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