Major Alex Harris serves in the Army Air Corps (AAC) 16 Air Assault Brigade’s HQ as an aviation plans officer. The brigade is the British Army’s only Very High Readiness (VHR) Brigade and specialises in theatre entry should there be a need to establish an operating base in a hostile country. It contains 2 battalions of the Parachute Regiment and 2 Regiments of Apaches, alongside parachute.
How long does it take to train to fly an Apache? Is it initially difficult to handle?
You first have to complete the army pilot’s course which is modular and takes about two years. Once you have been awarded your army flying wings you might get selected to train on the Apache. The first part is called Conversion to Type (CTT) which teaches you how to fly the aircraft and lasts about 6 months. If successful you move on to the next phase which is called Conversion to Role (CTR) which teaches you how to fight the aircraft in all scenarios and also lasts 6 months. The culmination is the live firing of all the Apache weapon types in Arizona, USA. Even after all of that you are constantly learning and attending different courses. These could be such things as learning to operate from a Royal Navy ship or becoming a weapons instructor. Initially it can be quite difficult to fly as it is much larger and more complex than the training aircraft. The courses are all progressive though and you can’t progress until you have mastered the basics. The aircraft has a very good stabilisation system to ensure that it is a steady platform from which to launch weapons so when these are working for you it is a great aircraft to fly.
What equipment is in the cockpit?
There are two separate cockpits. The rear one where the pilot sits, contains flying controls, and two selectable video screens from which he monitor all of the aircraft systems and view the images that the aircraft sensors are viewing. The pilot will have a Helmet Mounted Display (HMD), attached to his helmet which can display symbology to help fly and fight the aircraft as well as the imagery from the Pilot Night Vision System (PNVS) which means the aircraft can be flown at night and in all weathers. He is able to fire the rockets, missiles and 30mm canon from the rear via his HMD or the Fire Control Radar (FCR).
The Co-Pilot Gunner (CPG) sits in the front and although he is a fully qualified pilot and has flying controls too, his main job is to command the missions as well as his own aircraft, and is primarily responsible for firing the aircraft weapon systems. He will at some point have been a pilot in the rear but then have moved forward after completing a conversion course. In his cockpit he has all the equipment that the pilot has, but he also has the screen and controls for the Modernised Target Acquisition and Designation Sight (MTADS). The sight displays a video image in the cockpit that can be used in the day to find targets and aim the weapons, but it is also has an infra red mode that sees the world in terms of hot and cold. The MTADS has a laser which can be used to determine the distance to a target, but it is also a coded laser that can direct the Apache’s hellfire missiles on to a target.
How does it compare to other helicopters you’ve flown? – I flew the Lynx Mk7 and Mk9 before the Apache and although they are both fantastic to fly and very manoeuvrable, in my opinion, nothing compares to being in an Apache. It is still manoeuvrable and fun to fly but it is a battlefield helicopter in the truest sense and the capability that it brings to a fight is phenomenal.
What makes it such an effective military machine?
Unlike other helicopters that we’ve had in the past, it was designed and built as a battlefield helicopter. It has redundancy in all of it’s essential systems – if it needs something then it invariably has two of them. This gives it great survivability, giving the crew the confidence to take it into battle in the first place. The variety of weapon systems combined with the multiple choice of sights means that a crew has the ability to be inventive and tailor the way that they fight the aircraft to the situation. It also has a great communications fit, with multiple radios, giving the crew the ability to monitor and talk on several separate radio nets at once. It can move around the battle space, quickly and stealthily which gives it a great ability to surprise the enemy.
How useful are the Target Acquisition Designation Sight (TADS) and Pilot Night Vision Sensors (PNVS)?
They both use Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) so can find targets at night and behind foliage during the day. The PNVS enables the pilot to fly in the darkest of locations with no external white light. Because the two systems work autonomously, the pilot can use his sensor to fly while the CPG works the MTADS to search for targets or to survey the route ahead.
What role does the Apache play in warfare?
Although it was designed as a tank killer and primarily used for delivering weapons it is also a great intelligence finding asset. The multitude of sights and sensors allow the crew to hoover up a good deal of information on the battlefield and then relay this back to HQ over the secure radios. It can also be used to escort more vulnerable support helicopters and prevent them from being targeted. What it does best though is what it is designed to do. Whether it launches from a desert strip, the arctic or the deck of a ship, a Squadron of Apaches has the ability to defeat whole brigades of armoured vehicles through selected targetting of the prize enemy equipment.
What conflicts have you been involved in with the helicopter?
I was on the ground in Sierra Leone, then flew the Lynx in Iraq and Bosnia before flying the Apache in Afghanistan.
What was its role and how useful was it in these engagements?
It’s main role was to support the ground forces with precision weapons when they got engaged by the Taliban and were pinned down. With a talk on over the radio from the ground forces, the Apaches were able to identify the enemy and single them out from the population and built up areas before decisively engaging them. We also escorted the Chinooks that carried the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT). This life saving asset often picked up seriously wounded casualties from the battlefield while the firefight still went on around them. They were a big target for the Taliban and it was our job to try and destroy the enemy before they could engage them.
Does it form part of a squad or is it flown solo when on the attack?
Although they can work alone, Apaches would normally work as a pair. This is known as a Flight. During an engagement one aircraft would act as the shooter and the other as the looker. This means that while one is zoomed in on the target, the other aircraft is looking out wider for more targets in depth. The looker will also put himself in a position to follow up on the first aircraft’s attack if necessary. If the Squadron is fighting together you may find 2 or more flights working in an engagement area to prosecute targets.
How does your co-pilot assist you?
While the CPG is heads down in the sight looking for enemy, the pilot is looking after the safety of the aircraft. He is monitoring the systems and ensuring that all is as it should be, but more than that he is watching for any close in enemy trying to shoot them down. With the HMD, the pilot is only a couple of button presses away from firing the 30mm canon. It can be slaved to his head position so that wherever he looks, all he has to do is pull the trigger and he is firing on target. It’s a pretty quick way of destroying close threats.
Can you describe the sensation of flying an Apache helicopter?
You feel like you are in a pretty privileged position. The sensation of defying gravity and actually flying is one thing, but there is also a feeling that you are going to war in in a hugely capable machine and knowing this gives you the confidence to take anything on.
Have you ever had to make a emergency landing or even worse, a crash landing?
In Afghanistan on Very High Readiness (VHR) we got a call to to go and support some ground forces who were under fire. However, not long after take off, one of our 2 engines developed a serious fault and started to break up so we had to shut it down. Because of the weight of the weapons we had on board and the fact that our performance was low in the hot and high conditions, we were unable to maintain level flight and so started to descend to the desert floor. We worked out that we could just about make it back to Camp Bastion before we would hit the deck so we nursed it back to the Apache landing strip, landed on and parked up. We jumped straight out of that one and moved our kit into the aircraft next to it, getting back out in under 5 minutes. We eventually got to the site of the battle and were engaging with hellfire missiles and 30mm canon within minutes of arriving on scene.
What was your most memorable flight?
Probably the first time I ever fired the weapons in a combat situation. We were fighting in the middle of a city and some enemy armed with heavy weapons and suicide vests had taken over the top two floors of a hotel that overlooked a friendly camp. They were firing down into the camp and causing friendly casualties. We arrived not long after it began and I remember thinking that if i got this wrong in such a built up area then the consequences could be terrible. However, the training soon kicked in and operating as a crew and as a flight, we succesfully defeated the enemy. I do remember afterwards that the hotel had some serious holes in it and I would have some explaining to do when I got back to base.