Is This the Hardest of All Aircraft to Fly?

Piloting an Apache helicopter often requires hands and feet doing four different things at once

Apache helicopter pilot.jpg
An Apache helicopter pilot with the U.K. Army Air Corps in Afghanistan, May 2009. Cpl Rupert Frere RLC, UK Ministry of Defence

Ever wonder what it takes to become an Apache helicopter pilot? Former British Army Air Corps pilot Ed Macy gives this description in his 2009 book Apache: Inside the Cockpit of the World’s Most Deadly Fighting Machine.

As the most technically advanced helicopter in the world, the Apache AH Mk1 was also the hardest to fly…. To train each Apache pilot from scratch cost £3 million (each custom-made helmet alone had a price tag of £22,915). It took six months just to learn how to fly the machine, another six to know how to fight in it, and a final six to be passed combat ready. And that was if you were already a fully qualified, combat-trained army helicopter pilot. If you weren’t, you’d have to add four months for ground school and learning to fly fixed wing at RAF Barkston Heath, six months learning to fly helicopters at RAF Shawbury, half a year at the School of Army Aviation learning to fly tactically, and a final sixteen-week course in Survival, Evasion and Resistance to Interrogation, courtesy of the Intelligence Corps’ most vigorous training staff. Three years in total….

Flying an Apache almost always meant both hands and feet doing four different things at once. Even our eyes had to learn how to work independently of each other. A monocle sat permanently over our right iris. A dozen different instrument readings from around the cockpit were projected into it. At the flick of a button, a range of other images could also be superimposed underneath the green glow of the instrument symbology, replicating the TADS’ or PNVS’ camera images and the Longbow Radars’ targets.

The monocle left the pilot’s left eye free to look outside the cockpit, saving him the few seconds that it took to look down at the instruments and then up again…. New pilots suffered terrible headaches as the left and right eye competed for dominance. They started within minutes, long before take-off…. As the eyes adjusted over the following weeks and months the headaches took longer to set in. It was a year before mine disappeared altogether…. I once filmed my face during a sortie with a video camera as an experiment. My eyes whirled independently of each other throughout, like a man possessed.

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