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The Life of an Army Helicopter Pilot by CW3 BERNIE SMITH, US ARMY

I offer this article as an Army UH-60 Blackhawk pilot since 1990, therefore my views are that of the Army and not any other Service. I will give information as accurate as I can. Pilots of other Army aircraft may disagree on some details, such as the Blackhawk being the finest helicopter ever produced. Thanks Igor.

You do not need any previous aviation experience to apply for the Army Flight Program, but any you have will definitely be an advantage, even if it is in a ground support field Blackhawk Helicopter(maintenance, ATC, etc.) Most Warrant Officers and some Commissioned Officers were previously enlisted, but not necessarily in an aviation field. I served in the Marine Corps infantry and my only flight time was in the back of CH-53’s and 46’s.

After successful completion of Warrant Officer Candidate School or Officer Candidate School , you will attend flight school at Fort Rucker , Alabama , the Home of Army Aviation. Warrant Officers are specialized technical experts and their primary job is to fly. Commissioned Officers are leaders and although they will spend some assignments flying, they may have jobs that don’t allow them to fly for three or more years. If you want to get flight time, go Warrant. If you want more money, along with the challenge of managing/leading people that go with it, go Commissioned. As a CW3, I will focus my views on flying with the Army as a Warrant Officer.

Flight school is about 10 months long. Everyone starts out in the TH-67. You will have a “stick buddy” that shares your training period. You will both share an assigned Instructor Pilot. After primary training, you will continue with Instrument training, again in the TH-67. Following successful completion it’s on to Basic Combat Skills. Lastly, you will be assigned a specific airframe to train in. This will be the aircraft you fly throughout your career. Class standing, personal preference, and “needs of the Army” (A term you will become painfully familiar with) determine which airframe you end up with. It will either be a UH-60 Blackhawk, CH-47 Chinook, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, or AH-64 Apache.

You will also be qualified flying with Night Vision Goggles, or NVG’s. These are mounted on the front of the flight helmet and allow an operational advantage during night flight. It is one of the most challenging phases of flight training. Your field of view is limited to 40 degrees, as opposed to about 200 degrees without them. Flying with goggles has been compared to flying while looking through toilet paper tubes. The Army prides itself in owning the night for war fighting and most assignments will require you to stay proficient in NVG flight.

A WO1 with less than two years of service will make $2133.90 a month base pay, with $125 in flight pay and the other allowances the Army provides, such as for housing and food. These other allowances vary depending on your duty location. Flight pay increases almost every year for 6 years until it reaches $650 per month. After that, it increases to $840 after you’ve served 14 years of aviation service. Promotion for a Warrant Officer 1to CW2 (Chief Warrant Officer 2) is pretty much automatic at one year unless you really screw up. After that, you will remain a CW2, CW3, or CW4 for six years between promotions. The highest Warrant rank is CW5. Base pay for a CW5 with 20 years in service is $5169.30. The entire pay table can be found at http://www.dod.mil/militarypay.

Don’t just look at the base pay/flight pay when considering your budget. For about $16 a month, I have $250,000 worth of life insurance. Besides the other allowances previously mentioned, hospital and dental care is provided. My daughter was born at Fort Campbell , KY. It cost me a whopping $15, which covered meals for my wife. Unless you’re on duty, such as MEDEVAC coverage, you will also get every Federal holiday off, which is usually combined with a training holiday for a nice 4-day weekend. Everyone in the military starts out with 30 days of leave a year, and up to 60 days can be saved and sold back when you get out.

Following completion of flight school you will owe the Army six years of service. You will be assigned to a Stateside or overseas tour right after flight school, then again about every three years after that. You submit a preference, but needs of the Army prevail. One-year tours are called short tours and are primarily in several posts in South Korea or Honduras . Long tours, three years duration, can be found in Germany , Alaska , Hawaii , and sometimes Japan . There are others, but these are the big ones.

A short tour to Korea is almost inevitable if you stay in long enough. Depending on where you’re stationed, you may bring your family. If the government pays for it, you will have to agree to stay two years instead of one. If you pay for their travel, one year is it. Short/long tours are pretty much what YOU make them. I paid to bring my wife over during my first Korea tour so overall it was a very positive experience. Every culture has something to offer, it’s up to you to either learn about it or stay in your room and count the days until you go home.

