After attending HAI’s Heli-Expo in Orlando in early March, I headed west and joined up with elements of the United Kingdom’s Army Air Corps to observe part of Exercise Crimson Eagle, which is staged out of Naval Air Station El Centro in southern California (look for the full story in an upcoming issue of Rotor & Wing this summer).
But why, you may ask, does British Army Aviation come all the way out to southern California to conduct its exercises? Very simply, they get the biggest ‘bang for their buck’ in one place. Lots of room at the air station itself, the use of a hangar throughout the year and four aircraft permanently based ‘in-country,’ a friendly area that is a low security risk, and more airspace to conduct live firing and mission preparation than they know what to do with. Being southern California and bordering with Arizona also helps with hot and high training, as well as dust landing training, although remarkably the air station, indeed the whole city, is 50 feet below sea level.
|Army Air Corps ground crew loading another RF Hellfire missile onto a British Apache Longbow at Gila Bend, Ariz., before a live firing exercise.|
Being next door to Arizona also means that Luke Air Force Bases’ satellite airfield at Gila Bend in the Barry M. Goldwater range can be used by the Army’s AH-64D Apaches for live firing. Also, there is the opportunity to train alongside the U.S. Marine Corps, based just down the road in Yuma and with their own Air Ground Combat Center nearby at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Training in this environment is absolutely essential for crews and maintainers who are preparing to deploy on operations, principally to Afghanistan at the current time. Familiarization with aircraft, procedures and honing teamwork can be done in a benign environment with similar environmental conditions, but with the pressure managed and the training progressive. The initial stages of the Crimson Eagle deployment involves the conversion to role for newly trained aircrew, as well as those coming to Apache from other types. Later squadrons about to deploy to Afghanistan for pre-deployment top-up training, as well as the ground controllers they will be working with in theater, join these crews. Incidentally the area is also very well suited to conduct aircrew survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) training.
|An armored personnel carrier after being hit by the Apache’s RF missile(s) on the Barry M. Goldwater range in Arizona. It started the day as a complete vehicle....|
While I was at Gila Bend, the AAC was conducting its first live firing of the Apache’s stock of radio frequency (RF) Hellfire missiles—with many crews keen to be the ones to pull the trigger. Due to the UK’s tight rules of engagement, where ‘eyes-on’ the target is enforced to ensure the minimum possible collateral damage and injury to civilians, these fire-and-forget millimeter-wave radar-guided Hellfires have not been used on the frontline in Afghanistan and were essentially at the end of the manufacturer’s current ‘use by’ date (the British have only used laser-guided SAL Hellfires in Afghanistan to date).
The wide open spaces of the Goldwater range meant that these missiles could be fired in exactly the way they were designed—and with very satisfactory results, as I saw during a trip to the target site (see picture at right).