Gareth Stringer met with the Army Air Corps’ 2014 Attack Helicopter Display Team to talk airshow flying and, with the end of the deployment in sight, to examine the Apache’s role in Afghanistan.

It’s not very often that a military pilot gets a second bite at the display-flying cherry, but that’s exactly what WO2 Bruce Allen has managed to acquire this year, another chance to display the Apache AH1 for the Army Air Corps’ Attack Helicopter Display Team (AHDT).

We last saw Bruce displaying the AH back in 2011, since when he has become a QHI (Qualified Helicopter Instructor) and been posted in that role to Middle Wallop, but the airshow bug didn’t go away, and if you were at RNAS Yeovilton’s Air Day last year you would have seen him flying the Apache in the Commando Assault. But still, second chances rarely come around…

Gareth Stringer ©

Pre-flight checks at Cosford – Gareth Stringer ©

“I think it was a question of being in the right place at the right time, really.” Bruce tells me. “Chuck (the AHDT’s new Officer Commanding, Capt Chuck Nicol) asked me if I was interested, as most of the other people with the right level of experience for the role were busy with Op HERRICK and such like, and I said yes straight away, because I really enjoy it and I love to fly.”

As per last year, when display pilot Jamie Boakes flew with two different front-seaters, that role on the team will also be split this time round, between Capt Sam Blackmore and, on the occasion of this interview, taking place at RAF Cosford Airshow, Capt Paul Whatnell. Like Bruce, Paul has also been involved with the AHDT before.

“I was the commentator in 2012, when Clive Richardson and Lily Meade were the display crew, so I’ve seen a few of the airshows already, and knew what to expect in that respect. I jumped at the chance to do it; it’s a step forward, I think, and feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity.” (Unless you’re WO2 Bruce Allen, obviously!)

Kevin Wills ©

Capt Paul Whatnell, Capt Chuck Nicol & WO2 Bruce Allen – Kevin Wills ©

“Our day-to-day flying is very mission-focussed, for obvious reasons, and we are very lucky that we get to go and do that, but we don’t get the opportunity to meet the public very often, and as well as the actual display flying, that is what this gives us.”

“Our aim is to entertain,” adds Bruce. “We want to show the aircraft off and put on a good performance for the public and demonstrate the aircraft to the best of our ability. In reality, some of our regular flying can actually be quite mundane, but display flying and working with pyrotechnics is very different.”

After three years away from displaying the aircraft, Bruce flew a short trip with Tony Thompson, one of the AAC’s most experienced Apache pilots, to refresh his muscle memory for some of the manoeuvres, especially those that require special authorisation such as the ‘90 up / 90 down’, but, generally speaking, flying the Apache to those limits was far less of a culture shock than it was first time round. The same can’t be said for Paul in the front seat, however…

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Airborne – Gareth Stringer ©

“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t take sick bags with me for those first few display trips! Your body does get used to it after a while, but being ‘heads-in’ while we’re manoeuvring so hard is certainly a little unpleasant to begin with.

“Despite some people joking that the front-seater is only there to affect the C of G (centre of gravity) of the aircraft during the display, I’d equate my role to that of a rally co-driver. Bruce is the one flying it, but I am ‘eyes in’, communicating with him all the while and monitoring our heights, speeds, positioning and the instrumentation.”

Bruce adds, “You could get yourself in to trouble with the aircraft very quickly. The Apache is so heavy and has so much inertia when we’re up on the power limits, that if you get a bit ham-fisted with a manoeuvre, you can find yourself somewhere you didn’t expect to be, with a lot of power on. Paul (and Sam) are extra eyes in the front, checking everything and making sure I know what’s coming next, so I only have to worry about flying the display.

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Displaying at RAF Cosford – Shaun Schofield ©

“That means that there is an almost constant dialogue between us for the duration of the display and, for example, Paul will tell me ‘We’re in for a 90 up, 90 down with a twist, height is good, speed is good’ and, once I’ve got that, then we’re on to the next one.”

The addition of pyrotechnics for a number of shows this year, currently four events in total, lends the display a true operational focus, and that is something that the team feels works very well for the Apache and has been moving towards, with a trial run, if you like, with last year’s display at Manston.

“We’re not trying to display the aircraft like something that it isn’t – a fast jet, for example. That sounds very obvious, but it is very much a helicopter display and we do the things that you would expect a helicopter to do.” Says Paul. “The Apache is an operational attack helicopter, not a display aircraft, and it is important that we focus on that.”

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The low level portion of the display – Gareth Stringer ©

Bruce firmly believes that the public want a display like the Apache’s to be as realistic as possible, and the pyrotechnics will certainly help deliver that message – very loudly and impressively!

“The manoeuvres will be the same, regardless of whether we have the pyros or not, but the commentary will be different, to reflect the difference between the routines, with the addition of JTAC-speak (Joint Tactical Air Controller) and the development of a scenario for the routine, so it all makes sense.

“Apache has a gun, rockets and missiles, so the pyros have been designed to reflect all that, with a simulated 30mm attack, a rocket strike and a Hellfire launch. There is some artistic licence, obviously, as we want it to be as exciting and photogenic as possible, but it is in context with what Apache can do, and has done, on operations.

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Pyros in action – Kevin Wills ©

“I am well aware that people like a good photo opportunity so we’re going to try and make sure there are a few of those, such as when the first pyro goes off as we initially run in.”

Unlike many of the other display teams, the Apache won’t often benefit from having a second aircraft on static display at an airshow, which means there isn’t always a natural place for the general public to meet those involved, but the team doesn’t want that to put people off.

“I wish people would ask us more about the Apache, to be honest,” Bruce insists. “We will spend time walking around the airshow and we will go to the ‘meet the pilots’ sessions or Army display areas if they have them, so I would encourage people to say hello, and they really can ask us most things.”

