Black Hawk training – how does the US military prepare its pilots?
In the US Army, pilot instructors are training Black Hawk pilots to become leaders and business owners, as Amy Gallagher found out
At the US Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF) in Boone, Iowa (IA) where the IA-Army National Guard (IA-ARNG) Black Hawk Instructor Pilots (IPs) train, ‘every flight is an opportunity to learn, and ‘everyone can be a teacher’.
The culture within Army aviation is premised on the philosophy to never stop learning, followed by the equally important ethic of accepting and understanding that you can learn from anybody. It is a curriculum based on tradition, and yet so progressive in concepts – such as the philosophy that ‘everyone is a teacher’. In other words, even a senior IP can learn something new from a junior pilot.
And it all starts at Fort Rucker. The US Army Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE) was established on 1 February 1955 at Rucker, AL – initially known as Camp Rucker before undergoing its name change. In 1956, however, the US Department of Defense reassigned the training from the US Air Force to complete control by the US Army. Today, the mission of the USAACE at Fort Rucker is to train, educate, and develop agile and adaptive army aviation leaders, manage the aviation enterprise, and integrate aviation capabilities and requirements across the warfighting functions to enable commanders and soldiers on the ground to fight and win.
Col Charles (‘Chuck’) Lampe, a licensed rotary-wing IP, and Director of Army Aviation for Iowa, who graduated from the US Army’s Officer Flight Training School in Fort Rucker, where all Army pilots are required to attend flight training, emphasizes that the flight training school is very different from the ‘traditional schoolhouse’: “We know there are different ways to learn, whether visual or analytical; each instructor is accomplished in the diverse teaching styles,” he said, adding that the center also played host to the Aviation Warrant Officer Program, which instills in its students the technical and tactical expertise required to manage their business.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5) Jonathan Miller knows leadership development as the Battalion Senior Warrant Officer at Fort Rucker for the 1-212th Aviation Regiment – the dedicated regiment tasked to train the Initial Entry Rotary Wing students and graduate students in the UH-60 Black Hawk. “At the Center of Excellence, we develop leaders who drive changes,” said Miller. “Without a doubt, the greatest aspect of the Fort Rucker UH-60 training is the US Army’s standards; whether students, pilots or officers, everyone is held to the same standard.”
The multifaceted and diverse Black Hawk
CW5 Miller is also a full-time IP in the Initial Entry Rotary Wing UH-60 Black Hawk program. “Upon graduation from the 32-week program, approximately 50 to 65 per cent of the graduating pilots are assigned to the Black Hawk,” he said. “The UH-60 represents the largest number of aircraft in the US Army’s fleet.”
Miller’s preference for training on the Black Hawk is multifaceted, much like the aircraft. “I tell the junior officers that the UH-60 model is just a great airframe,” he said. “It’s also better looking.” All joking aside, Miller is resolute about the Black Hawk prominence as the most diverse mission set of all three rotor-wing aircraft. “We can do air assault, rescue, special operations, firefighting, all of it,” he said.
While the aircraft’s capabilities are varied, so is the geography where the assignments are generally located.
“The assignments are more desirable as a Black Hawk pilot,” said Miller. “Whether the pilot chooses to go to Germany or Virginia, it is a mission-wise choice.” But the greatest advantage of flying the Black Hawk is its ‘geometric’ configuration when it comes to landing in smaller places, such as medevac missions where you don’t get to choose the location, he added. When Miller flew the Black Hawk for medevac, he said, ‘we had to land inside walls and fences. Fortunately, the airframe of the Black Hawk is better suited for these tight landings’.
The greatest moments are witnessing the light bulb go off when the student pilot fully understands an exercise or a procedure
Developing leaders to proficient pilots
“As an IP, it’s both rewarding and challenging,” Miller asserted. "The greatest moments are witnessing the light bulb go off when the student pilot fully understands an exercise or a procedure, such as slope landings or flying with the hydraulics off.”
In one situation, Miller said, the student pilot was having a hard time with instrument flying: ‘inadvertently pitching up 20 degrees, nose high in the clouds, obviously not understanding the pitch and power concepts and instrument scans’.
