Flying the Apache

Today, I was fortunate to fly an Apache helicopter, part of an Army Air Corps detachment to RAF Lossiemouth designed to give instructor pilots valuable experience in mountain flying.

Beautiful? I think so. Menacing too!

So what's it like? Well, mission planning is completed on a computerised system but compared to the fast-jet systems I'm used to, its a little way behind but with an upgrade coming soon I expect it will see some real capability upgrades.

Survival equipment fitting was straightforward – the flying helmet is made up of distinct components that Velcro and screw together to make up the whole thing. Although it is there for head protection, its real purpose is to support the monocle that provides flight and targeting data straight into the pilot's right eye. The aircraft can be flown and fought from either seat so controls and sensors are replicated in both although the UK puts the mission commander in the front whilst the handling pilot occupies the rear seat.

 

Clambering into the aircraft isn't exactly dignified, but once inside the cockpit is roomy and well laid-out, with extensive use of multi-function displays and Hands on Throttle and Stick-type controllers. The aircraft is fully digital so dynamically works out things like its own performance, safe single-engine

speeds, etc and as you can see above, features easy to interpret displays. This one is the fuel page, showing how much fuel is on board and where it is, along with fuel burn rates and associated endurance.

The checklist is straightforward and swift and soon we lifted from Lossiemouth to conduct some general handling to the south.

The visibility from the front cockpit is excellent all round

My first observation was that the aircraft was very light on the controls and the monocular display made it very easy to maintain a good lookout whilst still flying quite accurately. Apache likes you to interact with it as much as fly it and by that I mean that its always looking to remove the burden of flying so it has a speed hold, altitude hold and attitude hold that pilots with more skill than me can use to make the business of flying very relaxed and virtually hands-off. I struggled with the various trimming modes a little as they weren't either very basic as in Tornado and most older aircraft or fully automatic as in Typhoon. I suspect that with a bit of training though, they become second nature. In the general handling, we looked at the various modes and linking of some of the sensors and operated the Longbow radar in its terrain avoidance and air-to-air modes. The multi-function displays are akin to what you'd find in any modern fighter and allow the pilots to see fused data from all the sensors, making the Apache the fearsome weapons platform it is!

The monocle takes some getting used to but means there is information wherever you look

Next up, off to our Relief Landing Ground at Kinloss for me to embarrass myself in the hover and to try a few landings. The heads-up information is very helpful but I missed the 'reality' of some in-cockpit instruments. This was probably just my unfamiliarity with the symbology, although my instructor did a marvellous job of explaining them and helping me master the HOTAS – it really is an intuitive cockpit. Anyhow, after an approach that did anything but maintain a 'constant sight line angle', I wobbled us down onto the ground and I think we were both grateful for those shock-absorbing undercarriage legs! I found the running landings particularly hard as a fixed wing pilot, especially so because I regularly fly taildraggers. This means that I'm hard wired for a nose-up landing with the stick right back in my stomach – exactly the opposite of this technique, which I found uncomfortably nose-low. With a few thousand fixed-wing hours, its very hard to overcome the muscle memory, especially when it gets more challenging near to the ground and the best I could realistically hope for was 'safe'!

Then it was on to exploiting the weapons system and I have to say, this was fantastic. The aircraft can perform a fully automatic hover, leaving the crew to get on with the business of finding, allocating and striking its targets. The HOTAS is brilliant here and I was soon using the twin grip controllers to control the radar, Forward Looking Infra red and camera, zooming in on various targets. The ability to swiftly cue up a range of weapons, designate using the monocular and even to see where the other pilot is looking means that the Apache brings weapons to bear very quickly indeed.

Then we looked at the manoeuvrability of the aircraft by performing some wing overs, 'short-stop' approaches and transitioning from 120kts into the hover, pointing the other way, with a weapons solution available. Impressive. All too soon we returned to Lossiemouth for a final landing. The Apache blends firepower, manoeuvrability and protection (2 of everything, armour, shock-absorbing, self-sealing, etc) beautifully. It's beauty is in the eye of the beholder but its certainly a potent and flexible weapons system that is extremely fun and enjoyable to fly. I'm glad they're on our side….

 

One very happy Station Commander after the sortie

 

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