36th RQF pilots get the job done
By Tech. Sgt. Larry W. Carpenter Jr. , 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 21, 2007
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- The sky is pitch black; you can only see a green haze through your night vision goggles as you skirt the treetops at 50 feet. The snow is blowing and the wind gusting. It seems like everything that could happen to make the mission more difficult is taking place. Holding the aircraft steady so the flight engineer can lower a stokes litter to the ground for a rescue is a chore.
As nerve racking as this may sound, it is just another day in the life of a 36th Rescue Flight pilot.
All Air Force helicopter pilots start their helicopter-specific training in the UH-1H Huey at Fort Rucker, after first flying the T-37 or T-6 fixed-wing aircraft in basic pilot training. The pilots at the 36th RQF have the opportunity to fly the UH-1N, which is bigger than the HU-1H, comes with two engines and is equipped with a hoist.
"The hoist is what gives us the ability to support the survival school and the rescue mission the way we do," said Capt. Mike Volkerding, UH-1N aircraft commander. "The hoist is huge."
In an Air Force that is focused on modernization, it seems helicopters play second fiddle to the fixed wing aircraft in the inventory. But, don't tell this to a helicopter pilot, especially a pilot in the 36th RQF. Inside a helicopter, the pilots have a lot more maneuverability and control of the aircraft.
"In a helicopter, we can hover, fly backward, slide left and right and can even go straight up and down," said Captain Volkerding. "It's very three dimensional, we're much more maneuverable than a fixed wing aircraft...in my opinion."
Helicopters, due to the nature of the missions there asked to accomplish, generally fly lower than fixed wing aircraft, which can add another element of difficulty to the pilot's mission.
"It's a lot of fun flying down at 50 feet over river beds, literally dodging birds," said Captain Volkerding.
The helicopters of the 36th RQF fly are what most could call "vintage". They are aircraft that have been in service since the Vietnam conflict, but continue to serve the Air Force well. Though modernization programs continue to upgrade systems in the Huey, it's still a very hands-on aircraft.
That one fact alone makes for one of the trickiest aspects of flying the Huey, according to Captain Volkerding.
"In the Huey, the pilots fly the aircraft. There is no autopilot at all," he said. "It's tricky in the sense that you can't set a computer to hold an altitude and just monitor the systems. It's very dynamic in that you always have to be making inputs."
In order to put in the time and dedication, it's understood that pilots enjoy flying the Huey. But flying isn't the only thing, especially to the members of the 36th RQF.
"I enjoy working with the crew to get the job done, whether it's a survival training exercise or an actual save," said Captain Volkerding. "I love the crew concept and working together as one cohesive unit."
The Huey is a very crew-oriented aircraft. Therefore, when the aircraft is in flight everyone is referred to by their crew position.
The pilot flies the aircraft but as aircraft commander, their duties and responsibilities start long before the aircraft gets off the ground. The aircraft commander directs the crew, making sure the flight engineer and co-pilot have their assigned tasks to ensure the mission is safe as possible.
"As aircraft commander, my job is to manage the crew and put it all together," said Captain Volkerding. "There are a lot of pre-mission things that take place, from planning, pre-flight inspection of the aircraft and ensuring the aircraft is equipped the way we need it."
Therefore, the pilots of the 36th RQF will continue to hone there skills and abilities to fly their helicopters into whatever terrain they must in order to accomplish the missions of the rescue flight.
(This is the last article in a three-part series on the 36th RQF.)