FORT DRUM, N.Y. – For many people, spending part of the summer in the woods of northern New York State conjures up images of fishing, swimming, hiking and camping.
But for a very select group of people, it is a very different image; it is the image of tree tops racing below your feet and the sound of machine gun fire ripping thru the air.
These are the Soldiers of Company A, 3rd Brigade, 126th Aviation Regiment, Massachusetts Army National Guard, and they spent the early part of June flying their Blackhawk helicopters on the aerial gunnery range here.
Typically a Blackhawk has a four person crew when deployed to a combat zone; two pilots, a crew chief and a door gunner, the crew chief and the door gunner each manning a machine gun.
“It’s great to be able to come up here,” said Capt. Harrison Walters, commander, Company A, 3rd Brigade, 126th Aviation Regiment, “ back at state … we don’t have the magnitude of the range that we need.”
While there are ranges in Massachusetts that can accommodate Soldiers firing machine guns; they can only handle hand carried or vehicle mounted weapons.
Firing from a moving helicopter hundreds of feet above the ground requires an area with a lot of open space.
It also allows for a variety of targets; everything to static targets such as a tank to an artillery piece.
“We have moving targets, we have strafing pits,” said Staff Sgt. Timothy Palmer, an enlisted instructor pilot as well as a master gunner, Company A, 3rd Brigade, 126th Aviation Regiment.
In a combat zone, these same helicopters and crews could be performing a variety of missions, one of which could be carrying Soldiers into hostile territory. To ensure that the crews keep their skills fresh, part of the range is set up as a village.
“We have (targets representing) individuals in windows, individuals in doorways,” said Palmer, “individuals next to vehicles.”
The mere presence of individuals in windows or doorways doesn’t mean that the Soldier on the machine gun opens fire, for all the crew knows the individual in the window could just be watching what is going on and pose no threat to the Soldiers.
“It’s the pilot-in-command’s responsibility for everything that happens within that air frame (helicopter),” said Walters, “If we were to fire at a target that wasn’t … supposed to be shot at, that falls back on the pilot-in-command. The crew chiefs or the door gunners in the back don’t fire until the pilot in command tells them to fire. That’s one of the safety measures that we have in place.”
That is one of the unique aspects of firing from a helicopter; another is the fact that the pilots, who can see what is in front of the helicopter, have a better view then the gunners, who can only see what is on their side of the helicopter.
“Because of our limited view in a Blackhawk,” said Palmer, “They’re (the pilots) are actually pointing out targets; if they don’t see them we announce targets.”
Just as aiming the machine guns at a target is not as simple as it sounds. The stands the guns are mounted on don’t allow them to aim up more than a degree or two.
“(This) keeps you from shooting your own rotor system,” said Walters.
This means that the pilots not only have to maneuver the helicopter so that the gunner can line up the target, but keep the helicopter stable so the gunner’s aim is not thrown off. At this point the gunner is giving the pilots directions on flying the aircraft.
“There’s a lot of crew coordination going on in the aircraft,” said Palmer, “its realistic training.”
Palmer and the other flight instructors made sure the range time paid off; running the Soldiers through the drills necessary towards fulfilling the goal of molding the pilots, crew chiefs and door gunners into one single unit.
And so the crews spent days practicing; paring up experienced door gunners with newer pilots and experienced pilots with new door gunners as well as multiple helicopters working together
“They did well,” said Palmer, “They knocked off the rust. They were really doing well. They were hitting targets … using crew coordination …doing well.”