Warplanes: Helicopter Simulators and Surviving in Iraq


March 2, 2007: The recent spike in helicopter losses in Iraq, caused the U.S. Army, the major used of helicopters in the American military, to double check their pilot training, and defensive tactics. Just as Russian helicopter pilots quickly learned how to avoid ground fire in Chechnya when they went in to pacify the place in 1999, the U.S. encountered the same problems in 2003. The United States did not have as many problems in Afghanistan in 2001, but Iraq was a different story. Old tactics and maneuvers were relearned. Why did this stuff have to be relearned? Simply because the best maneuvers were basically dangerous and hard on the engines. It's an old pattern. Once peace returns, commanders are under pressure to reduce training accidents, and the cost of maintaining the helicopters. That means realistic training for combat gets watered down until it isn't there any more.

As expected, the Afghanistan and Iraq experience  changed how army helicopter pilots are trained. Pilots are now allowed to practice violent evasive maneuvers, that were formerly banned during training (because they were dangerous). Iraq showed that it was more dangerous to learn how to do these maneuvers, for the first time, while being shot at. Some of the more extreme evasive maneuvers can be practiced in simulators. But eventually you have to try it in an actual helicopter, to attain full confidence in the newly developed skills. Helicopter maintenance personnel are also being given new equipment and materials to make it easier to maintain equipment in very sandy conditions. Pilots and support troops are debriefed after their service in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more changes to training and tactics will come about as a result of troop reports.

As a result of all this, the loss rate of helicopters in Iraq is half of what it was in Vietnam. But the current spike in losses was part chance (what statisticians call "clustering") and partly the result of at least one group of terrorists taking advantage of some pilots getting in to predictable routines, which provided more opportunities to ambush low flying choppers. With the element of surprise gone, and all pilots reminded of how important it is to fly unpredictably, the loss spike passed.

The U.S. Army trains about 1,100 new helicopter pilots a year, and nearly all the instructors are now combat veterans. Not all pilots have had a chance to fly in a combat zone yet, but for the next decade or so, the army will have a core group of combat experienced pilots, who will keep reminding the brass that realistic training matters. That probably won't stop the usual trend towards watered down, safer and cheaper, training. But the growing use of, more realistic, flight simulators, will enable to get some exposure to simulated combat conditions, and flying those dangerous, but life-saving, maneuvers.