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Military Career - 1974-1975 - Part I


I reported to 427 Squadron when I graduated from Staff College and undertook a series of flying and Land Force Courses that kept me very busy. My first visit to 427 Squadron was interesting. I had flown in a helicopter a few times before, but this was my first opportunity to actually fly one. A former CO from Gimli was the Commanding Officer of the Squadron but was soon to leave on promotion to Colonel. He made me very welcome and took me on my first ride in a Huey helicopter. I subsequently scrounged a number of flights on the Kiowa, including cross-country trips to Toronto and Borden. My squadron pilots let me fly for much of the trips, but hovering and slow speed flight was at that time very difficult for me.

After a few days at the Squadron, I took leave and was soon on my way back to Portage La Prairie. This was my third tour at Portage. I attended Advanced Flying School in T 33's in 1954/55 and returned again in 1965 for Flying Instructor Training. Now I found myself back to a basic flying course on rotary wing aircraft. I wondered if they were trying to tell me something! This feeling of incompetence was further amplified once I started on the flying aspects of the course. The instructor would take the aircraft into the middle of a typical prairie field about a mile square and say hover here. Well, it's not easy to hover. After a few seconds in one spot the helicopter would start moving. The subsequent panicky movements of cyclic, collective and pedals only made things worse. The instructor would watch with great delight, particularly Majors who already had thousands of hours of flying, and who felt that this helicopter business was just another aircraft to fly. Distressing thoughts passed through my mind including a sudden fear that I had lost my motor coordination skills. It seemed impossible to keep this crazy eggbeater in the field, let alone over one particular spot.

Helicopters are fascinating and I am not sure that even those schooled in aerodynamics know exactly what various forces come into play during flight. Over one's head is a disk or plate made by the whirling main rotor blades. The collective lever on one's left is raised to change the angle of attack of the rotor blades, which induces lift, and the helicopter goes up. This increase in angle of attack has to also include a corresponding increase in engine power to compensate for the increased drag of the blades. In a Jet-powered helicopter this power change takes place automatically. In piston engine-type helicopters the raising of the collective has to include a corresponding twist of the throttle grip at the end of the collective leader. If these two movements are not enough to confuse a pilot he then has to increase his foot pedal movement to increase the angle of the blades of the tail rotor. If this was not done, the helicopter would spin around in the opposite direction of the rotor blades. Once the helicopter is up off the ground the cyclic control is used to tilt the rotor above you in the direction you want to go. You are in essence flying a huge gyroscope so that much of the thrust of the controls are working at 90 degrees. There is also a delay from when the controls are moved, until something happens. A pilot soon finds that if you move any one of the four major controls, throttle, collective, cyclic and pedals you have to make adjustments to each and every one of them. It is the story of the proverbial one-armed paper hanger. It is very unlike fixed wing aircraft where you can almost feel the air flow over the elevators, ailerons and rudder through the controls. You can also trim stick forces out and fly hands off. This is not so in a helicopter. You have to constantly fly this aircraft unless you are straight and level at high speed when it is possible to fly hands off but only with great care!

Amazingly enough after many hours of frustration it suddenly comes to you. It was rather like the first attempt to ride a bicycle. You fell off time and time again but then suddenly you had the knack of keeping your balance and the bike upright. From then on there is no looking back or forgetting. In the meantime the instructor usually has a big grin on his face as he registers your frustration and often anger while trying to tame this rotating and rattling monster of the skies. Fortunately I was soon able not only to hover, but to rotate over a specific spot even in strong winds. We would put the nose against a small post and rotate around it or put the tail rotor over a spot and rotate around that with the tail rotor remaining in the same relative position. Flying backwards and sideways became second nature and soon I felt more bird-like than I have ever done in a fixed wing aircraft. I could perch on tops of trees, buildings and mountains just like a bird. Soon I was flying a few feet over the ground and practicing quick stops that are similar to the movements of a hockey player when he twists suddenly and uses his skates to skid to a sudden stop. For me it was a wonderful climax to a flying career. I subsequently flew over 1,500 hours in Helicopter and over 1,000 hours in the Kiowa.

During my flying course I came up against several temporary barriers. I had trouble mastering off level landings. Putting a helicopter down on a slope was not easy. A patient instructor soon had me over this hurdle. Another problem area we all found tricky was auto rotation after engine failure. This is similar to a dead stick landing in a fixed wing aircraft. In this situation you glide the aircraft down to a safe landing. There are all sorts of adjustments to the glide that can be made, such as the amount of flap deployed or when the landing gear is lowered. At the last moment it is possible to make an error in rotation and recover as there is normally a great deal of speed left for final landing movements. In a helicopter it is not the same. There is little you can do during the so-called glide or auto rotation, and once you decide to flare for the final touch down, you cannot change your mind. If the engine fails in a helicopter the immediate reaction is to lower the collective so that the rotor blades are at the minimum angle of attack. If the collective remained up, the drag of the blades would slow them down and stop with disastrous results. It would be like losing your wings. Instead, once the collective is fully down, a descent can be established at a specific speed. It is a fairly rapid rate of descent as it is essential to keep up rotor speed. At the last moment this rotor speed is used to produce enough lift to rotate the helicopter into a zero rate of descent and zero forward speed at touch down. The last minute application of collective is critical at rotation. Too late and the helicopter will crash into the ground at a high rate of descent. Too early and the rotor speed will drop off prior to touch down and the helicopter will fall out of the sky. It is judging the final phase of an auto rotation that is tricky and there is little room for error. We had a special area for practicing these maneuvers and I never really enjoyed them. It was not until I got on to squadron that I finally felt confident that I could handle them in any situation. We practiced them regularly but, fortunately for me, I never had an engine fail on me so was not put to the ultimate test.

