ATLANTIC, North Carolina — More than 50 Soldiers assigned to the Virginia Army National Guard’s Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Infantry Division traveled to Marine Corps Outlying Field Atlantic in Atlantic, North Carolina, to conduct aerial door gunnery from their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters April 4-7, 2019.
“Aerial gunnery is the culminating training event for an aviation battalion,” explained Staff Sgt. Ryan Datema, the incoming battalion standardization instructor. “Units must develop a gunnery training program that meets individual, aircrew and collective gunnery requirements.”
The group of Soldiers included 16 crew chiefs and five Black Hawks which took part in the four-day event that provided a valuable training opportunity, not only for the crew chiefs, but also for pilots and support personnel of the battalion.
“I’ve noticed over the years that we need to facilitate training for what we see in theater,” explained Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Romero, the outgoing battalion standardization instructor. “We were looking for an opportunity that allowed us to shoot out both sides of the aircraft and emphasize the crew coordination piece that needs to occur when Soldiers are shooting.”
Romero explained that in a real situation, the crew chief doesn’t just pick a target and shoot at it.
“There’s a lot of communication that’s going on between people up front and the people in back,” he said. “So we needed an opportunity to use the whole azimuth of the gun as well as work the crew coordination piece.”
Aerial door gunnery is an Army annual requirement designed to sustain proficiency and increase lethality. The training actually began months ago, with academic instruction. The crew chiefs then got familiarized with the M240 machine gun by firing on land. Finally they traveled to North Carolina to conduct the culminating event from the air.
“These live-fire tables have been a build-up of primary marksmanship instruction and academics for the machine gun, a ground fire and familiarization in both air and ground modes for the weapons system,” Datema said. “Crew coordination training using a simulator where aircrews practice target identification and hand off, they are also practicing maneuvering the aircraft into positions that allow the gunner the most effective use of the weapons system.”Crews were required to fire the M240 in daylight, including while wearing their gas mask, and at night while wearing night vision goggles.
The unit forecast enough ammunition for everyone to get multiple iterations on the range. In total, each crew chief fired about 800 rounds during the day and 600 rounds at night, for a total of close to 1,500 rounds.
“Firing and using the weapons system is something a simulator just cannot replicate as good as the real sights, sounds and smells of aviation gunnery,” Datema said.
While the crew chiefs are the ones firing, it’s the aircrews who are being evaluated, not the individuals.
“The evaluators are looking to ensure the aircrew can communicate positively, engage the identified target in sufficient time, and effectively suppress or destroy that target,” Datema said. “I would say this is an exercise in communication. Furthermore the aircrew is working to effectively employ the weapons systems in a three-dimensional battle space.”
But the value to the event wasn’t just to the crew chiefs and the aviators. The training also exercised many other tasks for the battalion.
“Our flight operations personnel provided aircraft tracking and ensured every flight was recorded to assist in capturing aircrew flight time and maintenance requirements,” said Capt. Jason Simulcik, the battalion assistant operations officer. “Our fuelers successfully self-deployed and redeployed two HEMTTs (Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck) over 280 miles one way to provide hot refuel capability to keep the gunnery operation on timeline. The aircraft did not have to shut down and restart which would have taken too much valuable training time.”
In addition to the 2-224th Aviation Soldiers, two medical personnel from Virginia Army National Guard Medical Command provided support during the training event.
“These small, forward deployments allow for the unit commanders to exercise moving their troops and resources,” Datema said. “Executing door gunnery took months of planning between all the battalion staff and the respective support companies. From forecasting ammunition requirements, aircraft availability, port-a-johns, number of personnel, housing requirements, training site arrangement, meal requirements, etc. This is highly complex with a lot of moving parts.”
“Being that Fort Pickett and Fort A.P. Hill are so close to home station, the trip to Atlantic, N.C. is a rare opportunity for the junior aviator to see what some of the longer legs in overseas operations looks like,” Simulcik added.
This qualification was an individual aircrew one, Datema explained, and is a build up to a collective, multi-ship gunnery where multiple aircraft and aircrews will be exercising the same foundation elements of aviation gunnery, and then applying them with more resources available.
“With the ability to work joint service at Cherry Point in the future really allows us to replicate what the aircrews would encounter in the battlespace,” Datema said. “We could move forward to the next training event for example having a JTAC calling in targets and azimuths to our aircrews or having an F-18 orbiting above at high altitudes and laze the targets for the aircrews. The battlefield is such a complex environment, we are very limited in Virginia trying to replicate what the crewmembers may see downrange, and Cherry Point allows for the opportunity to do so in real time.”