There are also several thousand troops in Iraq , in case you haven’t watched the news lately. Deployments are by far the downside of the military. Since Desert Storm, troops have been deployed to Somalia , Bosnia , Kosovo, and Afghanistan to name a few. If you just can’t stand being away from your family, the military is not for you. Being away and missing birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries are part of the job. It never gets easy; you just learn to deal with it.

Each airframe has a particular mission. The Apache’s mission is to kill tanks and anything else that moves on the other side of the battlefield. If you love to shoot things, that’s your bird. It has an array of weapons from Hellfire missiles to a 30mm chain gun. It’s very high tech. The Kiowa Warrior is an offspring of the OH-58 Kiowa. It has multiple missions, ranging from reconnaissance to target acquisition/designation. The Chinook is the Army’s heavy lift helicopter that can haul internal and external loads around the battlefield as needed, including troops, vehicles, and artillery pieces. Although it looks cumbersome, this is actually the fastest helicopter in the Army. The Blackhawk has the most versatile mission. You may perform Command and Control, MEDEVAC, Air Assault, VIP, or mine laying missions to name a few. The Chinook and Blackhawk also perform Special Operations missions.

Until you are assigned a specialized job, you will hold one or more additional duties. These jobs are what make or break you during your early years. They may be a high visibility job or seem insignificant, but they all support your commander’s mission. They range from the Arms Room Officer (weapons guy), NVG custodian, Fire Marshall, etc. Yes, your primary job is to fly, but all your peers fly, so the best way to set yourself apart is to excel in your additional duty. Like any civilian job, attitude is everything.

As a Warrant Officer, you may choose from four different “tracks”, or job specialties. These are Instructor Pilot (IP), Aviation Safety Officer, Maintenance Test Pilot, or Tactical Operations Officer. All tracks require further training at Fort Rucker .

Instructor Pilots can be assigned to Fort Rucker to teach basic skills, or to any unit training and evaluating mission tasks specific to that unit. They conduct annual evaluations, called APARTs, which are very similar to the FAA evaluations. They also run the flight simulators for their respective aircraft. Many IP’s go back to Rucker to attend the Rotor Wing Instrument Flight Examiner Course. They may then conduct annual instrument evaluations

Aviation Safety Officers are assigned to units to oversee the Safety Program. Safety is primary in everything the Army does. There is a saying that just because something is dangerous, it doesn’t have to be unsafe. Safety Officers identify risk and help mitigate that risk to the lowest level possible. They also conduct accident investigations.

Maintenance Test Pilots not only do the troubleshooting and flying on aircraft, they also manage their unit’s maintenance program. Army aircraft are maintained to high standards and MTPs are an integral part of the program. Some MTPs become Maintenance Test Flight Evaluators. They train and evaluate MTPs in maintenance tasks and maneuvers.

Tactical Operations Officers plans, schedules, assigns, coordinates, and briefs missions, and develops and manages the flying hour. They are also the unit’s Electronics Warfare Officer.

Once a year a board is held to select applicants for the Fixed Wing Course. This is highly competitive. Many pilots just want a break from flying helicopters, and some are seeking a dual rating for jobs outside the military. If you are selected, it is not a guarantee that you will fly fixed wing the rest of your career. You may be utilized for one year, and then it’s back to rotary wing.

I’ve mentioned my least favorite aspect of flying for the Army; being away from my family for extended periods of time. My favorite aspect is the same now as it’s always been, executing missions that are sometimes complex and time sensitive, conducted safely and to a high standard. It’s very challenging and rewarding work. I have the honor of flying with crew chiefs and medics who are dedicated to their job. They work many hours maintaining the aircraft long after I walk away from it, and are dedicated to personal sacrifice in order to save others on the battlefield.

An Army recruiter can answer any questions you may have concerning flying for the Army. There are also several web sites that provide information, such as www.army.mil,

leav-www.army.mil/wocc, and www-rucker.army.mil.

