BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, March 11, 2015 -- At 5 feet 4 inches tall, Pilot Tristan Archambault has no problem maneuvering a giant machine that boasts a length of over 50 feet and a cruise speed of 175 mph. It's what she's trained to do. And she's the only female in her unit that does it.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Archambault is the only female pilot in Task Force Wolfpack of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. And her machine is an AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter. All 5.17 tons of it.
"I don't think I feel differently," she said, of being the only woman pilot. "I think everybody just brought me in 'close hold' and it feels we're more of a team than any one individual."
Archambault, a native of Whitehall, Mich., joined the Army after graduating from Michigan State University in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in social work. She said she had the flying bug as soon as she got in, but there was a process that she had to follow.
First, she attended basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., then Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. Next she served as a signal officer for four years, and completed one tour in Iraq/Kuwait before submitting her packet to revert to an aviation warrant officer. Once selected, in October 2012, she went to Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Ala., then helicopter-over-water survival training a month later. In January 2013, she attended 'Survival Evasion Resistance Escape' training, also known as SERE, then started the Apache course eight months later.
Ft. Rucker is the same Army Aviation School that the Army's first female helicopter pilot, retired Col. Sally Murphy, attended in 1974.
"I think that having women in this field is extremely important," Archambault said. "I think that nobody's telling us 'no' anymore. And so it's really important for us not to restrict ourselves from things that we want to do in the Army."
As of Fiscal Year 14, women represent about 14 percent of the active Army. And Archambault thinks that yes, since the days of Murphy, women in the military have come a long way.
"Absolutely," she said. "The Army is one of the only organizations that pay women the equal amount as men for the same job. So when you think about it that way, the military is hands above any other organization that's out there as far as equality. And I think they're making strides in the right direction as far as getting us in the roles where we were previously restricted because of our gender."
Archambault said she chose Fort Bragg, her home now, so she could go to a line unit and deploy to Afghanistan. So far, she's been here for six months and has over 450 hours of flight time. Her short term goal is to make pilot in command.
"You earn flight time as you get out here," she said. "Typically, you'd like to make pilot in command between 500 and 700 hours. In total, I have about 460 hours here and a majority of that is combat time because I came straight from flight school to Ft. Bragg and then deployed."
Archambault said there are four tracts for apaches -- safety, tactical ops, maintenance test pilot, and instructor pilot. Her long-term goal is to be a maintenance test pilot.
And that differs from the type of pilot that she is now.
"When you first get into a unit as a pilot, you basically just fly," she said. "And for Apaches, you basically fly in the front seat and you do the gunning for the aircraft. Once you make pilot in command of the overall aircraft, you fly in the back seat generally -- for the most part. And then you make all of the decisions for the aircraft."
She works the night shift. So a typical evening begins with a preflight then a briefing for the mission.
"Then we conduct the mission and come back," Archambault said. "Typically, the mission doesn't take up the whole evening so I have additional duties that I take care of during that time. Then the other shift comes on and we close [out the] flight and pull our gear."
As for the mechanical side of things, that's the responsibility of the crew chief.
"That's more her realm," Archambault said, pointing to Specialist Edie Belk of the 82nd Airborne Division, the only female Apache crew chief in the unit.
Belk, a native of Salisbury, N.C., has been in the Army for almost three years. And she joined the Army right out of high school.
"This is what I wanted," she said. "I made a really good score on my ASVAB. Even before I looked at the list I said, 'I want to work on Apaches.' Mainly because I really want to fly them."
She's working on her flight packet now. And knew that having experience on the aircraft first would help her become a pilot in the future. A pilot just like Archambault. Which, she said, makes her feel "pretty awesome."
"Because she's the only one," Belk said. "I want to strive to be [Archambault]. Be something different."
Belk's job includes daily inspections, plus scheduled and preventative maintenance. In a nutshell, make sure that the aircraft is flyable -- plus find and fix anything that will ground it.
"There are different inspections that we have to do just to upkeep that aircraft," Belk said. "And unscheduled maintenance when pilots take it out and break it. We check all of the fluid levels. Make sure there are no parts or screws that come up because whenever the gun shoots it vibrates underneath. If there's anything leaking, we'll see that and then find out where it's coming from and fix it from there."
Belk said she feels at home. And she's treated "like the little sister of the company."
"It's like having a pack of big brothers watching over you," Archambault added. "Plus it brings out the competitiveness in you, I think. To be stacked against your male peers."
When asked what tips she has for Belk, Archambault said, "It's attitude more than anything that's going to get you anywhere -- especially in this profession. If you want to do it, do it. And don't put it off. I don't think the Apache is ever going away. It's the one that everybody calls when they need help. That and MedEvac."
Archambault also shared the first time she flew an Apache.
"The first day you go out there, all you do is run the engines," Archambault said. "And because you're just getting out from this single engine, tiny little news helicopter into this giant war machine, it's pretty intimidating. I remember I just had this stuck smile on my face. I couldn't stop smiling. And I was like 'I finally got here.' It was one of the best days of my life."
She also reminded Belk that the machine is very powerful. And it's about making the right decisions and "not letting that go to your head."
"Because it's a giant ball of mechanical things that work together," Archambault said. "And at any moment physics is trying to tear it apart. So maintaining it and flying it takes a lot of work -- both on the ground and in the air. And also maintaining your knowledge on it. Because there are people who've been flying that thing for over 20 years and just because of the advancements that they've made for that air frame, you'll never know everything about it. So it's important to keep studying. Keep in the books. Remember that stuff all of the time. Because, ultimately, it will probably save your life one day."
And, as women, they're not put under a microscope -- to fail or succeed.
"I don't think [there is]," Belk said. "I feel it's just the same. [Men] have the same expectations for me. I should be able to do everything -- and they should be able to do everything I can. We're expected to do the same quality of work on that aircraft."
"The same microscope basically," Archambault said. "They're looking at you the same as they're looking at everybody else. And the standards are the same. If you can't meet them, no matter who you are, then you're out."