Military, Training

Air Force Country

By Story and photos by Steve “Elroy” Colby | November 1, 2010
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The simple but sophisticated TH-1H glass cockpit. Three MFDs define the clean panel layout with the center MFD serving as an aircraft systems instrumentation and fuel display.

Amid a sea of green there is this small Air Force blue unit charged with responsibility of providing helicopter flight training for all undergraduate pilots proceeding to flying careers in the Air Force’s UH-1N Huey, HH-60G Pave Hawk or CV-22 Osprey fleets. This summer I had the good fortune to visit a premier training unit at Fort Rucker in Alabama. It had been 22 years since I transitioned through Air Force training at Fort Rucker. I was interested in learning what had changed. I’m here to report that there’s no moss gathering on this unit and the changes are remarkable.


The 23 Flying Training Squadron (formerly the 3588 FTS before it’s closure in 1992), was re-activated in 1994 and upholds responsibility for all rotary wing undergraduate, conversion, and first assignment instructor pilot flying training in USAF. Housed in three geographically-separated facilities on Fort Rucker and a simulator facility off-base, the 23rd handles academic, simulator, and flight line training and does it very well. They’ll soon be consolidated in two facilities and a hangar on Cairns Army Airfield (KOZR) for more streamlined efficiency. In the meantime, they accomplish a complex and busy syllabus with aplomb.


In the old days (my generation), Air Force undergraduate helicopter flying training was accomplished completely at Fort Rucker with students starting off coupled with their Army class from academics and primary through night combat skills and then split off for the last six weeks to “Air Force Unique,” the program that taught subtle but important differences in USAF helicopter tactics, techniques and procedures. Today, students attend Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT), which starts their training in fixed-wing (either T-6 or T-34) trainer airplanes at UPT bases like Columbus, Miss., Laughlin AFB, Texas, or Pensacola, Fla. Upon completion of that training phase, students are “tracked” to helo training and move to Fort Rucker for their indoctrination. But the 23rd also provides rotary wing conversion training for qualified pilots transitioning to rotary wing in the Rotary Wing Follow-On (RWF) program and they provide primary instructor training (PIT) for those coming back to Fort Rucker to teach the Air Force program with operational assignments under their belts or right out of flight school as first assignment instructor pilots (FAIPs).

All the syllabi are robust and prepare students for the complex transition to combat (Pave Hawk & Osprey), support (Huey), or the flying training instructor missions they’ll be expected to tackle upon course completion. All three syllabi use the same basic flow. They start with contact and emergency procedure maneuvers, and then advance to instrument simulator and hands-on aircraft training. Then, the three syllabi advance further into day remotes, day low-level single ship and formation, NVG remotes, NVG single-ship low-level, and finally an introduction to NVG low-level formation flying. Each syllabus’ duration is tailored for the student experience level. SUPT in its current form is a vast departure from training in the past, as most USAF helo aviators trained in the ‘80s and 90’s didn’t see NVG low-level formation until much later in their advanced aircraft transition training. This is a very positive step toward making better-prepared pilots destined for very difficult training and operations to follow Fort Rucker. Students are now introduced to the concept of Air Force Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (AFTTP) manuals earlier in their training with reference and referral to AFTTP 3-3.H-1 Aircraft Fundamentals; preparing them for the classified AFTTP volumes that will become their employment bibles in operational units. I was happy to learn that they still teach touch-down autorotations at Fort Rucker as AF continuation training long ago did away with touchdown autos for operational pilots. Tactical training includes alternate insertion and extraction (AIEs) but specialized training like hoists and gunnery is saved for type-qualification in post-graduate flight training at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico. Most impressive is the 23 FTS’ endeavor to send more capable pilots to Kirtland to smooth their transition in more complicated aircraft and missions. USAF rotary wing students receive their wings when their Fort Rucker pilot training sojourn is completed.

Aircraft & Simulators

SimVu Debrief Tool.

The biggest change besides the split fixed-wing and helicopter training is, ironically, the legacy trainer aircraft used for USAF students. The current 23rd FTS fleet is comprised of 35 H-1s. The fleet is currently mixed between 16 legacy UH-1Hs and 19 upgraded TH-1Hs, which I had the opportunity to fly in the sim and ride along during an instructor pilot upgrade ride. While the UH-1Hs are from the youngest of the former Army fleet, the TH-1H’s are something altogether different. They are essentially zero-timed, refurbished UH-1H Hueys with a glass cockpit, UH-1N dynamic components (rotors, transmission, gearboxes), a more aerodynamic nose and an upgraded T53-L-703 engine producing 1800 shaft horsepower breathing through CENTRISEP swirl-vane particle separator. The engine is de-rated to the N-model’s 1,290-shaft horsepower gearbox limit but fills that gearbox with maximum torque up to rather exceptional altitudes and temperatures. During my sortie I saw OGE power margins in excess of 30 percent at takeoff on a 35C day.