CW3 Bernie Smith
Standardization Instructor Pilot
50th Medical Company (Air Ambulance)
101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)

Proudly serving in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom

Comments

Dave Mercado
# Dave Mercado
Tuesday, February 09, 2010 11:01 PM
Thank You Bernie,
This is a great inside look at the world of Army Aviation. There are even more benefits to being an Army Aviator, such as being able to get a Fixed Wing (Airplane) transition and fly anything from VIP to Military Intelligence Missions. Also once you are getting ready to graduate flight school you can do a competency test for your FAA license which would be thousands of dollars outside in the civilian world, I know I taught in the Army at Rucker and Civilian at Bristow Academy Titusville, Florida).

For those of you that are getting ready to look for a civilian job after leaving or retiring from the Army, there are many jobs in the contractor world, which only hire previous MILITARY experienced pilot preferably Army Pilots. I work in such a place and have worked for others to include US State Department / DynCorp flying Black Hawks and there are many overseas jobs for us Army Pilots, Instructor, Maintenance, Safety, Operations, etc. Crew chiefs too.

Some of the countries you can end up at are Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Afghanistan, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and many more as an old Army Aviator. So, the opportunity is there even after departing from Active Duty, not to mention Army Reserve and National Guard full time or part time.

My son Richie Mercado is current proof that the Army Warrant Officer works, as he went the civilian route at first and now owes Sally Mae, lots, save the money guys and gals. He is now at Fort Campbell flying Mike Model Black Hawks as a Chief Warrant Officer 2, with an FAA Rotary Wing, Commercial/ Instrument Certificate, worth a fortune in the civilian world.

If you really are committed and have the drive to become an Army Aviator, go for it and make your dream come true (a little Disney there).

For those ready to go civilian after the Army check out these sites:
www.dyncorprecruiting.com There are many jobs available

UH-60, CH-47 guys only, sorry gals it's the way it is here:
Instructors, Maintenance Test Pilots, VIP Pilots in Abu Dhabi, UAE
contact me at the email below or direct with our Chief Pilot
Gary.Fuller@gal.ae

Thank You All for your service and happy flying.

Sincerely,
David Mercado
CW4 (Ret)
Instructor Pilot
Global Aerospace
Abu Dhabi, UAE
mercadodavid@yahoo.com

Robert
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 6:55 AM
At one time or another an Army Recruiter asked me if I would be interested in flying helicopter, I still kick myself for saying no. I remember back in 1991 at an airshow in New York as I was standing by the fence watched a Sea King drop from the sky apparently the engine stalled out & it just dropped like a rock. Everyone survived so that was a good thing. My response was if you could make those things glide to the ground safer & safely I'm there, otherwise no.
TS
# TS
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 7:13 AM
Fine article. I just have a few points to make.

Flight school is about 10 months long, if you are able to go from start to finish without any breaks between phases. Realistically, plan on spending 12-15 months at Fort Rucker, longer if you're a National Guardsman or Reservist.

Flight school has changed since CW3 Smith went through. Now, primary and instruments are completed in the TH-67, but after that Combat Skills is taught in your advanced aircraft. This allows aviators to show up at their units with more time in their assigned airframe.

Promotion from WO1 to CW2 takes place after two years, not one.

SGLI (Life insurance) is now $400,000.

I'm guessing this was written a few years ago, as the base pay for a WO1 with less than 2 years is not $2682 per month.

Otherwise, a fine article.
CW5 (Ret) Ray Johnson 29th Avn Bde SIP
# CW5 (Ret) Ray Johnson 29th Avn Bde SIP
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 9:28 AM
I just opened up your article but have not had a chance to read it. I hope it is an inspiration to those that will follow our footsteps. It is important for those that have gone ahead become mentors to those that will follow. I will comment after I have read your article.
DavidJarvis
# DavidJarvis
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 9:46 AM
Bernie,
Great article!!!!! I am currently going through the application process myself. I'm just having a few problems with finding senior officers to write my LOR's (Letters of Recommendation). This is a challenge, being that i've had no previous military experience. On the upside, I have completed around half of my private pilot in the Robinson R-22 Beta, which should push my application to the top of the pile.

If there is anyone that can help me out with the LOR's it would be greatly appreciated.

