The ADF Joint Helicopter School hits its stride
“Always push for excellence in whatever you do,” Commander Fleet Air Arm CDRE Chris Smallhorn told graduates of the ADF’s new Joint Helicopter School.
Operating within the Navy’s 723 Squadron at HMAS Albatross, Nowra, the Joint Helicopter School (JHS) has been established to train Navy and Army pilots, aviation warfare officers and helicopter aircrew, using 15 Airbus Helicopters EC135 T2s, three Thales EC135 Reality H full-flight simulators, and advanced training aids acquired under the Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS) program.
The JHS is the culmination of a new approach which sought to draw together trainee aircrew for the Army and Navy with a view to providing initial training for the next generation of helicopter aircrew.
Twenty-eight graduates of No.1 Pilot, Aviation Warfare Officer (AWO) and Aircrewman courses were presented their wings by CMDRE Smallhorn on August 31. “You are now off on the next phase of your careers where you will be tested even further,” CDRE Smallhorn told the graduates, who had begun their training in mid-January.
Now, with those graduates already on their way to operational squadrons, ADBR’s stablemate Australian Aviation visited Nowra to gain insights into this thoroughly modern training facility.
A NEW APPROACH
The AIR 9000 Phase 7 HATS acquisition program aimed to “provide a new training system incorporating both live and synthetic training elements to consolidate Navy and Army helicopter training into a single joint helicopter aircrew training system”.
In doing so, not only would training be focused on a single site at HMAS Albatross, but it would see the retirement of Army’s Bell 206 Kiowas and Navy’s AS350 Squirrels. After years of loyal service, these single-engined machines were replaced by the thoroughly modern twin-engined EC135 which is far more representative of today’s frontline helicopter types.
Candidates undertaking pilot training will have completed their fixed-wing training before arriving at 723SQN. Previously, this had involved a period at the BAE Systems-operated Basic Flying Training School (BFTS) at Tamworth, before Army candidates move onto the School of Army Aviation at Oakey. Navy student pilots, meanwhile, continue their training on the Pilatus PC-9 with 2FTS at RAAF Pearce, before moving to rotary-wing training with 723SQN on the Squirrel.
The divergence in training pathways for Army and Navy pilots reflects the fact that Army pilot graduates become co-pilots in a two-pilot operating environment, while Navy needs to develop embarked single-pilot, multi-crew captains for the MH‑60R Seahawk Romeo.
The standing up of the JHS comes as ADF fixed-wing pilot training is also undergoing a generational change in re-equipping and consolidation under the AIR 5428 Pilot Training System (PTS). That project will see Army and Navy pilots undergoing initial training with the RAAF at 1FTS at RAAF East Sale flying the new Pilatus PC-21, and Navy pilots continuing their training at 2FTS at Pearce, also on the PC-21.
This joint service co-operation and integration is a constant theme across the modern ADF.
TRAINING TO FIGHT AND WIN
723SQN is now responsible for the initial helicopter conversion training for all Navy and Army aircrew. Its squadron crest and motto, ‘Wings of the Albatross’, sits high above the entrance to the new state-of-the-art building, and a large-scale model of the new MV Sycamore aviation training vessel occupies the foyer.
A nearby banner succinctly states the purpose of the JHS: “To create professional and resilient aircrew with sound decision-making and teamwork skills to effectively fight and win in the land and maritime environment”.
In the generously-sized meal room, 723SQN commanding officer CMDR Bruce Willington provided an overview of the squadron and HATS before we set out on a tour of the facility, periodically interrupting himself to point out one or another young aircrew member that he has flown with, emphasising how well the new training system is preparing them before they even set foot in a helicopter. CMDR Willington noted the varied background of the candidates from within the ADF, from infantry soldiers to submariners and more.
The architecture, materials and design used in the construction of 723SQN’s new buildings have produced a facility that resembles a modern university, with high ceilings, wide hallways and lots of light lending themselves to the learning process. On the walls are large signs that reflect the purpose of that section of the building, with dot points to remind students of the process. Plan – Brief – Execute – Debrief. Simple and concise, but ever-present.
The various classrooms are purpose-built and labelled accordingly. Specialised facilities at 723SQN Squadron include computer stations that allow sensor operators to simulate operations, with the overall picture projected onto a large screen on the wall. There are interactive rooms where massive screens allow for the training of marshallers, and virtual helicopters that don’t respond if the marshalling signal is incorrect.
The three full-motion Cat B flight simulators offer realistic wrap-around visuals that complement the cockpit of the EC135. To the rear of the simulator is the instructor station where various scenarios can be inputted, paused and repeated as needed.
Further, these actions can be actioned wirelessly via a tablet, allowing the instructor to sit in a control seat if needed. Gone are the cumbersome cables or the need for the instructor to take the simulator off motion to move from the rear seat – the instructor can remain harnessed in the front.
