Earning Simulator Wings

The UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter serves as one of the most utilized workhorses of the U.S. military.

According to the U.S. Army fact file, the UH-60 provides air assault, general support, aero-medical evacuation, command and control and special operations support to combat and stability and support operations.

As the official replacement for the UH-1 “Huey,” which can be seen in just about any film about the Vietnam War, the UH-60 has the ability to – for example – lift an entire 11-person, fully equipped infantry squad or reposition, in a single swoop, a 105 mm Howitzer, its crew of six and 30 rounds of ammo.

Weighing in at more than 20,000 pounds and costing anywhere from $5 million to $8 million, depending on the model, the UH-60 is certainly a highly valuable asset for our military.

In other words, it is quite an impressive piece of extremely important and fantastically expensive machinery meant only for military use.

With all of that in mind, I could not help but wonder if the U.S. military could possibly be convinced to allow me – an absolute amateur and often clumsy civilian with zero aviation experience – to get behind the controls and pilot one of these remarkable aircrafts.

Even though I am not a fan of heights, I’ve always had an interest in flying a helicopter for some reason. It just seems like an amazing thing to do, and it just so happens that Fort Indiantown Gap is stocked with numerous UH-60s, as well as UH-72 Lakota and CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

The Army National Guard facility is also home to the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (EAATS). Lt. Col. Todd Tuttle describes EAATS best…

Before I go any further, though, the answer is, was and always will be – without even the slightest of hesitations – firmly negative for me piloting any sort of military aircraft, vehicle or anything else I might ask about in the future.

Actually, my timid request was met with a resounding chuckle by all present.

“Typically training is between nine months and a year, depending on what aircraft they start with at Fort Rucker, Alabama, which is the flight school.” ~ Lt. Col. Todd Tuttle

Back to Lt. Col. Tuttle detailing EAATS.

“We do aviation training for the National Guard Bureau, and we train all components of the Army – active duty, reserves and National Guard, as well as foreign military or other inner agencies, like the FBI and the Navy Test Pilot School,” explains the 42-year-old. “We don’t do flight school, so everyone who comes here is already a helicopter pilot. We train advanced aircraft transitions or what we call graduate pilot training, which is instructor pilot courses, maintenance test pilot courses and maintenance for the enlisted folks.”

Basically, anyone who comes to train with EAATS is already a pilot.

“Typically training is between nine months and a year, depending on what aircraft they start with at Fort Rucker, Alabama, which is the flight school,” Lt. Col. Tuttle notes.

“The longest flight course we have is 10 weeks, and the longest enlisted course we have is also 10 weeks. …We have non-flying courses of one week to flight courses that are six to 10 weeks. We have 13 classes in session right now, with anywhere from two to 18 students in the classes. In total, we have 58 students right now.”

If I was willing to enlist – although more realistically, if they would even consider accepting me at my advanced age and poor fitness level – in the Army, somehow pass the rigorously selective aviation test and devote myself to flight school and hundreds of hours of training, then I might be allowed to pilot a military helicopter.

Seriously, though, the highly skilled and admirably brave military aviators have earned their wings, and every citizen in the nation is better off for it.

So, what is the next best thing to flying for real?

The high-tech helicopter simulators EAATS uses to train the real military pilots.

And the terrific folks over at Fort Indiantown Gap were kind enough to allow me to experience the UH-60 Black Hawk simulator. Let me tell you, it was amazing. Imagine the best, most realistic video game you’ve ever played or seen, and then add authentic controls, a realistic environment and a hydraulic system.

By far, it stands out as one of the most fun “adventures” I’ve been lucky enough to report back to the reader for this column.

Even though I compare it to a video game, these simulators are no toys; they are serious training tools used to prepare pilots for real-life military situations.

“We have many different kinds of simulators,” explains Lt. Col. Tuttle.