Happy and Safe Flying to All,
David J. Jarvis
Future CW1 of United States Army
S. Nielsen
# S. Nielsen
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 1:52 PM
Reading your article definitely brought back memories as I too was a Warrant Officer. Sounds like you may have had a little easier time in flight school - I was in the third class to train completely at Ft. Rucker, had to double time in the company area, keep brown paper lined in the desk drawers without a space on the sides, and put up with the Tac Officer's harassment.

Spent 4 years at Ft. Hood, TX and got an AH-1G transition (loved the air-conditioning). Also worked on the run-off between Hughes and Bell for the now infamous Apache.

It seems so long ago yet I remember my experience as if it was yesterday and would not change anything. I was able to fly the UH-60 for the US Customs Service for 12 years - what an awesome helicopter.
Doug Hartman
# Doug Hartman
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 2:25 PM
Bernie,
Thanks for sharing with me, this Vietnam-era Marine Corps H-46 pilot, your personal account of what it is like to be an Army helicopter pilot. Keep your turns up!
CW5 (Ret) Ray Johnson 29th Avn Bde SIP
# CW5 (Ret) Ray Johnson 29th Avn Bde SIP
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 2:56 PM
I was the 29th Avn Bde SIP before I retired. I think your article was to the point. I thank you for taking the time to write it. Those of us who are senior warrant officers need to mentor those who will follow our footsteps. I have 3 individuals that I have talked into joining the Army and then on to warrant officer candidate school with a desitnation to flight training. I will forward this to them. Best of luck in your future endeavors
Randy Holland
# Randy Holland
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 5:28 PM
Thank you for your service to your country.
frank
# frank
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 5:30 PM
beautiful, as a former crew chief in vietnam, and now a Corperate helicopter pilot. At the age of 58, i wish that i had gone to warrant officer school to fly. the best training available is at Rucker. God speed
Simon
# Simon
Sunday, February 14, 2010 9:45 AM
You've been a UH-60 pilot for 20 years and you're only a W3? The math doesn't add up. Other than that, fairly accurate information.
Daulet
Sunday, February 21, 2010 7:41 PM
Hello!
My name is Daulet. I from Kazakhstan.
I was a military pilot for 14 years in our Air Force. Now my rank is Captain. I retired in 2005. Since 2006 I fly on Bell 206 B/L.
Do I have any chance to be a pilot in US Army? Scould I have US citizen first?
Best regards Daulet.
Kazakhstan, Almaty.
Cell +7 701 7995061
CW3 (Ret) Steve Harmon
# CW3 (Ret) Steve Harmon
Tuesday, February 23, 2010 7:06 PM
Hey Bernie!!! Looks like you are still doing good things. Take good care of yourself!
bernie.smith
# bernie.smith
Wednesday, March 17, 2010 1:14 PM
Simon,

I wrote this article for justhelicopters.com in 2003 when I was in Mosul,Iraq. It was gone from the website for a while, then popped back up with December 2009 as the post date. So the math wouldn't add up if I'd just written it. I retired January '09 as a CW4.
Lyn Burks
Wednesday, March 17, 2010 2:58 PM
Bernie,

Your article did reside on the website since you wrote it. Last year we redesigned the website and added a new articles module. That date of Dec 2009 was the date that we moved (or published) the article into our new articles module. Since we moved all the previous articles to the new site and module, many of them have that same date. Thanks for your service and your contribution to the site. As you can see, your info is still timely and interesting.

Regards,
Lyn Burks - Justhelicopters.com
bernie.smith
# bernie.smith
Thursday, March 18, 2010 6:18 AM
Lyn,

Apologies for stating the article "left the website", thanks for the correction. I appreciate you publishing it, I hope it continues to educate those interested in Army Aviation.

V/r
Bernie Smith
Dan B
# Dan B
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 7:17 AM
To all of you who have been/are aviators I have one question for you. I was recently told that anyone who has had cavities or fillings is ineligible for flight school. Is there any truth to this? I am looking to enlist after new years but if this is the case it would make me reconsider which branch of the military i join. Also, I know it's not something that's talked about, but any information about SERE-C would be greatly appreciated also. Thanks for your time.

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