FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - Pilots with companies B and C, 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, will be spending three weeks in October sharpening their skills here at Fort Campbell, Ky.
To qualify annually, the pilots must be able to prove their proficiency in certain tasks, from tight turns and rolls to hitting targets accurately.
The AH-64 Apache helicopter aerial gunnery tables consist of day and night time firing. The purpose is to engage and destroy enemy targets efficiently in combat.
"The crews are tested and evaluated (on) how to employ the aircraft in a fast and effective manner," said Capt. Matthew Haselhorst, an assistant operations officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Bn., 101st Avn. Rgt.
Although the pilots are the ones who must hit the target, they simply cannot do their job without the help of those who support them.
Many Soldiers -- not just maintainers and pilots -- put in long hours to make the aerial gunnery happen, Haselhorst said.
Soldiers from Co. E supplied ammunition, while Co. D Soldiers loaded it onto the aircraft and fixed any armament issues, and HHC Soldiers provided communications and medical support.
"It's everybody working in unison to get that job done to qualify these crews. It's a very big team -- a battalion effort to get this done," Haselhorst said.
When lives could be on the line, the ability to work as a synchronized unit is imperative.
"These crews work together, even in Afghanistan -- it's all coordination; it's proficiency for the pilots and the maintainers," said Sgt. 1st Class Corey Phillips, an AH-64 Apache helicopter repairer with Co. B, 3rd Bn., 101st Avn. Rgt.
The last time the crews conducted qualification tables, they were in southern Afghanistan, which brought a different dynamic to the event.
"Out here, this is basically refining our skill sets for employing the weapons on the Apache, compared to downrange," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Marcus Nakamura, an AH-64 Apache pilot with Co. B, 3rd Bn., 101st Avn. Rgt. "Downrange, you're having to (watch) for the enemy."
Phillips, an 18-year veteran, has conducted aerial gunnery ranges in garrison and in combat zones.
"The only difference is the aircraft could possibly get shot at whenever they're doing the gunnery downrange," he said. "You think it's safe, and it's not."
Safety of the crew is essential, and anytime a live-fire training exercise is involved, the risk increases. Simulators allow pilots to train without running the risk of peril.
A computer program can run many different scenarios and obstacles a pilot may encounter, such as weather, enemy fire or a damaged instrument panel.
There are some things, though, that require hands-on training.
"You can actually feel the aircraft maneuver," Nakamura said. "The simulators, there is a little bit of motion in them, but you don't actually get the feel of the aircraft when you go into a dive or when you're coming back up for a climb. You don't get the recoil from the weapon, or the feel of the aircraft as it's firing. It's always better to do the real thing."
If practice makes perfect, these crew members want to be well-practiced. It's the repetition that creates the muscle memory, which Soldiers need when they encounter potential danger.
"The more repetition we get with battle drills -- that's why they were created -- you get that muscle memory where it comes down to where you have to use that skill, it's automatic," Nakamura said. "A lot of the skills we know and use, if we don't put them into action, we'll end up losing them. We'll lose the muscle memory."
Eventually, muscle memory becomes a natural response.
"It becomes instinctual -- you don't have to think about it and you just do it. It becomes a faster process," Haselhorst said.
Hitting the mark is not the only target during this three-week exercise. Soldiers working together to unify a team is the bigger picture.
"It brings cohesion to the team, first of all -- and it brings bullets to the targets," Phillips said.
"Ultimately, it's just to make a better force, create a better military force," Nakamura said. "That way, when we do employ these weapons we do have, it doesn't miss because I've gone through the training."