Without a crew chief in the back to aid as a second, it can get pretty stressful, he said. “While we are all held to the same standard, we also acknowledge those who may not meet the training standards,” said Miller. Some students do have a difficult time, but IPs provide them the chances to make the necessary improvements, he said.
“It is our job as IPs to ensure that when a pilot graduates in the Black Hawk, [they] can perform any mission set, from the fundamentals of flying to more advanced tasks, such as mountainous operations training,” Miller explained. “With patience and dedication, each IP guides the student through the process, developing the leadership within the student until [they are] successful as a proficient pilot.”
The ‘human development business’
The leaders and the instructor pilots of the IA-ARNG expect excellence, knowing they are in the ‘human development business’, where ‘expectation management’ drives the development process of pilots in their charge. “The traditional pilot may have a business that [they] own and operate, and deploy every three to four years,” said Lampe. “IPs in the IA-ARNG are responsible for ensuring [their] soldiers are the best [they] can be, knowing the job is demanding, as are the environments where the pilots fly. It is their occupation, their full-time job. All IPs must exhibit the same level of commitment, while holding dear a love for [their] country.”
Understanding and managing expectations starts with knowing what motivates the flight school candidate. For example, Lampe may ask a flight school candidate: “What’s your ‘why?’” In so many words, he is asking: why are you here and what motivates you?”
“There is a big portion, a cohort of aviators, who are dedicated to mentoring those interested in becoming pilots,” Lampe said. “There is an expectation when holding the position as a mentor. We refer to it as ‘building the bench’ with respect to managing the selection process,” explained Lampe. “Selecting the right person for flight school is contingent upon a matrix of factors framed by the dynamics of flight training requirements, including competition,” he reasoned. “Once the selection is made, the decision to also develop this future pilot into a leader is made, knowing that everyone in the cockpit is a leader required to make decisions.” We are leaders who develop leaders, Lampe added.
The ‘BAT’: the best realism in combat training
CW3 David Schnotala oversees the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter training as the pilot-in-command (PIC) in the aircraft, or as mission commander, bringing 13 years’ experience gained in the National Guard, with 11 years as an aviator. Schnotala said that the Black Hawk pilot experiences the ‘full circle’ of training to be prepared and ready for deployment on a regular basis, which includes: classroom, flight and simulator training. The IA-ARNG is home to one of the most modernized flight training simulators with the Black Hawk Aircrew Trainer or ‘BAT’ – a highly immersive, home-station flight training device for the UH-60M Black Hawk, a modernized version of the former UH-60A/L.
The BAT encompasses the best realism in combat mission training
“With the compatible training system in the BAT engineered as a direct design application of the actual aircraft (both software and hardware), we can implement that technology for the training,” said Lampe. “It also provides opportunities to improve risk management, increase aircrew proficiency and enhance mission scenarios.”
The BAT even looks like the same aircraft – the nose of the BAT is the actual nose from the Black Hawk, he added. “The M-model BAT has the same glass cockpit as the aircraft, with many of the same components as an actual aircraft,” Schnotala added. As a BAT instructor-operator, Schnotala augmented the pilot training by simulator when the BAT was installed in 2016 at the Camp Dodge Joint Maneuver Training Center, Johnston, IA, relishing in the fact that the IA-ARNG was the first National Guard to utilize the realistic training.
"The BAT encompasses the best realism in combat mission training,” said Schnotala, who added that the BAT serves 130 regional pilots per year and provides more than 2,000 hours of simulator flight time for the five states served by Camp Dodge.
“With the interchangeable nature of the simulator to the aircraft, the pilot can feel the weight difference experienced during emergency conditions, while simulating all climates and all terrains, as well as flight training over water and high-altitude environments,” said Schnotala. “If the mission involves high-altitude flying, our pilots learn the techniques trained at the High Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS) in Colorado,” said Schnotala. “The BAT provides the actual terrain with the same effects.”
The BAT also has nine cameras, and nine screens with simplified, yet realistic visuals, he added. “We have maps for Afghanistan and the US, with tactical training scenarios to manage enemy and radar threats, lasers and small arms fire, including visual applications to see the tracers coming at you when the pilots engage,” said Schnotala.
