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Friday, May 1, 2009

Editor’s Notebook

Ernie Stephens

BDUs vs. Blue Jeans

I said I was going to stay away from this subject, but darned if it doesn’t keep coming up. So, since this issue of Rotor & Wing will be handed out the annual Army Aviation Association of America conference (aka Quad-A), I’m going to address the age-old contention that military-trained pilots are usually, if not always, better then civilian-trained pilots. This way, our camouflage-clad readers can come past our booth and lob a grenade at me if I anger them.

Is the pilot in camouflage better trained than the one in jeans?

First of all, let me remind everyone that I’m a civilian-trained helicopter pilot. I wanted to be a U.S. Coast Guard or U.S. Army pilot, but by the time I had developed an interest in flying, I was on the high side of the acceptable age range and my uncorrected eyesight was below the minimums. So, I had to pay for my training in the private sector.

I was, however, fortunate enough to have two primary instructors who were military-trained. Tim Berry was a U.S. Marine who flew in Vietnam, and Todd Roy was an Army Reserve pilot who didn’t happen to see combat, but was still very competent. A third buddy, Mike Miles, wasn’t officially one of my instructors, but taught me lot of things he learned at Fort Rucker and while flying in Vietnam. Todd and Mike even got me in some Army simulator time, which still doesn’t make me a military pilot by any stretch of the imagination, but gave me some training the average civil pilot will never get.

Now, as I said in my February 2009 "Editor’s Note," there is no finer helicopter school anywhere in the world than the Army’s school at Fort Rucker, Ala. (Did you catch that THIS time, McConnell, or do I need to say it a third time?!) But in my mind, that’s no guarantee that a person who learned how to fly there automatically ends up being a better driver than the guy who learned at the little general aviation airport on the outskirts of town.

The vast majority of the military-trained helicopter pilots I have flown with have been great aviators, as well as walking textbooks on rotary-wing aerodynamics and procedures. But there was one guy who was very far from either of those things. I’ll call him Pilot X.

Pilot X was transferred into the police helicopter unit I was in because he had been a pilot in the Army. To make a long story short, the instructor pilot he flew with during transition school questioned whether he graduated from Fort Rucker at all, let alone had 2,800 hours of PIC time he said he had earned while in the service. I wondered, too, when I was ordered to fly with him to see if I, a lowly less-than-1,000-hour pilot at the time, could help him fly better. I was surprised at the amount of difficulty he had holding heading, airspeed and especially altitude.

When the division commander found out, an investigation was launched which reveled Pilot X did graduate from Rucker, but with a very low score. He also had only 400 hours of PIC time, not 2,800. Other records, at least the ones our investigator could get his hands on, suggested that X had his wings taken from him shortly after reaching his duty assignment because the Army thought he was just plain dangerous. His history and false statements aside, my department felt his flying was unsafe and booted him out of the unit.

So much for "every" Army-trained pilot being great, as I frequently hear. I know that most are, but the point I’m trying to make is that no training system makes perfect pilots 100 percent of the time. Pilot X, and others like him, are proof.

Most of the civilian-trained pilots I have known, however, emerged from basic flight training with far less experience than the military folks. They weren’t exposed to turbine engines, night vision goggles or hundreds of full-touchdown autorotations. Most did, however, seem to have much better aircraft control, regardless of what you threw them in. I believe it’s because most of the men and women I know learned how to fly in the sprite, little Robinson R22, which is incredibly sensitive. That sensitivity gives them a touch that makes flying anything else a piece of cake. Military pilots, however, are usually all over the place the first few times they try to hover in an R22.

So, for my money, military-trained aviators do tend to be the best of the two kinds of pilots right out of primary flight school, but there are plenty of exceptions as well. That doesn’t mean the differences will remain the same throughout their flying careers. We have to remember that both sets of pilots will have varying amounts of inherent talent; gain and lose proficiency; and receive varying amounts of additional training and experience. During time, these changes, I believe, will pull some military pilots down and lift some civilian pilots up. Then, before you know it, you can’t judge one better than the other based solely on who was service trained and who wasn’t.

Maybe I’d feel differently about this if I had gone to Fort Rucker. But since I didn’t, that’s how I see it.

I’m done. You can begin yelling at me now.

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