“Hey, would you have any interest in going down to Simmons AAF and seeing the Apaches?”
You ever had to pretend to be an adult instead of being a squealing little girl bouncing up and down and screaming? Yeah, me too.
I received that first question from my buddy Dan, just as a casual aside to another conversation we were having. He’s in the Army down at Bragg. He also owns half of my airplane, N54SS. Great guy, great family, perfect partner in an airplane. But forget all that, he has connections to the coolest toys on the planet, Uncle Sam’s personal toy collection that is sadly kept behind lock and key and M16 so I can’t go play with them. Till today.
I had occasion to go to something like this once before, maybe twenty years ago? I had a friend of a friend who was going to flight school at Camp Pendleton for the AH-1W Cobra. Somehow he wrangled us a quick visit to the simulator room where we could fly the Cobra simulator for about 30 minutes. It was a quick in and out, and he was a student at the time so there was a lot of bowing and scraping and staying out of the way. BUT, it was SUPER COOL and something I’ve talked about every since.
So Dan says, “Yeah, we could probably go out on the flight line and get in the cockpit. And maybe we can get in the simulator too.”
Did I mention squealing?
So Spork and I blow off a considerable chunk of school and work and head to Simmons to meet Dan and Christian, our guide through the world of Apaches. Christian is a Warrant Officer in the Army. He also happens to be a former Major who resigned his commission and busted himself back to Warrant Officer so that he could fly more and push paper less. I liked him immediately.
After going through security and getting our pass, we head straight to the simulator where Christian gives me the 5 minute instructions on how to operate a 23,000 lb helicopter. 4 minutes of the 5 is spent on getting his personal helmet on my watermelon sized head. I could hear my brain squishing out of my ears as the helmet jammed into place, but I didn’t care. I was going to fly this thing!
The helmet was surprisingly light. The monocular was just as annoying as everyone, including Christian, said it would be. It’s one of those things you just have to get used to. It does have a full HUD right in your vision though which is totally cool. Having suffered through Firebirds in the distant past, I was worried that I’d have problems with the monocular. However I found it to be easy to adapt to once it was adjusted correctly. Thankfully I didn’t need to wear panties on my head to solve any Nicolas Cage problems. (See the movie)
In case you don’t know Firebirds, here is the promo.
And if you want to suffer through not only the Movie, but a bad copy which seems to be sped up for some reason, here is the entire movie on Youtube.
While I was getting set up in the pilots seat, Spork was getting set up in the gunners seat. This would be the front seat of the helicopter, the pilot operates from the rear seat. We only had the one helmet, Christian’s actual flight helmet, so I couldn’t talk to Spork during our flight which was unfortunate. I could however tell when he fired something. I spent a lot of time trying to point him at things I thought he might want to shoot. After the flight I asked why he didn’t shoot more.
I didn’t want to waste ammo.
The electronic bullets too expensive for ya?
We had a good laugh. He did get through a good amount of 30mm and fired off a bunch of rockets before we were done. He had fun.
The last time I flew a helicopter was years ago. Like over 10 years ago. Heck maybe 20 years ago, I don’t really remember. Cyclic, collective, torque gauges, take it slow.
I picked up into a hover that would make an instructor cringe, but for me it was actually pretty good considering the rust and lack of familiarity with the helicopter. I accelerated down the runway and cruised around for a minute. Then I headed back down the runway the other direction and pulled into a quick stop, which is the most fun I’ve ever had in an actual helicopter.
After several quick stops, I did some hover practice and various other maneuvers I remembered from flight training. It was a hoot. Then I just did some general flying while Spork launched 30mm and rockets at whatever he felt like. I tried feeling out the Apache. I found that it was very easy to fly, except it’s not a 1400 pound R22. It’s a 23,000 lb beast of a machine. If you let a big sink rate develop, it does not just pop back to level flight like a light helicopter. You have to plan your pullout to avoid the cumulogranite. I may have overtorqued the engines a wee bit discovering that. Thankfully they were electronic engines.
After my time in the cockpit, we got Spork into the pilots seat. Christian did an excellent job of getting him acclimated and before long he was flying. After the professional got out of the way, I stepped in to give some instruction. I told Spork that he was doing well and I was proud of him.
Insert eye roll.
I’ve flown a helicopter before dad.
He has exactly one hour of R22 time. So in his mind, getting out of an R22 and into an AH-64 Apache is, “Meh, it’s the same thing.” And I guess it was. He was cool as a cucumber. He flew so well that after a few minutes Christian said, let’s let him fly at night.
The Apache was designed to own the night. That’s its purpose, which I didn’t know. So we turned off the lights, set him up for night flying which involved getting the monocular even more adjusted, fiddled with a bunch of knobs in the cockpit to get the displays just right, and then turned him loose. He flew like it was no problem, taking off from a field and zooming around while the gunner was taking shots here and there. Then he flew back to another area and proceeded to make a zero ambient visibility, monocle driven night landing with hardly a bump when he set it down. I guess the eye roll was warranted.
After our flight, we proceeded out to the flight line and the maintenance hanger where we talked about Phase inspections, the maintenance process, flight times, etc.
We then went out on the flight line to look at one of the birds. This was an open the panels, poke at things, and ask any question you want walk around. Other than going for an actual flight, this was as close as you can get.
We opened the engine compartments, talked about the systems, and generally did everything you could think to do.
While we were crawling over our aircraft, there were helicopters landing, warming up, taking off, practicing, etc. We weren’t close enough to feel the rotor wash of the helicopters, but only because we didn’t happen to be directly beside one taking off. Again, about as close as you can get without visiting the recruiter and signing on the dotted line.
Dan seemed surprised I was so excited to visit Simmons and see the Apaches. I guess I never mentioned that I’m a huge military nerd, a huge helicopter nerd, and of course an aviation nerd. This trip was epic for me and scratched all of my itches. It also certainly showed Spork that there are more options in the military than just flying pointy nosed jets. I’m not saying he’s signing up tomorrow to be a Warrant Officer, but he definitely knows it is an option at this point.
A huge thank you to both Dan and Christian for taking their day to show a couple of civilians around and treat us like royalty.