In the Line of Fire

By Maj. Chris Whipp

March 3, 20176 Minutes

“This is working exactly how we want it, they are coming now, we have the ‘big gun’ ready…”

We received those words above the radio chatter from one of our concerned translators.

 

The ‘Big Gun’ in the message belonged to the enemy we were approaching. What it was ready for was a shot at the most sought-after target at the time, an Apache helicopter, to take it down, along with the crew – including myself. We prepare pilots for their first live contact situation; ‘it will be a place of total and utter, yet organized chaos’. The organised part of the equation comes from the three year intense training that is required before flying an Apache into combat. What is generally accepted to be the world’s most advanced attack helicopter also requires the most thoroughly trained pilot.

 

Flying the Apache often requires both hands and feet to do four different tasks simultaneously. A pilot’s eyes have to relearn how to assimilate information independently of each other. We use a monocle that sits permanently over our right iris, which then has twelve unique instrument readings from around the cockpit, all screened into the right eye. Add to which, underneath the instrument icons we regularly switch on extra images displaying the camera inputs and the Longbow Radar’s targets. That’s just the Apache itself. Now add multiple incoming audio channels, artillery firing, mortars, Milan and F-18’s in the air, and you get some sense of the complexity we face in combat, whilst also focusing on our target task or mission.

 

As we flew towards the enemy to support our pinned TIC (Troops-In-Contact), they (the troops) asked over the radio, in a typically selfless way, if we shouldn’t stay clear of the Big Gun that was allegedly waiting for us? In such situations, there is always the likelihood that the enemy is bluffing, and that by us staying clear of the fight they gain the upper hand. Our response to any suggestion of not engaging with the situation is simple… it is simply not an option. It would be similar to a fireman not going into a smoking building to rescue someone. Before we take off, we run extensive drills and checks. If the drills are followed to the most precise standard, we can then forget about everything except our mission. Big Guns, real or bluffed, are what Apache pilots expect and are trained for. As is the case with any real-world hardened, high performer, a pilot becomes more effective, more lethal and more focused as the threat increases.

 

Our role requires us to demonstrate making sense of and acting quickly and clearly in deep complexity and disorder. This level of proficiency is what gets people like us out of bed in the morning. It becomes who we are, not just in the air, but also on the ground, and in our personal lives. High-performance can be trained if the desire to be our best is of the highest importance. In my view, there’s almost nothing a person in the defence services cannot do if they are committed to being their best. The big gun was real and far from a bluff. Our troops needed and received our support that day and my patrol returned safely having thrived in the chaos and complexity that Apache pilots appreciate so much.

High performance can be trained if the desire to be our best is of the highest importance


Maj. Chris Whipp

Served for 17 years in the British Army Air Corp including 2 years with the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter force. His operational experience includes hundreds of missions in multiple aircraft covering reconnaissance, utility, armed, support, maritime and casevac as well as contact engagements in the attack role. As a senior instructor, Chris also became the British Army’s first-ever Apache demonstration pilot in the Blue Eagles Display Team. He served from the Arctic to the desert, including operations in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Chris is a lead trainer for Frontline Mind.