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Learning to Fly... Again

  • Published
  • By Maj. John T. Stamm
  • 908th Airlift Wing

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala.-- As the last remaining C-130 “Hercules” aircraft depart the 908th Airlift Wing for new homes, the remaining members prepare for a likely re-missioning to the Air Force’s first MH-139 “Grey Wolf” helicopter Formal Training Unit. 

Several of the wing’s C-130 pilots chose to learn how to fly the helicopter so they could remain here as instructors.

The first step in this process is attending the TH-1H Rotary-Wing Fundamentals course conducted at Ft. Rucker, Ala. 908th Operations Support Squadron director of operations Lt. Col. Jeffrey E. Randall is the first member of the wing to complete the course.

“It was an honor to be the first member of the 908th to complete the initial training,” Randall said.  “They have a very good training program at Ft. Rucker… I think everyone of our members will come out of the course fully-qualified.”

The 4-month course is designed specifically to train helicopter pilots with previous experience flying fixed-wing aircraft (there is a different course for new pilot trainees without previous experience), and USAF pilots transferring from fixed-wing to rotary-wing will start there. The students’ experience ranges from fighter pilots to cargo pilots and everything in-between, including the Air Force Thunderbirds. The instructors pull on this prior experience to make the transition quicker and easier.

Students start off learning the capabilities and limitations of aircraft, and then transition to landing, take-off, hovering, and emergency procedures. After a check-ride (an evaluation of the specific maneuvers in a block of training) the students move to the instrument phase (where pilots learn flying skills with reference to flight instruments), and then train remote low-level formation flying and landing in designated fields called “RT’s” or remote training sites. 

“We navigated to and landed at those,” he said. “First from 300 feet above the ground and then at 100 feet.  After that we flew at 150 feet and landed in a two-ship formation. We also trained daylight operations and then we transitioned to night time operations.”

The training was easier for him because he has prior experience as a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Army National Guard, but doesn’t feel that the transition will pose any insurmountable challenges to other pilots. Randall explained there are many similarities between flying an airplane and a helicopter, such as pitch, power, and air speed, with take-offs, landings, and range of the helicopter being the biggest differences. He advises other trainees to keep an open mind and be ready to learn, but to also not “throw away” what they already know about flying. 

“Flying is flying.  Pilots have what we call ‘air-sense’ - a situational awareness of what’s going on around you. The difference is learning to control the aircraft and making it do what you want it to do. That’s the difficult part with a helo, because you have to use all four extremities at the same time. You still need air-sense, though maybe a little less because you are moving slower and you have alternatives to landing. For example, it’s easier to find an open field to land in than it is to find a runway.”

The next phase of training before attending MH-139 familiarization is the TH-1H Instructor Training course, also at Ft. Rucker. Afterwards, Randall and other 908th AW “graduates” will serve as instructors there until the FTU is established.

Located at Maxwell Air Force Base and currently operating a fleet of C-130H Hercules cargo aircraft, the 908th is Alabama’s only Air Force Reserve wing. The wing has approximately 1,200 Reserve Citizen Airmen, serving in more than 20 career fields, with Air Reserve Technicians, civilian employees and Reservists on active duty tours conducting day-to-day operations. Maxwell was named as the preferred location for the new MH-139A Grey Wolf helicopter Formal Training Unit last November.  As that becomes official, the 908th AW will divest itself of the C-130’s and execute the new mission.