By Sgt. Nathan J. J. Hoskins, 1st ACB, 1st Cav. Div. Public AffairsSeptember 2, 2008
FORT HOOD, Texas - When CH-47F Chinook or UH-60 Black Hawk crew chiefs finish their pre-flight checks, they jump aboard and fly off with the pilots.
They'll soar through the air with their heads hanging out the crew doors on the side of the aircraft or even hang off the back of an open Chinook ramp.
But when AH-64D Apache attack helicopter crew chiefs finish up their pre-flight duties, they simply salute the two pilots and head back to the hangar.
They only live vicariously through the tales and recollections of the pilots.
Well, that all changed when crew chiefs and other Soldiers from the 1st "Attack" Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry "Warrior" Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, got to jump in the front seat of an Apache for a short demonstration flight Aug. 25 and 26, at Robert Gray Army Air Field, Fort Hood, Texas.
Unlike the Black Hawk and Chinook, the Apache has no cargo area or seats for passengers; it has two seats - a front and back - where only the two pilots sit.
"For Apache maintainers ..., unlike Chinook or Black Hawk crew chiefs, our guys have never had the experience of flight (in their aircraft). So to allow them to do that is a once in a lifetime event," said Lt. Col. Charles Dalcourt, commander of 1-227th.
And it's rare indeed that Apache crew chiefs ever lift off in the very aircraft they maintain from day to day, he said.
"Many of them include our sergeants major, first sergeants, and those guys who have invested 16 to 20 years in this profession ... that have never, never had the blessing of breaking friction with the ground," said Baton Rouge, La., native Dalcourt.
The rides lasted about 30 minutes each from take off to landing.
Before taking off, the pilot would explain how the flight controls affect the aircraft in flight and explained some of the symbols and numbers on the screens in the cockpit.
Once they were airborne the pilot would take them through a demonstration of the aircraft's capabilities; although on a small scale.
"(The pilot) only had me scared once when he started doing positive and negative G's. Other than that it was a great experience," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Seybold, the production control officer for 1-227th.
"I was shocked by the (lack of) noise. To me it seemed pretty quiet in there just because from the standpoint of standing outside it's really loud," said Spc. Elodia May, a crew chief for Company A, 1-227th, who's aircraft was one of the Apaches being used to ferry around the ecstatic front-seat riders.
"Just the smoothness of reaching altitude and then coming down and making turns was awesome," she added.
Dalcourt found that this momentous event caused multiple effects.
The Soldiers who got to ride had a huge morale boost, but the unit as a whole also benefited because of this boost buzzing through the ranks, he said.
The Soldiers were stunned to hear about front-seat rides.
"I'm still shocked that this went through. I know there are other companies that can't believe this is happening," said May, who hails from Phoenix.
It's such a shock to the Soldiers because it takes many high ranking officers to cut the red tape allowing troopers to fly in the front seat of an Apache, said Dalcourt.
Dalcourt explained that he had to appeal to both Col. Douglas Gabram, the commander of 1st ACB, and Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, commander of the 1st Cav. Div.
"(Bolger) was briefed, he approved it and it was just a great deal," said Dalcourt.
This was a particularly great event for those who maintain the aircraft.
"It hammered down the fact that take-offs are optional - landings are mandatory" said Dalcourt. "As they do their job, they'll work with the greatest voracity and zeal to do it right and do it as perfect as possible because they see and acknowledge that there is a consequence for (their work)."
Seybold also believes that more informed maintenance practices will come from this experience.
"It really let me know how ... general maintenance practices help the pilots do their mission in the Apache," said Seybold, a Carlsbad, N.M., native.
"It shows me the importance of what we do and it helps us understand that to make this aircraft more lethal it has to be smoother," he added.
Seybold feels that there should be more rides strictly for maintenance issues.
If the crew chief sits in the front seat and feels the vibration or hears the peculiar noise, he can better understand what the pilots go through; thus fix the problem more effectively, he said.
May, who absolutely loves her aircraft - she named it "Tink" after Tinker Bell from the Peter Pan stories - felt that just from the one ride her perspective has changed.
"I know for us, and the guys that we work with, we always send them off, wave good bye and wonder what goes on up there," she said. "Now that we actually got to fly and see what happens, it's a different perspective of what goes on."
Seybold would like to see this happen more often for non-maintenance Soldiers too.
"If we do this annually and allow the superstars of the battalion to go out there, it would give them more pride and ownership and give them a better understanding of what pilots do," he said.
The idea of this happening again is not too much of a stretch for Dalcourt. He would like to do it once more before his Soldiers head to Iraq.
"I'd like to do it one more time in the spring, perhaps before we deploy, because there will be, at that time, Soldiers who have earned the ability, perhaps privilege, to get in and have a short flight in the aircraft," he said.
Now that the door has been opened, 1st ACB's other attack aviation battalion, 4th "Guns" Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, will also open a similar program for their Soldiers.
With a family day at the range, where Soldiers' families got to witness Apaches blowing targets up, and now this, Dalcourt said it all comes down to taking care of Soldiers and demonstrating that care.
"I think that we always, as leaders, talk about and espouse this facet of taking care of Soldiers. And this is just another way to think through what's really tangible and meaningful to those Soldiers who work so hard to make the mission happen," said Dalcourt.
Crew chiefs that used to watch others fly by now have an experience that almost none of their Black Hawk and Chinook counterparts will ever have - a ride in the front seat of an Apache attack helicopter.