FORT RUCKER, Ala. (AP) — At a sprawling base set amid the wire-grass pastures of southern Alabama, the Army is teaching its next class of helicopter pilots how to avoid getting shot down when it’s their turn to go to Iraq.
Sometimes you fly high, they learn, and sometimes you go low. Vary your speed, and don’t fly the same route too often. And always — always — know what’s going on around you because it doesn’t take much more than a single gun on the ground to take down even the most advanced helicopter.
“Self-preservation is what the key is,” said Chief Warrant Officer Troy A. Wyatt, an instructor at the Army’s aviation school at Fort Rucker.
The Pentagon has reported eight incidents in the past month in Iraq in which helicopters either were shot down or forced under fire to land. Military officials say the terrorists are increasingly targeting helicopters, firing simultaneously from different directions with an assortment of weapons, including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
“We continually work very closely with the units that are in theater in Iraq, and as they return home, we identify how they are doing business, how they are fighting the enemy on the ground in Iraq, and anything we need to do to change or adjust the training here,” said Col. Dan Stewart, who is responsible for flight training.
After 51/2 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 90 percent of the instructor pilots at Rucker have recent combat experience. They turn out about 1,150 fliers each year, and many of them are flying combat missions within six months of leaving the post, 90 miles south of Montgomery.
With two Iraqi combat tours behind him, Chief Warrant Officer Wyatt can tell a new flier stories about steering an AH-64D Apache Longbow through the deadly skies around Baghdad. He knows about avoiding insurgent fire and providing cover for the infantry below.
The training at Fort Rucker begins with ground school and advances quickly to Warrior Hall, where new pilots learn the basics of flying helicopters in simulators resembling white fiberglass campers on spindly metal legs. They get their first taste of flight in TH-67 trainers.
With months of basics behind them, student pilots move into the Army’s most advanced helicopters: the Apaches, built for attack missions; OH-58D reconnaissance aircraft; CH-47 Chinook transports; and UH-60 Black Hawks, built for ferrying troops on assault missions.
Some trainees come in off the street as young as 19. Others already have a feel for what they face: Lt. Jon Finch was an Apache crew chief in Afghanistan with the North Carolina National Guard before being accepted into pilot school.
Like everyone else at Rucker, he has heard the grim statistics from the past month in Iraq.
“It makes it real,” said Lt. Finch, 27. “You feel sorry for the families it happens to.”