For crewmen, there is a simple open-framed mockup of an EC135 cockpit and cabin. Very simple in design, it sits atop a grey painted wooden deck (wooden so that it’s non-magnetic). But its simplicity belies its purpose and value – it is a cabin trainer for crewmen with the aid of modern virtual reality. From within the cabin, a virtual sortie can be conducted with actual winch controls and a vertical green cable offering tactile inputs to the operator.
Without the expense of an operational helicopter, candidates can practice their procedures and ‘patter’ repeatedly until they are embedded, thus freeing up valuable brain-space when they ultimately enter the dynamic realm of the helicopter. On the outside of the device, a screen projects what is being viewed by the wearer of the headset, allowing other candidates to observe as they await their turn.
On the second story of the facility – fittingly named Squirrel – another room holds the fuselage of a second-hand decommissioned EC135. Painted and fitted out ‘to spec’, it allows trainees to become conversant with their workspace. The seat mechanisms, the doors, the framework, winch and skids are all just as they will experience on the flight line.
The fuselage can be used for egress training, but there is more. The adjacent floor can slide away to reveal the view down to the ground at the level of the building’s entrance, where an ‘X marks the spot’. Here the trainees can get used to winching various pieces of equipment up and down, gain an appreciation of height and the importance of the harness, again all before they enter the aircraft.
There are briefing and debriefing rooms at every turn, but in keeping with the logical flow of the building. Upstairs is also home to the instructors and the various stakeholders – Army, Navy and industry partners Boeing and Thales. Again, the design facilitates cooperation between all of the parties involved which can only aid the process in terms of time and resources.
The building is also host to a generously sized theatre where the signage ‘PBED’ reflects that all elements can come together in this room. Outside, a digital screen lists the sorties for the day, and a trophy cabinet is set to a backdrop of photos of Fleet Air Arm aircraft of the past. Heritage is valued, even in the presence of the future.
Across the road is the complex’s second main building, this time named Kiowa. In this second foyer, the walls bear the images of the Army’s extensive aviation heritage. The Australian Army Aviation Corps’ badge, comprising a silver eagle above crossed swords and the motto ‘Vigilance’, completes the picture.
It is within these walls that the trainees move from the classroom to the helicopter. They are met by a room filled with life support equipment that includes helmets, life vests, immersion suits and much more. Beyond is access to the apron, where the trainees take flight, while other rooms are occupied by maintenance planners.
The facility is driven by Boeing’s management solutions, from the computers to the indoor bays that are home to a row of EC135s in various stages of maintenance. Their black and yellow paint scheme is intended for high visibility, while on either side of the fin above the Fenestron-shrouded tail rotor are yellow bands reading ‘Army’ on one side of the airframe and ‘Navy’ on the other.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Given the incredible amount of change and complexity of implementation, the fact that the first JHS course graduated only slightly behind schedule in late August is an achievement to be admired.
It is also a record of which Commander Fleet Air Arm (COMFAA) CDRE Smallhorn is rightly proud. As he highlights, it has been achieved against the backdrop of one of the most dynamic periods in the FAA’s history. In all, 29 aircraft have been retired and 39 introduced, while not a single aircraft remains in service that was a part of the FAA only a decade ago.
Nearly 60 aircrew have now been trained on the new Romeo over the past two years, while the Navy also recently commissioned its first squadron dedicated to unmanned aircraft, 822x Squadron.
Both CDRE Smallhorn and CMDR Willington agree that rather than joint Army-Navy aircrew training potentially being a source of friction, combining the two services alongside civilian instructors and contractors has brought a range of benefits.
Army instructors, for example, bring with them a wealth of night vision goggle (NVG) flying experience, while Navy instructors have considerable expertise in deck landings, now an essential skill for Army aviators who can expect to regularly operate that service’s operational MRH 90 and CH-47F helicopters off the Navy’s Canberra class LHD amphibious assault ships.
To that end the JHS can utilise the MV Sycamore, a newly-delivered dedicated aviation training vessel which has drawn high praise since entering service earlier this year. In the past, coordinating a Navy ship to be on hand for deck training had always been a difficult exercise in logistics. This has been relieved by the arrival of the Sycamore.
And while aviation deck training is the vessel’s prime purpose, it can be utilised in other training roles such as diving support, mine warfare, target towing, torpedo recovery and even sea familiarisation for new entry officers and sailor recruits.
At an even deeper level, as the JHS trainees move on through their careers the inter-service relationships and understanding they develop from their first day can only aid the ADF as a whole in the future. Even so, the heritage, customs, lessons and identity of the individual services are still preserved and apparent from the uniforms to the various images of aircraft and personnel that adorn the walls.
The JHS at HMAS Albatross is without doubt a well-conceived and equipped facility. However, tools are only as good as the humans that operate them, and it is evident that the implementation of technology under HATS has considered this in depth.
With one eye cast to its heritage and a focus firmly on what modern training systems have to offer, JHS is not just prepared for the future – in some ways, it’s already there.
This feature appeared in the November-December 2018 issue of ADBR, and for which Owen Zupp was recognised as the runner-up in the Boeing Defence Feature category at the 2019 Australasian Aviation Press Club awards.