The cockpit is a simple but sophisticated blend of electronic flight information system and navigation sensors. It employs a simple instrument panel with three MFDs each with an uncluttered intuitive layout. Air data computers feed the MFDs with critical PA, temp, and computed airspeeds. The center MFD serves as an aircraft systems instrumentation and fuel display. The user-selectable navigation sources are standard VOR/ILS, ADF, Freeflight GPS, and TACAN. The GPS had been employed as a VFR situtational awareness enhancement tool but has been recently certified to perform IFR RNAV approaches. My guess is that Communications Navigation Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP) certification is in the future for this modernized 324 RPM echo of the past. There is no digital map since fundamental and basic dead-reckoning and pilotage training is still a priority in primary flight school. The display reversionary modes are easily interpreted and provide easy system source decision-making during data miscompares. The radio suite is a very nice complement of two Wulfsberg multi-spectral programmable radios and a NAV/Comm unit and a digital transponder, which in the future will likely require integrated TCAS upgrades for CNS/ATM compliance as well. This will be an important feature in the helicopter-cluttered skies around Fort Rucker.

The simulators are impressive. They are full-motion, Level-D, visual devices with awesome graphic and performance fidelity. Most impressive in the simulators is the SimVu debrief reconstruction tool (see image) that provides instantaneous playback capability of the entire sortie with plan-view, profile view, cockpit indications and out the window or wingman view. This playback capability is unparalled for reconstructing sorties, because as you well know, the most learning comes in a 1-g lighted room after the sortie, especially when there is no question as to exactly what transpired. Correcting common student errors in this environment holds huge promise for more advanced training as well. I flew a local IFR sortie from KOZR in the simulator with my instructor, Capt. Nic Morris, who did a banner job playing ATC, providing vectors and very politely reminding me that my basic instrument cross-check was a little out of practice which was verified in my SimVu replay. Today’s Fort Rucker students should be ecstatic about the quality of this training compared to old non-visual Huey sims. An added benefit is primary cockpit procedural training which now doesn’t burn blade time and aircraft availability on the flight line.


The feature changed the least in 22 years is the quality of the squadron personnel. The 23rd FTS, commanded by Lt. Col. Steve Moyes and steered by Ops Officer Lt. Col. Bill Dehehan, is a finely oiled machine of 52 active duty, civil service and contractor personnel handling all the necessary academic, flight training, life support, administration, and support duties necessary to pull off the training mission. Next year the squadron is slated to train 60 SUPT, students, four RWF students and 16 PIT students. I have no doubt that this team will do it with class. Another small army of contract maintenance support keeps the aircraft in top flying shape and at remarkable readiness rates. TheTH-1H I flew on was one of the smoothest Huey rides I can remember.

My orientation sortie was a day-tactical, IP upgrade sortie commanded by Capt. Dan “Coach” Coughlin. The TH-1H First Pilot-certified, instructor upgradees, Capts. Nate Jones and Josh Hallford, were pilots previously assigned in operational units at the 1st Helicopter Squadron at Andrews AFB in Maryland and Yokota AB, Japan. Their operational backgrounds in VIP support didn’t slow their recall of tactical sortie preparation or in-flight manual navigation using the “90-knot finger” across a professionally prepared 1:250 Joint Operations Graphic-Air chart printed out from their computerized portable flight planning system. Our routing took us on a nav route southwest of Enterprise, Ala. to several remote sites newly named with alpha-numeric designators (long-gone are the LZ monikers Raquel, Lisa, and Karen), where the IP candidates practiced remote site evaluation, infil techniques, and maneuvers for photos. Their time-on-target navigation was impressive given the manual pilotage and dead-reckoning techniques demonstrated. Their experience in N-models was evident in their TH-1H handling skills given the UH-1N rotors installed on the TH-1H aircraft. A timely and tasty mid-sortie gas and lunch stop at Florala (not necessarily in that order after the bean burritos), punctuated the seat-swap such that the other IP upgrade student could demonstrate his prowess at identifying and rectifying common student errors in a day-tactical, low level environment. The debrief that followed was professional, concise and identified key areas that each upgradee should polish for his next upgrade sortie. They even tolerated my observations and humble suggestions. I was proud to see that the flying training has adapted so well to feed the heavy demands placed on aviators in the last nine years of continuous combat aviation. USAF helicopter crews in particular are at the highest deployment dwell of any DoD helicopter unit and retention is suffering as a result. As long as the pilot demand rises, the 23rd FTS will be commissioned to fill that demand.


Some of my fondest military recollections are of flight school with the likes of Stony, Kevin, the Mikes, Slojo, Tom, and Larry. And while some of our IPs made us work harder than we liked, and some evaluators graded with sharper pencils than others, it was a labor of love that made us better than average helicopter pilots. That seemed to be the universal expectation of AF students in those days. Today is no different; the student camaraderie is evident, cadre dedication (contractor and active duty) is obvious and Air Force Country pride is painted boldly on the signs and modern impressive helicopters of the 23rd Flying Training Squadron. Keep the dirty side down brothers … that others may live.

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