Army helicopter pilot: You'll need good eyesight and a lot of nerve

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The Independent Online

Flying close to the mountains in the middle of a blizzard I have to be on the look out. Today, as well as freak gales and snow, we are dealing with kamikaze Harrier jets. As we are about to crash into the hillside my co-pilot pulls us up and over a ledge.

This is not, sadly, for real. Sensibly, the Ministry of Defence did not trust someone without a driving licence to man one of its £45m helicopters. Instead I was given brief control of the £12m Lynx simulator the Army is showing off this month.

The simulator is just one of the toys Army Air Corps pilots get to play with. The AAC has a fleet of 335 aircraft: Apaches, Lynxes, and other helicopters, including the Agusta 109, as well as a few fixed-wing craft for reconnaissance.

The jewel in the Corps's crown is the Apache helicopter. Armed with 16 Hellfire missiles, 76 rockets, and 1,200 30mm rounds, the hi-tech Apache makes a grim comparison with the ugly low-rise of a military barracks that would make an out-of-town supermarket seem chichi.

Described as a technological "quantum leap", the Apache is the dizzyingly complex attack helicopter that has seen conflict over the last year in Afghanistan.

"Flying's the easy bit," says Warrant Officer Class 2 Simon Dunville at the Andover barracks. An odd thing to say about keeping a seven-ton metal frame with the aerodynamic qualities of a toad in the air. Until you move from flying to fighting. Few trainee pilots crash in the simulators. The biggest problem they face is identifying friend and foe.

The most common mistake that pilots make is coming over a hill under fire and shooting back at the first thing that moves. To give an idea of how complex identifying the enemy can be, the Army's Apache has Longbow radar (the blob on the top) that can identify two priorities out of a list of 256 potential targets.

The Apache was designed in response to heavy helicopter losses in Vietnam. It can crash at 2,000ft a minute without killing the crew and has been designed to be shot at from the ground. Good news for British pilots in Afghanistan. Many have come under fire and Apaches have suffered serious damage. As yet, no pilots have died.

So how do you get to fly one? Pilots are a mixture of soldiers recruited from other regiments and officers. Recruitment, as for all Army positions, is through the Army as a whole, with applications made through recruiting offices or via their website. Officer recruits go through the same basic training as every other officer: Sandhurst.

The AAC makes some extra demands. Recruits must have good eyesight (-0.75 to +1.75 lenses), without laser eye surgery. It also has some extra perks.

If you apply to the AAC, as with most regiments, you have a two-day familiarisation visit. You also get a three-week – 13 flying hours – course, which you take before enlisting. A similar course would cost around £2,000 to do off your own bat. "It's a really fun few weeks so you might as well give it a go," says Captain Anthony Arnott, recruit liaison officer with the Corps.

Captain Arnott knew he wanted to join the Corps before he was a teenager, but not all pilots had flying in mind when they signed up. Kate, 24, is now training as an Apache pilot. Apache pilots cannot give their surname in case they are captured by the enemy.

While many of her contemporaries at Manchester University were protesting against the Iraq war, Kate was deciding which regiment to join. "I didn't fancy a desk job in London," she says. "The Army is work hard, play hard. It's a good bunch of people and you can have a very good time."

Choosing a regiment was more a matter of finding somewhere she liked than a passion for flight and blowing things up. She was warned that the Corps was not an easy option. The AAC, and Apache pilots in particular, have a bit of a Top Gun reputation as the elite of the elite. But Kate reckons that should not put potential recruits off. "You don't know if you've got it until you go for the tests," she says. Besides, "I'm a rubbish car driver."

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