FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Jan. 21, 2014) - The annual gunnery exercise in an attack battalion includes some of the best and worst times of an Apache pilot's career. Gunnery is a time to put to use what we train for - and do it with live ordnance. After battalion gunnery, flight crews earn either great bragging rights or a feeling of "I suppose I'll do better next year."

As a new pilot in command in the Longbow, I was part nervous, part excited and part in disbelief that our command was entrusting me and a relatively junior pilot with the opportunity to strap into our aircraft and unleash ordnance down a range. This was going to be awesome! It turned out that not only were my range skills going to be tested, but also my basic pilot skills, such as situational awareness.

The pilot I was flying with was a good friend. We had gone to flight school together, worked alongside each other at our civilian jobs and hung out on weekends. More importantly, we had been training together for weeks and spent lot of time studying. We logged plenty of time in the simulator. We were a battle team. We were solid.

Graded live fire consists of four "tables," and aircrews need to conduct two live day tables and two live night tables. Once you finish your Table 7 day, you move on to your Table 8 day for an official recorded score. The same process applies for the night tables. We were young, but we knew the range, weapon systems and aircraft. We were determined to help each other out and not only strive for a "first-time go," but also to do well.

My co-pilot gunner and I did do well and not only qualified on every engagement - which means we didn't have to repeat any shots - but also scored high. Yes, we were full of ourselves. My CPG was a master with the sighting systems, and I was able to guide him right to the targets. I was controlling the speed, angles and constraints - whatever he needed to make his shot. Although we were both junior, we were a functional team.

As the backseater, I was mostly concerned with flying. The CPG was focused on the engagements. And this is where we had a problem.

After the night Table 8, our final task was to land at the forward arming and refueling point, de-arm, refuel and fly back to the airfield. We were both excited about our positive gunnery results and that feeling of accomplishment. Sitting on the refuel pad at 3 a.m., I came to the realization that I had been flying (at the controls) for the entire range event. The flight from the airfield, to the FARP and to the range was not unfamiliar to either of us. For the last leg of the final flight of a successful gunnery, I decided to let my CPG fly back home.

The problem came shortly after we took off from the FARP. Once I gave up the controls, I also stopped paying attention outside the aircraft. With thoughts and conversations inside the cockpit only referencing our awesome engagements, I completely disregarded my scan techniques. We then experienced a bird strike.

Not a minute after takeoff, I heard a "splat" and saw bird parts all over the front windshield. The final minutes of that flight to the airfield were really quiet as we relied on our night vision system to land. The maintenance team found no damage, just a mess. Of course, we were given a hard time, but no one was hurt and nothing was damaged. It was not until I was filling out the report that I realized how lucky we were. I learned an important lesson that day. Basic pilot skills, such as maintaining good SA, are a requirement not just during the actual mission, but from start-up to shutdown.