learn to operate these purely by feel, for they will often find themselves working with no cockpit lighting whatsoever. Each individual button is shaped differently to aid with this process. It's impressive and, sitting up at the front of the aircraft, especially in the raised rear seat, delivers an unmistakeable feeling of power, even when the aircraft is on the ground and you know you'll never get the chance to experience it for real!

So what about learning to fly this incredible machine? With Mal facing an important test in the simulator (he passed!) we head off to HQ to meet the Boss, OC673 Squadron himself. Major Rich Youngs qualified to fly the Apache almost ten years ago and, as the man in charge of the Squadron which trains all our future crews for the aircraft, is probably best placed to talk us through the rigours of doing so, and believe me, gaining the right to wear the Apache Longbow patch on your flying suit is no foregone conclusion.

"Our role is to convert Army pilots on to the Apache and the training is split in half with the CTT and CTR (Conversion To Role) aspects. The CTT is sticks and poles - raw flying skills, mountain flying, instrument flying and learning to operate the Apache by day and by night. Students then take all of that back to Wattisham for the CTR, where they actually learn to fight the aircraft in an operational context with live firing and environmental training. Specifically for Afghanistan this would mean learning to land in the desert for example."

The Squadron is not training pilots to fly helicopters, it is training helicopter pilots to fly the Apache and at the moment that means about a 50/50 split in terms of intake with half the students coming as ab initio and fresh from training and the other half being more experienced and possibly coming from Lynx or Gazelle units or elsewhere.

"We like to try and maintain this balance in our crews here," says Major Youngs, "as it means we have students with little experience but who equally don't have any bad flying habits and are used to the training environment alongside those who have a great deal of experience and have probably served on the front-line. They both bring different skills sets."

The required mindset of those joining the course is vital and something Major Youngs is keen to emphasise.

"The whole thing here is that flying the helicopter is actually quite inconsequential. You are trying to bring a weapon system to bear in the right place and at the right time - the fact that it is on a helicopter is just a means of getting it there.

"We don't go flying for the sake of flying - we go flying to have an effect on the battlefield and to support the troops on the ground."

Apache was described to us as being like a "comfort blanket" for our troops in Afghanistan, its mere presence giving units the confidence to go out and do what they need to do, safe in the knowledge that the gunship is looking out for them. The self-worth and job satisfaction this brings to the Apache crews is motivation enough when they commence the training which will most likely eventually end up with them serving operationally in Afghanistan themselves.

The 673 syllabus encompasses some 60 hours in the air alongside another 80 hours which will be spent in the simulator, also housed at Middle Wallop. It begins with daytime work and the basis is the same as you would expect on any other helicopter or indeed fixed wing OCU - take off, landing, circuits, emergencies etc; all quite generic. Instrument flying follows (described by Maj Youngs as "quite dry and procedural") followed by night flying, weaponeering and understanding the sights and sensors.

The simulator itself is "fantastic" with two separate domes next to one another but graphically super-imposed to give the impression that you are in the tandem Apache cockpit. Each dome is on eight pneumatic jacks giving full motion to a simulator that can deliver a full mission experience.

"It's superb for emergencies and weapons training and we can put two students in there with an instructor sat beside them so it is a great learning tool, and the course here follows a path that goes sim / fly / sim / fly, interspersed all the way through to the end."

The Apache simulator facility is delivered by ATIL (Aviation Training International Limited) which is a subsidiary of Agusta Westland and, in Major Youngs' own words "they give us an outstanding service with great instructors."

There is however one part of the Apache syllabus which stands out from that on any other course - the unique 'bag phase'. This section of the course essentially involves blacking out the entire rear cockpit, leaving the student to rely completely and utterly on the sights and sensors fitted to the helicopter and the symbology they give him / her through the monocle. It is a legacy of the Americans' original Apache training with the older FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) system where the experienced instructor in the front seat was using a slightly degraded FLIR while the student in the back was using the fully functional system - albeit without the benefit of the notable Apache experience and the relative lack of SA (situational awareness). A number of Apaches and crews were lost due to this gap in training and it was proving difficult to take student pilots safely from the day phase in to the night phase. The bag therefore puts students in to a complete night time environment, while the instructor sits happily up front in natural daylight and is therefore able to maintain terrain separation and flight safety.

"It's pretty horrible in all honesty and when I was told about it I thought it was a joke," confirms Maj Youngs.

"You are looking through a monocular picture from your right eye and depth perception through one eye is very difficult. One of the hardest things to do in the bag phase is to simply taxi out from dispersal!"