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Smoking! – Gareth Stringer ©

One of the things many people do ask about is how the Apache’s weapons work and what the aircraft does ‘for real’, and that brings us nicely on to Afghanistan, where the AH has been deployed since 2006 and, in April of this year, passed 50,000 operational flying hours – a third of all UK Apache flying.

In Afghan, on Op HERRICK, the Apache’s roles are to provide support to ground forces, tactical strike, reconnaissance and armed escort to other helicopters. With nearly ten years in theatre, for what was a brand new capability for the Army Air Corps when it entered service, it’s fair to say that the Apache has come a long way, as Bruce tells me…

“We have come a great distance, no question, and there is little doubt that the Apache has worked very well in theatre. The helicopter itself has changed as systems have been modernised, and it is better to fly in poor conditions, can stand-off even further than it could before, and the weapons have also been modified.

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Simulated 30mm cannon – Kevin Wills ©

“The biggest changes have been in tactics, though – the way we operate – and I think we have been quite good at taking lessons, learning from them, and retaining that knowledge.”

“I think we are very self-critical,” Paul agrees. “We really do analyse everything that we do and change things, if necessary. We have also learned how to integrate the Apache in theatre, with the JTACS for example, and we work very closely with the Chinook Force as part of the Immediate Response Team. We have a very strong relationship with them and probably work with them more closely than we do with anyone else.

“Over the years everyone has developed their procedures and knows what they are supposed to be doing, and, while Apache is just one cog in a very big machine, I think we are proud of the work we have done.”

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It’s very much a two-crew team – Gareth Stringer ©

While he won’t thank me for singling him out at all, and that really isn’t what it’s all about, Bruce Allen can also be personally proud of a Mention in Dispatches for bravery, this arising from a contact with the enemy back in 2008.

Escorting Chinooks in to Now Zad, to an area in which the presence of a ‘heavy machine gun’ had already been previously identified, the weapon in question opened fire on Bruce’s wingman.

“We’d been targeted by this weapon the day before but hadn’t been able to identify the firing point, but, having reported it, we decided to escort the Chinooks in the following day.

Kevin Wills ©

Engineers play a vital role too – Kevin Wills ©

“When the gun opened up, I was behind our wingman, on the left side, a little low. We were heading south, at first light, and they (the Taliban) don’t normally use tracer, so they don’t give their position away. But I saw a muzzle blast and then rounds of tracer as they fired at our wingman, so I tipped in and could see the target through my monocle.

“I told my gunner (front-seater) that I was eyes on the target and, usually, the gunner would have then put weapons down. But, the gun then started firing at us and the rounds seemed to be all round the cab, so within a couple of seconds I started firing and as they moved the gun, you could see the tracer arcing round – it was incredible.

“My first burst went long, so I adjusted, and hit the gunner, and then the guy spotting for him. A third guy tried to reposition to another firing point so I hit him with my third burst and, by this time, our wingman had manoeuvred and they hit the fourth guy. When we did the battle damage assessment, we found there were five guys in total operating the weapon, which was actually a 23mm anti-aircraft gun in a heavily fortified position.

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Pyros really add realism to the role demo – Kevin Wills ©

“In that same period we had also taken part in some CASEVACS (casualty evacuations) and taken some fire, and escorted some Chinooks in to some landing zones, so it was a pretty punchy 24 hours or so. I didn’t really think anything about it until, six months or so later, I learned that I had been Mentioned in Dispatches.”

It’s compelling stuff hearing Bruce tell the story, and seeing it written down really doesn’t do it justice, but at the very least it highlights the sort of work that the AH has been conducting in theatre and, at times, there has been a lot of it.

“Whenever you arrive in theatre, your first trip is a familiarisation patrol of the local area of operations to see what’s happening on the ground and how things have changed, or, if it is your first tour, to get a look at the lie of the land. You do that as a mixed crew with the out-going squadron so they can pass on the latest information,” says Paul, who has conducted one tour of Afghan and flew in Iraq before that.

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Landing back on at RAF Cosford – Gareth Stringer ©

“The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that everything is the same as when you left it, and the moment you leave theatre, you lose currency. But, even those familiarisation patrols aren’t freebies, and many times people have been engaged on their very first flight in theatre. I was involved in action during my very first shift.”

But, when you do take Apache in to action, you are doing so in the perfect machine for the job.

“It’s a purpose-built battlefield attack helicopter,” says Paul. “It’s not a cab that has had bits bolted on to it to make it fit for purpose, and I think it is as safe as it can possibly be.”

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Capt Paul Whatnell and WO2 Bruce Allen – Kevin Wills ©

“In terms of the future, after Afghan, I think we know that in Apache we have a system that we can take anywhere in the world and it can do almost anything you want, be it supporting troops on the ground, for example, or providing ISTAR (Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance),” Bruce summarises.

“The only other thing I would like to say is thank you to the general public,” adds Paul. “The support we get from the general public is so important, and when you come to an event like this and get to speak to people and also then see the charities that offer so much support for members of the armed forces, that really does mean a lot.”

Really, we should be thanking them, for taking the time to bring the Apache out to airshows, and it does take a lot of work, not just from Bruce, Paul and Chuck, but also the technicians from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) who keep the aircraft serviceable and airborne, through to the team that sets up the pyros for each show.

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Official team patch – Gareth Stringer ©

Those pyros will ensure that you don’t miss the AHDT when they are performing this season, and, if you see the team around and about at any of the venues, do go and say hello – they’d love to meet you.

For more information, and the team’s display dates, you can find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Gareth Stringer would like to thank Captain Chuck Nicol, WO2 Bruce Allen and Captain Paul Whatnell. Look out for an exclusive ‘behind the scenes’ feature with the team, coming soon to GAR.