“We have some that are on hydraulics, which are moving simulators, so when you move the controls, the whole box is moving on hydraulic legs. We also have a cockpit procedural trainer, which is basically just a hollowed-out cockpit in front of screens on fixed seats. …The simulators have gotten a lot better with the fidelity of the images you see on the screens. It replicates to about as close as you’re ever going to get. It’s very realistic, especially the ones that do move. If you move the controls, you do feel it. If you do a hard landing, it’s going to bounce you inside the box. It’s extremely realistic and very good training, that’s why we focus on doing the emergency procedures we can’t do in the actual aircraft.”

Capt. Ed Speeckaert describes the simulators further.

“We can do a lot more in the simulator than we can in the aircraft because there’s no risk of crashing or hurting anybody,” says the 33-year-old.

“Before you start flight school, you go to Survive, Evade and Resist training, where you learn how to survive and stay alive.” ~ Capt. Ed Speeckaert

“We do a lot of emergency-procedure training – lots of failures, everything from just little annoying lights that can distract you from what you’re doing to catastrophic loss of tail rotors. We make sure the pilots have good reflexes to react and understand the procedure that is written in the book for a specific failure and why he is doing it.”

The seemingly unending controls, buttons, lights, knobs, dials, gauges, levers and monitoring devices inside the cockpit of the simulator are nothing short of head-spinning, which replicates what is found in a genuine UH-60. There are, however, three main controls necessary to even attempt to operate the simulated aircraft – the cyclic control, the collective and the anti-torque foot pedals.

Lt. Col. Tuttle breaks it all down in simplified terms.

“You have cyclic control, which is basically like the steering wheel – it controls your left, right, forward and back. In your left hand, you have the collective, which is basically your power and controls your altitude – it makes you go up and down. Then you have two foot pedals, which are your anti-torque pedals, and they keep your tail behind your nose. At a hover, the pedals allow you to control the nose of the aircraft, so that you can pivot over the ground. It sounds simple, but you’re coordinating all three axes. You’ve got both hands moving at the same time both feet are moving. A lot of the aircraft do have systems that will help you and try to dummy-proof some the things you’ll want to do that are wrong.”

Unlike commercial pilots, military pilots must strap on heavy gear before they fly.

“If you look at the pilots who are flying commercial flights, they are wearing just a uniform and a hat, but we have to wear much more,” Capt. Speeckaert says.

“There are life vests that contain all of our survival equipment – meds, signaling devices, survival tools. We also have armored plates that we would wear if we were in combat underneath our vests. Then there’s the helmets and the night-vision goggles, which are forward heavy and require a counter weight on the back of your helmet.”

The reason they wear all of that survival equipment is if a pilot were to crash in a remote location or behind enemy lines, then they will be able to survive until rescue comes.

“Before you start flight school, you go to Survive, Evade and Resist training, where you learn how to survive and stay alive,” notes Capt. Speeckaert. “Pretty much it is special forces and aviators who receive this extra training because they are more likely to be out there on their own.”

After all of the dedication, sacrifice, study, tests and simulator training, what is it actually like to be in the air and behind the controls?

“It’s a lot more challenging to fly a helicopter than it is an airplane,” Lt. Col. Tuttle states.

“Flying a helicopter is like controlling something that is uncontrollable, and that’s why we all love it. An airplane inherently wants to fly, but a helicopter doesn’t – we have to force it to stay in the air. Without the pilot’s constant movement, a helicopter wouldn’t stay in the air. Being able to fly a helicopter is like knowing a secret no one else knows. When you’re up there looking down at the earth, everything else seems insignificant.”

A special thank you goes out to the generous and good-natured people at Fort Indiantown Gap for making this month’s column possible – Lt. Col Tuttle, Capt. Ed Speeckaert, CW3 Jimmy McElhaney, retired military contractor Beth Runkel, Maj. Angela King-Sweigart and Maj. Ed Shank.

A truly heartfelt thank you also goes out to all of the brave men and women in the military, who put everything on the line every day.