By Mrs. Melody Everly (Drum)August 27, 2015
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Aug. 27, 2015) -- From the time Army pilots begin flight school until the day they end their careers in aviation, many will have logged thousands of hours in flight time. These individuals will be called upon to use their expertise to support missions both stateside and downrange.
The aircraft they man provide vital supplies, carry wounded Soldiers to safety and provide protection for their battle buddies both in the air and on the ground, allowing them to complete their missions.
Although a great deal of their training happens in the air, there is another vital asset on the ground that allows pilots to prepare for any situation - standard or emergency - that they may encounter in their line of duty: flight simulators.
In 2005, Fort Drum's flight simulator facility received its first piece of training equipment - a full-motion UH-60 simulator. Jeff Guler, a retired Black Hawk pilot and now chief of the flight simulator facility, has been there since the beginning.
First hired as a contractor, Guler was with the facility as staffing transitioned to Department of Army civilian jobs. He witnessed the addition of five new training simulators, all of which have greatly enhanced the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade's ability to train their pilots.
Before the addition of the facility on Fort Drum, simulated training opportunities for pilots were few and far between, with Soldiers having to travel in order to receive this training, he said.
"The pilots would drive to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, to attend training periods," Guler said. "By having simulators at Fort Drum, aviators do not need to travel."
Not only does the Army save money in travel expenses for these aviators, it also saves fuel, resources and aircraft maintenance, he said.
One example is the AH-64 Longbow Crew Trainer, or LCT.
"The pilots are able to use the LCT simulator to perfect their gunnery tables before they get into the aircraft to fire actual rounds," Guler said. "Having the ability to cost-effectively train Soldiers in a realistic virtual world without putting equipment or Soldiers at risk is extremely beneficial in the age of budget cuts and Army downsizing."
In 2006, two new flight simulator training instructor/operators, Ken Erb and Tim McDougall, were added to the staff. Both instructors are former Black Hawk pilots, who retired on Fort Drum and wanted to continue serving the Army by supporting aviators.
"There is nothing like the camaraderie of the military, and this job helps to maintain that sense of work relation," McDougall said. "I wanted to apply the skills, knowledge and abilities that I had acquired in the military to continue to serve my country."
Another goal that all three instructors expressed was to share their knowledge, learned during multiple deployments, overseas tours and duty stations, with the next generation of aviators.
"Each pilot learns from other pilots' experiences," Erb said. "In the simulator, we can pass on our knowledge and experiences as pilots. Giving back the knowledge I gained makes it enjoyable coming to work every day."
Some of the training scenarios that pilots go through, including local area orientation, are quite basic, Guler said.
"This allows them to get accustomed to the range entry and exit procedures," he said. "They will also learn the procedures and regulations for flying at Fort Drum."
Aside from training scenarios that familiarize aviators with Fort Drum itself, there are also many basic tasks that young pilots must learn before they can move on to more advanced maneuvers, McDougall said.
"Startups, shutdowns, basic task flight instruction and instrument flights are at the core of our training for this level of pilot experience," he said.
After working through these procedures, both in the simulator and in the air, aviators are ready to engage in more complex scenarios.
"[This includes] tactical missions where threat is introduced into the scenario and pilots must evade the threat, engage or be shot down," McDougall said. "They need to use terrain to mask the helicopter and utilize the aircraft survivability equipment installed on the aircraft to defeat the threat and complete the mission."
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Kicklighter and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Josh Baker, having recently completed a training segment, spoke about how the simulator and UH-60 aircraft share many of the same attributes.
"They are very similar," Kicklighter said. "With the Instrument Flight Rule Training, they are identical. This is when we are in the clouds and can't see outside. Training for a situation like this in the simulator means we are more comfortable doing this in the air."
Pilots also must be prepared for emergencies that they may encounter, and the simulators allow them to practice these scenarios, such as a maneuver known as auto-rotation, in a safe learning environment.
"That is a situation where we train for what to do if we lose both engines," Kicklighter said. "In the simulator, they can actually 'fail' the components and we auto-rotate to the ground. We are preparing for something that we obviously hope never happens."
Baker said that, although stressful, practicing emergency procedures is an extremely important part of learning to become a great pilot.
"It is stressful, but that's a good thing," he said. "When you're in the simulator, you get the lights and the audio. When a light turns on, you have to think - 'OK, what am I going to do?' You go through the steps and figure out how you would proceed if that ever happened in real life."
Meanwhile, the flight simulator instructors sit behind the pilots, both controlling the computerized system and talking them through the process, based upon their own experience.
"The instructors all have enormous amounts of experience," Kicklighter said. "We may miss things and they will point them out. It gets us thinking 'yeah, I could have done that.' Their knowledge is extremely helpful."
"I would say that most everyone would agree with me: after this training there is nothing that would happen in the aircraft that we aren't prepared for," Baker said.
The simulator also allows pilots to practice maneuvers that cannot be replicated in the air, Erb said.
"You can't turn off the hydraulic system in the actual aircraft," he said. "When we turn off the hydraulics in the simulator, it initially confuses the pilots. We cover what to do with them and go over that training so that they understand what they are looking at and how to diagnose and handle the situation. When they go into the actual aircraft - if they have a real emergency - they'll think 'I've done this before in the simulator' and they will know how to react."
The instructors said that the most fulfilling aspect of their job was watching the pilots they trained continue to learn and grow into skilled aviators.
"We want them to feel they are prepared to complete any air mission that may be handed to them and that they are able to respond to any emergency they may encounter with confidence so that the aircraft and aircrew return safely," Guler said.