By the middle of January in 1975 I was back at 427 Squadron and flying again with a vengeance. I soon had my unit check out and started to pile on helicopter hours all of which would help when I eventually ended up at the Operational Training Unit at CFB Gagetown. In February I flew nearly fifty hours in the Kiowa. This included an extended cross-country trip to Sault Saint Marie and back. To see Canada at low level from the bubble cockpit of a helicopter flying at relatively slow speed is a wonderful experience. It is like having the world unfold in front of you.

For the next few weeks I attended the Land Operations Familiarization Training (LOFT) course at Gagetown. It was an effort to introduce airman and naval aviators to army operations. It was essential that aircrew knew the army's business very thoroughly if they were to support the army from the air effectively. I had the advantage of working at CFOCS for many years and being exposed to army officers and land force training. Many of the CFOCS exercises were based on land force operations. It was unfortunate that the army did not choose their LOFT instructors with care. I found that army officers could be difficult and did not recognize that pilots are of a different breed. We tend to find humour in everything we do. We are only too aware that in flying it is easy to make an ass of yourself if you are careless or stupid. We look at things, including our careers, differently. For many pilots, flying is the big incentive, and their career is secondary. Army officers are more conscious of career, rank and seniority. Instructors were needed who could understand aircrew and pilots and pitch the training accordingly. This did not always happen, but we still had fun, often at our instructors’ expense.

During our artillery training we often drove the gunner instructor to distraction. When spotting the fall of shell in gunnery exercises there is a system of adjustment that follows a set procedure. Basically, corrections are made in a set format so that eventually the fire can bracket a position and adjustments made left or right and ahead and back until the target is hit. The first problem a spotter has is to give a grid reference as to where the target is by judging the position from his look out point. This is not always easy as there are folds in the land that hide big areas and distances far away can be hard to judge. Pilots who fly over these areas daily develop an instinct for distance and often the grid reference given to the guns was very accurate. Thus, if the first shell falls on the target area there is no adjustment to be made. The other problem was that pilots, on observing the first fall of shot, would make what were very non-standard corrections such as drop 700 right 75. The next shell would then, to the gunner instructor's amazement, fall right on target. He would ring his hands in frustration and then say it was difficult to argue with success. It is not surprising that pilots whose job was to continuously judge distances and height were good at this sort of work.

We also enjoyed Armour Training and found that "Zipper Heads" (Amour Officers and men) and pilots had much in common. Their job also involved complex mechanical equipment. We had a great time learning fire and movement for armoured operations. We drove with our armoured friends in Amoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and tanks and absorbed the various tactics they employed as they proceeded along an axis. We watched as one tank advanced with another covering from a good fire position. When the advancing tank finds another good fire position, the second tank moves forward under the fire protection of its leader. Sometimes the second tank takes up the first tank's position, while the first tank then moves forward again. (Caterpillar Tactic) Other times the second tank overtakes the first to find another fire position. (Leapfrog Tactic). There were tactics to follow when clearing a defile or lateral roads and trails. Later in our training we were to work with an Armoured Troop Commander in helping to clear defiles and to clear laterals or areas to which the tanks could not proceed. We used similar "fire and movement" tactics while flying in our helicopters.

By the end of the LOFT Course we all had an understanding of the organization and tactics of the Infantry, Armour, Artillery and Engineer Units. We recognized that the smallest fighting organization the army can put into the field is a Brigade. A Brigade consists of infantry, usually two Battalions or Regiments. Providing fire support for them will be an Artillery Regiment and Amoured Regiment. Mobility support will be the Engineer Regiment responsible for building bridges, making roads and other facilities, such as protection. They are also responsible for denying such facilities to an enemy by blowing up bridges and laying mine fields. In support of the combat units is a Service Battalion that is responsible for providing food, fuel, ammunition, and equipment repair. A Brigade will also have a Field Hospital for medical support and an aviation unit consisting of helicopters. These Tactical Helicopter Squadrons consist of Light Observations Helicopters, Utility Tactical Lift Helicopters for air-mobile operations, Heavy Lift Helicopters and Attack Helicopters for anti-tank operations. Later in this story I will describe some of these specific aviation-type operations.

After the LOFT course we began our operational training on the Kiowa and Twin Huey Helicopters. We were now going to learn how to use our helicopter as a weapon. We were about to start “nap of the earth” flying (NOE) and working with Infantry in observation, reconnoiter and airborne operations. We were to fly in support of Armoured Reconnoiter Operations and spotting for the Artillery from a helicopter. Initially we had to learn how to navigate very accurately at low level and at very varied speeds from a walking pace to dashes at over 100 MPH. Some of our training maps were produced with land contour only marked on them. This made us very conscious of contour and we were soon having no difficulty in observing the lie of the land and finding our way around in this manner. Much of our flying took place at only a few feet above the ground with the occasional “pop up” to tree height for a quick look. To do otherwise would invite unfriendly fire. It was real "Cowboy and Indian" style games; exciting and enjoyable.

I always felt it was a most demanding flying job. One was faced with flying a helicopter at low level in an area full of obstacles. A pilot had to maintain accurate control of his machine while observing outside activity, reporting such on a number of radio nets. There were times when he would find himself hovering in a confined area making sure that his tail rotor did not collide with a nearby barbed wire fence. Simultaneously he would be talking to an F5 fighter pilot and directing him onto a specific target. At the same time he would be talking to his number two and to the Armoured Troop Commander he was supporting. In the meantime the Observer in the left hand seat would be directing artillery fire on his Artillery Net. They were indeed a busy couple of chaps. It was all great fun and wonderful flying.

In August 1975 I commenced my first tour as a fully trained Tactical Aviation Pilot.

To Be Continued