- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - Pvt. James Kaniarz was 18 and fresh out of boot camp when he started training for his job in the Army at the 128th Aviation Brigade in Fort Eustis.

“It was a culture shock at first,” the Milan, Ohio, native said in a break room on post surrounded by his 12 classmates. He was one of the youngest. “As soon as I walked through those doors and saw the Apache, I knew I was in the right spot.”

The brigade is the only place in the Army to learn how to fix helicopters. It moves about 6,000 young soldiers through its facility each year, about 1,800 at a time. Soldiers can work on Apache, Blackhawks or Chinooks, and specialize in electrical, avionics and weapons or the mechanical side of the helicopter, depending on their job.

First Sgt. James Whiley is senior training officer in the brigade’s A Company. They teach the electrical side of things, which basically runs everything except the motor.

He said the soldiers, many of whom are between the ages of 18 and 24, come into the brigade with little more than a high school diploma.

“We give them basic instruction,” Whiley said. “From ‘this is a screw driver,’ to the more advanced, technical parts of the craft.”

The Advanced Individual Training program uses what Whiley called a “crawl, walk, run” method that increases in complexity as the student learns more. They move from classrooms where they learn from a computer-based instruction manual to stripped-down simulators with touch-screen panels that resemble the aircraft they are working on. The touch screen allows them to follow safety and instructional prompts as they fix the aircraft without any real danger of hurting the machine or themselves. Finally the students work on even more complex simulators that all but fly.

“We refine or build on the basics of the classroom environment and introduce them into the virtual environment. From here we move to the hangar floor - we have a virtually functional aircraft,” Whiley said. “It’s as close to an operational aircraft as they can get.”

Whiley, who spent 18 years as a maintainer in the field, said when he came through the course, it involved a lot of reading from a paper manual. Advances in technology have been made to appeal to the younger generation, he said.

Kaniarz and his classmates are nearing the end of their fourth and final month of training. When they graduate, they’ll have a working knowledge of the aircraft. But they’re “not yet experts,” Whiley said.

The apprentices will be assigned to their first unit, where they will shadow a more experience soldier.

Pvt. Michael Wade, of Stephenville, Texas, said the pilots keep them safe, while the maintainers keep the pilots safe and the aircraft airborne.

“You’re working on something. You feel like you’re doing something important,” Wade said of his training.

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Information from: Daily Press, https://www.dailypress.com/


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