US Army, December 30, 2011 - FORT RILEY, Kan. -- A new helicopter is coming to the Block. The 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, is the first unit in the Army to have their entire fleet of Apache helicopters replaced with the comprehensively upgraded Apache (AH-64D) Block III beginning in February.
"There are new components to the aircraft -- new head tracker, a new helmet and new flight pages," said Lt. Col. Edward Vedder, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Bn., commander. "It takes some getting used to."
The Apache Block III incorporates 26 new technologies designed to enhance the aircraft's capabilities including an updated communication system, engines, transmission and drive shaft. The composite rotor blades have also been reworked to make them more efficient and produce more lift.
"It doesn't take additional skills to fly it, but the aircraft is significantly different," said Vedder.
Because of these differences the 1-1 pilots are going back to school and receiving three weeks of training at Boeing's facility in Mesa, Ariz., where the aircraft is manufactured. The pilots get 28 hours of academics, 24 hours in the new simulator and 8.5 hours flying in the Block III helicopter. Maintenance test pilots get an additional 22 hours of academics and three additional hours in the aircraft.
"The training is packed into a busy three-week schedule," said Shawn Hopan, the training lead for Boeing's Apache program manager's office. "We only train currently qualified Apache pilots."
Even for the experienced pilots like Vedder, who has flown Apaches since 1995, the new Block III took some getting used to.
"A Block II, it has a certain level of power when you pick it up. This is totally different," explained Vedder, who has flown in all three predecessors, including the AH-64A and the AH-64D Longbow -- Block I and block II, to the Block III. "When you pick this aircraft up you are going to immediately feel the power difference and when you go into forward flight it wants to go about 150 MPH.
"It has a lot of power and is by far the most powerful and most impressive of them all," he said.
While at the Mesa facility the pilots not only became qualified on the new Apache, but also got to meet the Boeing people who designed and are building the aircraft.
"It is an excellent opportunity to come out here and learn and see everything, (to) get to see the other side where the aircraft came from," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shawn Witt. "You get to see the people behind the scenes, who put in a lot of time and energy so that we can have this piece of equipment in order to do our job."
The new Apache has a couple added features which will allow Witt and other Apache pilots to do their job in inclement weather. The helicopters now have the capability to fly in weather conditions that previously would have grounded them.
"In the past if we had to get somewhere we had to wait for the weather to clear. Now we have capability, much like the Black Hawks and Chinooks, to launch aircraft and fly in the clouds," Vedder said. "The Block III has an instrument package that rivals a 747. It is fantastic and very intuitive to fly."
But the new Apache has the ability to do something the 747 cannot.
"The Block III is able to communicate with unmanned aircraft, the pilots are able to see the UAV's video," Hopan said. "To my knowledge no other aircraft has this capability."
"Teaming up with the UAV is essentially another aircraft out there working with us to give us a better angle, better picture of what is happening," said Witt. "This makes for a better situation for the war fighters on the ground because we have more information."
But seeing what the UAV sees is not the extent of this new capability. With a couple taps on their computers the Apache pilots can take control of the UAV, eliminating the time needed to tell the UAV operator where the pilots need the UAV to "look."
"It's an extra workload for us, but it is very workable and manageable," said Witt. "It is a really good system that they have worked out here for us."
Vedder and Witt were two of the first 10 Apache pilots who went through Boeing's class on the Block III. Five were from 1-1, while the others were from Fort Rucker, Ala.
The "Gunfighters" have 70 Apache pilot slots and there are an additional 15 Apache pilot slots in the CAB. They all need the training before they can start flying the new aircraft.
Seventy-five of these pilots will get their training at the Mesa facility, while the rest will be trained at Fort Riley by a mobile training team later in 2012. This training schedule will ensure that all Apache pilots in the brigade are trained on the Block III before their next deployment.
"The Block III gives us the ability to get where we are needed very fast, much faster than we ever have before. And, with the integration of the UAV sensor we can be more informed when we show up to provide lethal effects in support of the ground forces," said Vedder." It is really going to change the game for attack aviation."