With the overarching tenets of Army leader development, accepting and acting upon candid assessment and feedback, Lampe said the simulator also provides the option to ‘pause’ the training to ask key questions (‘what did you do right, or wrong?’) all the while developing leaders to own their business while managing expectations through mentorship using 21st -Century simulation technology, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
‘High, hot and heavy’: Colorado Army National Guard high-altitude aviation training site
The high elevation and remote mountains of Afghanistan have been traversed for millennia by caravans, explorers, and scientific expeditions and, for the past 20 years, the US military. Or, more specifically, the Black Hawk pilot, who is capable of navigating the terrain, the weather and the enemy with greater situational awareness as a graduate of the Colorado National Guard (CO-ARNG) High-Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS), where the landscape is similar to that of Afghanistan, which makes for the ideal training ground.
The topography of Afghanistan, like the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, boasts mountain peaks of almost 25,000 feet in the east – Colorado is similar in terms of terrain and austere conditions. The Hindu Kush has more than 3,000 small glaciers that crisscross an estimated area of 1.18 million square feet, and suffers from extreme weather conditions with a monsoon season, ice and snow. The tallest mountain in Colorado stands at 14,440 feet, while the average snowfall tops at 200 inches throughout the year.
CW5 Chief Instructor Pilot Pat Gates knows a thing or two about managing machine against mountain and mother nature; for example, balancing a low-hovering Black Hawk over a snow-capped mountain, calculating the numbers to estimate the most appropriate landing zone (LZ) without knowing just how much snow is atop that mountain, which could be six feet or 20 feet in depth.
As a HAATS IP, the first thing Gates says to his students is simply ‘keep an open mind’. “We are creatures of habit, trained or raised into one way of thinking and so believe it’s the best way,” said Gates. “We begin to create these misconceptions throughout our life. As an instructor responsible for teaching an advanced, graduate-level flight course, there are two groups of students, the young and more moldable students, and the senior students who are potentially less receptive in their ways. For both the young and the older students, I tell them, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.”
With 38 years of military service, CW5 Gates has dedicated 28 years to aviation, including his full-time HAATS IP position since 2009 and an adjunct IP since 1999. Gates asserted that throughout the training, there will be moments when he pushes the comfort zones of each student within the envelopes of those misconceived projections that have formed into belief systems and / or habits – eventually amplifying their awareness and their knowledge, which is followed by a ‘wow! Not only did I not know what I thought I knew. I now know I could be doing it better!’ Those ‘wow’ moments of discovering knowledge are strategically placed cannons of clarity throughout the HAATS training curriculum, he said.
Established in 1985 to provide ‘graduate level’ training to military helicopter pilots flying in mountainous terrain and / or high temperatures, the CO-ARNG HAATS is located in the small mountain town of Gypsum (near Vail), Colorado, on Eagle County Airport. The school caters to rotary-wing military pilots from all over the world. HAATS has hosted and trained helicopter pilots from most of the US allies such as Slovenia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. The CH-47 Chinook, UH-60 Black Hawk, and UH-72 Lakota represent the typical airframes flown at HAATS for the one-week course.
HAATS is the only Department of Defense aviation training site for Power Management and Mountain Environmental Flight Training, training aircrews from all military branches and components missioned by the National Guard Bureau (NGB) and under the supervision of the USAACE at Fort Rucker.
Power management: “Trust, but verify”
As defined in the HAATS curriculum, power management is: ‘Knowing how much power is available and knowing how much power is required to manage a maneuver’.
“The power-based model is directly applicable to military rotor pilots and centers around aircraft torque, which teaches pilots the amount of torque required for each maneuver,” said Gates. With the emphasis on the aircraft, not the environment, students learn to execute maneuvers with the appropriate amount of power, he said: “Our goal with HAATS is to provide realistic and relevant training with techniques that have been proven over time and imitated worldwide. The tenets that identify HAATS as the benchmark for high-altitude flight are the training area, methodology and the instructors.”
The ‘training area’ is essentially an outdoor classroom that spans over one million acres of usable training area cultivated since 1986, with LZs ranging from 6,500 to 12,200 feet. The HAATS classroom is surrounded by mountains, which create a unique training environment incorporating high altitude, high-density altitude, visual illusions, and three-dimensional winds – updrafts, downdrafts, and wraparounds.