This had been confirmed earlier in the day by Mal and his colleagues and the story goes that anyone who can actually manage this act without difficulty is clearly some kind of witch. It was also referred to as one of the ultimate 'ninja' skills that Apache pilots need to master!

But how difficult is the course? If taxiing the Apache during the bag phase is that tough what about flying it and operating it successfully?

"Yes, there is obviously some natural ability involved but let's not forget that Apache was designed by some very clever people and it is intuitive. We have got Army dentists and chefs who now fly it; my old squadron second-in-command had a CSE in woodwork and he became an A graded instructor! It's not necessarily about needing the classic skill sets and while I'm not decrying the fact that it is bloody difficult, at the end of the day we are soldiers and we teach it in a soldier like fashion.

"We explain how it works, we show you how it works and then we let you have a go, and that is the process all the way through. The Apache is a Rolls Royce - it will hover on its own, it's got air-con and a nice lumbar support in the seats - it's adding the sights and sensors and weapons that makes it difficult for people to deal with."

We're back to that RAF Coningsby / Eurofighter comparison again. Maj Youngs confirms that the Playstation or mobile texting generation frequently "get it" and before long they start doing things in the aircraft without realising they are doing them; they don't fight the technology. They can fly the aircraft easily enough - it's operating it successfully where things get much, much harder - exactly what we were told about the Typhoon.

Interestingly, the AAC also learned a number of important lessons from the fast jet community, notably those connected with operating as a tandem crew - a first for the Army with the introduction of the Apache as crews had always previously sat side-by-side in the likes of Lynx and Gazelle.

"We've got four radios to monitor, split two and two between the crew, so there is always radio chatter going on in the background when you are operating and obviously you talk to one another through a fairly monotone intercom. We get experts to talk to the students and they tell them that successful communication is 70% body language, 20% tone of voice and just 10% spoken word."

It's an example Maj Youngs demonstrates by conducting the next portion of the interview with his back turned to us and yes, it is uncomfortable and it does make things difficult - and that's just conducting an interview in an office, hardly comparable to operating a gunship in a warzone! But, point taken - crew management and communication is vital to success and while there is a mirror at the front - something Mal commented on as being very useful during the day phase for seeing what the pilot behind you is doing - it serves no purpose at night and Maj Youngs jokingly suggests it is more useful from a pilot's vanity perspective!

"The little things make all the difference and some of those things undermine people's progress - they can do it, but they can't do it as part of a crew. You can do everything from either seat but the front seater has slightly better access to the sights and sensors so usually the back seater drives and the front seater fights - but regardless, you have to work together.

"We teach probably 50% of what they need to know and they learn the other 50% just from exposure to the Apache and from gaining experience about all the intangibles and nuances of the platform."

So, after that in-depth look at some of what it takes to learn and succeed on Apache, we await Mal's return from his successful sim check and then wait some more, this time for the sun to go down and night flying to commence. This wait isn't a hardship for as well as photographing the aircraft on the dispersal once again, this time in the beautiful evening sunshine, we visit a number of other hangars and see the aircraft of the AAC Historic Flight as well as meeting a number of Mal's colleagues, all of whom are more than happy to talk Apache and tell us of their experiences, be they instructors or Mal's fellow students. This is where the Coningsby comparisons come full-circle, for I realise that the atmosphere here and the way people talk about what they do matches our Typhoon experience precisely. For them, Apache is the ultimate. Yes, of course it's a big, clever and extremely powerful tool for delivering effect but you know what, like Typhoon, it is also one of the ultimate boy's toys - and that is reflected by those who get to play with it!

Eventually, a little after 22.00, the crews walk to their Apaches and we are able to photograph them as they conduct the multitude of checks required to prepare a WAH-64D for flight - about 30 / 40 minutes worth all told. It's a unique, memorable and quite menacing sight as, one by one, they are ready to leave and clatter noisily away to depart Middle Wallop for Salisbury Plain or whichever designated area they are due to utilise for training. With that, our day is done, just as their long night begins with Mal telling us that it can easily be 2 or even 3am before they will have debriefed and completed their work.

Visiting Middle Wallop made for an insightful and fascinating day and sitting here it's actually quite difficult to sum it all up; we saw and learned so much about the Apache, its capabilities and the people who operate it. Listening back to the interviews while writing this piece though I did note one phrase which might work though; in the words of Major Rich Youngs "Apache is the bees knees and it does exactly what it says on the tin."

That'll do it.

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