What the pilots don't know is that the helicopter failure was a well-planned exercise by instructors to test their decision-making and communications skills, which are essential for these captains readying for company command positions.
To prepare these young aviators for their leadership roles, the U.S. Army's aviation school, at Fort Rucker, Ala., is using the Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer-Aviation reconfigurable manned simulator at its full capacity. AVCATT-A is produced by Link Simulation & Training.
Until last year, when AVCATT-A was first delivered, the Army had no other collective trainer, according to service officials. Now, the Army is planning to buy 23 more systems and will send them to bases across the country, said Col. Lee LeBlanc, head of the directorate of simulations at Fort Rucker.
With the frantic operational tempo in Afghanistan and Iraq-that potentially could leave no Army pilots without combat experience- simulation is allowing aviators to rehearse missions and adjust to changing tactics, techniques and procedures, said LeBlanc.
About 600 aviators a month train in the AVCATT-A suite at Fort Rucker. This includes everyone from novice warrant officers to colonels, said Link's Jack Pennington, who runs the technical control for the two training suites at Rucker.
The AVCATT-A, which is contained in two transportable trailers, allows up to six crews to train together on a virtual-reality battlefield. The simulator can reconfigure the AH-64A Apache (the AH-64D Longbow module is scheduled to arrive in coming months), OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47D Chinook-basically, the Army's attack, reconnaissance and utility helicopters. Commanders can mix and match rotary wing platforms.
The training suite also has a battle master control room and an after-action review theater. The battle master can see and hear everything taking place on the battlefield by viewing displays that provide either situational awareness, a "God's-eye-view" of the combat area from any perspective or a sensor panel that simulates a helicopter's weapons sight.
Workstations in the battle control room enable other soldiers to serve in ground maneuver, fire support, close air support, logistics, battle command or as engineers. These players mesh into the simulation through the Army's semi-automated forces, which are computer-generated entities, both friendly and enemy.
When a mission is completed, the recorded data and video are transferred to the after-action review theater where the operations controller conducts a mission debrief with the aircrews to evaluate the unit's performance and determine which skills or tactics need to be further honed.
During the training exercise, pilots usually are assigned to fly helicopters other than the ones in which they qualified to learn a variety of missions. For example, a certified Apache Longbow pilot gets to be part of a Black Hawk crew.
"It does not matter what helicopter you fly," said Maj. Robert Peden, division chief for training aids and devices simulation systems at Fort Rucker. "Everybody has to go through the planning cycle of what it takes to do an air assault, a deep attack, a heavy lift mission or route reconnaissance."
Therefore, the pilots have to cross-train for all those tactics, he added. "If I am assigned somewhere [as company commander], they do not care if I am an AH-64 pilot," he said. "If they want somebody in air assault, I have to be able to talk about it and plan it."
By planning and executing their missions in the AVCATT-A, pilots will know more about what it takes other units to operate on the battlefield, said Pennington, a former Army pilot.
"They may be serving in a staff position in a task force," and, thus, they need to be familiar with the missions of each Army helicopter, he said.
Because AVCATT-A is a collective trainer, cockpit fidelity is secondary to executing a mission.
"It does not perfectly replicate flying the aircraft, but it replicates it enough so that you can execute the engagements with other aircraft," Capt. Michael Olson, a trained Medevac pilot, said at the end of his exercise. Ultimately, AVCATT-A gives captains a chance to practice the skills that they need as company commanders in a controlled environment, where they do not take up live training time, said Capt. Matthew Boal, an instructor and a small-group leader at the captains career course.
"What we get most out of it is the communications aspect," Olson told National Defense. "It is something that you would not get otherwise, unless you are executing a real mission."
Olson flew a Black Hawk during the exercise, which is the same system he flies as a Medevac pilot. His co-pilot was a qualified Apache aviator, he said. Olson acted as the flight lead for the exercise.
"I had a taste about what my flight leads do out there, all the different people they talk to, the navigation, and trying to keep the situation and the flight together," he said. "By practicing our radio calls, it will help improve our brevity. By saturating us with multiple tasks, hopefully, we would be able to get a better picture and see what we need to do to help synchronize all the other elements that are flying around."
The person who gets most out of the exercise, however, is the one simulating the role of a company commander, who learns how to control the aircraft formations, talk to higher headquarters and the ground elements, and execute suppression of enemy air defenses, said Olson.
Students spend the day before the simulation session planning their air assault mission, said Boal. Then, an exercise tests how well their plan holds together. "They now have to see if it is a good plan when we throw curveballs at them," he said in an interview. "When we throw variables at them, it is a good tool for them to understand how to solve a problem."
Toward the end of the mission observed by National Defense, controllers induced a failure for the last aircraft in the formation. "They had to identify that there is a missing aircraft," said Boal. "It took them some time. They planned how to recover downed aircraft and aviators, but then they had to execute it in different conditions than they had planned."
If they make bad decisions, pilots have the option to go back to the cockpit and backtrack, he said. "For my students, the real focus is decision-making and command and control," Boal said.
Meanwhile, as more Army bases start receiving their AVCATT-A suites and more pilots go through the training, the service has to start thinking about institutionalizing these simulated exercises. "There is nothing in doctrine or anywhere else that says that units at Fort Campbell, for example, must use the AVCATT-A," said Peden. "We have those kinds of documents for the individual crew trainers, based on flight requirements."
Part of the Army's plan is to integrate the AVCATT-A with the Collective Combined Tactical Trainer, which land forces use for brigade size exercises. That is scheduled to happen in August 2005, but the two simulators have successfully been integrated at Fort Stewart, Ga., during the summer, said Pennington. Apart from Fort Rucker and Fort Stewart, the AVCATT-A currently is at Army bases in Korea and Germany; McEntire Air National Guard Base, in Eastover, S.C., and Fort Campbell, Ky. According to Army documents, AVCATT-A, next year and beyond, will go to a series of other installations to include Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Smyrna, Tenn.; Fort Drum, N.Y., and Fort Lewis, Wash.