“High-altitude and reduced air density decreases engine and rotor blade performance,” said Gates. “We tell students that managing power is like managing money; you need to know how much you have and what you need to avoid coming up short.” The students must constantly interpret what the environment (and the weather) and the aircraft are telling them.
Power management methodology
“Power methodology teaches students to maximize the utility of the aircraft that starts with knowing the specific capabilities of the aircraft while factoring in the ever-changing environment into each scenario,” Gates told AirMed&Rescue. “The methodology of power management is based on a training concept, which, when applied rigorously, gives pilots the knowledge and confidence to operate their machines routinely and safely at maximum gross weights in any environment,” noted Gates. “In combat, high, hot and heavy is the norm – not the exception."
In combat, high, hot and heavy is the norm – not the exception
The methodology of power management training also requires students to be able to recognize and react to both physical and environmental hazards.
The end-of-course classrooms are named after local mountains like Colorado’s Mount Elbert, Mount Massive, Castle Peak, and Dome Peak, where ‘environmental considerations’ – high winds, high gross weight, and degraded visual environment – are constant threats. The Colorado mountains lend to the HAATS training area all of the natural resources ideal for creating those ‘visual illusions’ that lead to misconceptions: “Wind affects the terrain around them (the helicopter), which creates a difficult situation when managing power requirements because there is more tailwind than the pilot initially thought, thus increasing power requirements,” said Gates.
And, apparently, there are hundreds of LZs hiding in the one million acres of the training area, naturally creating multiple backdrops complete with natural illusions, he said. As an example, said Gates, whether the weather is a ‘whiteout’ or a ‘brownout’, the principles are the same: “As IPs, it is our job to increase their situational awareness as pilots and to increase their understanding of the aircraft within the environment,” he said. “Distance can lie to you. Systems can lie to you. So, trust, but verify.”
Growing instructors with an emphasis on safety
And, lastly, how do organizations ensure that IPs are performing their roles to a high standard when training all these graduate pilots that are being released into the world? It takes about six months to ‘grow’ an instructor, with the paramount emphasis on safety.
“Each instructor knows every LZ inside and out, which provides the students a certain safety margin predicated on the instructor’s knowledge,” Gates said. Typically, the IPs teach a one-week schedule from Tuesday to Friday, which are flight days with two flight periods each day, and the check ride is on Friday, said Gates. Enlisted crewmembers who participate in the training can accumulate up to 15 hours of flight time. A one-week IP course is also available.
Training student pilots at high altitudes also requires almost expert-level knowledge, like a weather forecaster, he said: “Whether it’s identifying rotor clouds, cap clouds, wave clouds, or lenticular clouds – which are all prevalent in our training area, understanding what it means to the pilot is critical,” said Gates.
About 300 students per year attend the HAATS training, with most doing very well. However, on average, there are two or three students who cannot adapt to the training or the environment.
As part of the HAATS curriculum, the IP’s responsibility with respect to communications is strategically designed to build the critical thinking skills and decision-making skills within each student pilot, along with essential takeaways:
- Determine the amount of power and identify an exit strategy
- Always know your power margin
- Always know the direction the wind is coming from
- Always have a way out; if one does not exist, make sure you have extra power available
- Always make a decision – that means never perform a maneuver without already knowing the outcome in advance
As an IP, you also have to know how to ask a series of questions, then demand the answers. “The ‘intricacies’ of the HAATS Power Management training merge during the moment when the IP asks critical questions while demanding answers, quickly. Ideally, the answer that will save lives, prevent deaths,” Gates explained. Those questions include: “What do you need? What do you have? And what are you going to do about it?” ‘It represents the answers to those resources the pilot has right here, right now, followed by the application of those resources.
“Most people claim to have knowledge on a subject, but that knowledge doesn’t generate any value until the knowledge is applied to a real-life situation,” he said. Suppose you were watching this scenario of a Black Hawk pilot hovering next to the side of a mountain during a snowstorm while the rescue target, the victim, is hanging on a cliff on the side of that mountain, said Gates. “In that case, I could tell you right now; this is not a ‘fence-sitter’ situation.”
“Most people think that only doctors make those ‘life or death decisions,’ but there is a whole other group of life savers in the US military who exhibit the courage and apply the knowledge to make those critical decisions every day,” he concluded.