Career Profile: Army Rotary Wing Aviator

PaveHawk
David Birkbeck

As a child of the 80’s, my original inspiration for joining the military was to be Tom Cruise -- the Top Gun in a leather flight jacket, not the couch-jumping dude we’ve got now. I intended to enlist in the Marine Corps first, then take advantage of one of their enlisted commissioning programs to become a naval aviator.

While I don’t regret my decision (though so many years later, my only claim to wearing a leather flight jacket is that I found a cheap one on eBay) I do secretly wish someone had clued me into the odd little gem that is the Army’s Warrant Officer Flight Training (WOFT) Program.

While the Navy, Marines, and Air Force all require a four-year degree and an officer’s commission to fly, the Army lets high school graduates jump in the cockpit of a helicopter. If only they had invested in a good recruiting poster film like the Navy did, I might have found out sooner -- because as much as I liked, crashing in the middle of Somalia somehow didn’t seem as sexy as hitting the afterburners or fraternizing with my flight instructor right under Michael Ironside’s nose.

In the Army, Rotary Wing Aviators (helicopter pilots) are still officers, but not the commissioned variety. They’re Warrant Officers, the military’s solution to making officers out of highly trained technical experts without saddling them with the same burdens of command and politics faced by lieutenants and above. Most Warrant Officers in any service branch are prior enlisted, with about a decade of experience in their field of expertise, but the Army makes an exception for aviation.

Military guidelines/requirements

The Warrant Officer Flight Training Program is open to US citizens at least 18 but no older than 33 years, who have passed the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery with a score of at least 110 on the General Technical section of the test. Would-be flyers must also take the Flight Aptitude Selection Test and score at least 90.

And of course, because you kind of need to see where you’re going when you’re flying a multi-million-dollar aircraft, you must pass appropriate physical examinations and have vision no worse than 20/50 (correctable to 20/20).

Education

As I said earlier, the WOFT program is remarkable among entry-level officer programs in that it requires only a high school diploma -- no degree, no prior experience. But don’t get cocky. If you’re accepted, the Army starts you out in Basic Combat Training (boot camp) like any other enlisted soldier, to make sure you understand you’re not just in the Boy (or Girl) Scouts.

After boot camp comes the six-week Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS). If you’ve already read about commissioned officers, then WOCS is exactly what it sounds like – a variation on Officer Candidate School tailored specifically for Warrant Officers. After all of this, you are officially promoted to Warrant Officer and will have the privilege of saluting absolutely everyone in the Army. (This common jibe in the military refers to the fact that because they rank above the enlisted and below commissioning officers, Warrant Officers spend a lot of time either returning soldiers' salutes or saluting their superiors.)​

Finally, brand new Warrant Officers head to ten months of flight training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Like other flight training programs, everyone begins with a single basic aircraft -- in this case the TH-67 Creek helicopter – that’s not used in active service but gives students a firm foundation in piloting. As they gain experience, student pilots then move on to specialize in the specific helicopter they’ll fly for the rest of their career.

CW3 Bernie Smith, an experienced Blackhawk pilot, wrote this helpful article in which he kindly reminds us that your choice of aircraft isn’t necessarily your choice at all – it depends strongly on your performance in school and which positions the Army is looking to fill. So it’s important to go for a program like this with flying and soldiering as your primary motivations, rather than having your heart set on a particular aircraft.

No matter which bird you get, pilots graduate with a whopping 179 hours of stick time under their belts, according to Fort Rucker’s website.

Duties and Responsibilities

Army helo pilots fly every type of combat and support mission under the sun, including those not under the sun. (Flying with night vision goggles sounds fun until you’ve seen how disorienting they are.) The Army’s Warrant Officer Recruiting site lists, among other missions in the pilot’s repertoire, “reconnaissance, security, gunnery, rescue, air assault, mine/flare delivery, internal/external load, and paradrop/rappelling operations.”

These missions can also vary depending on the pilot’s aircraft specialty:

  • The UH-60 Blackhawk performs a variety of transport missions for the Army, including troop movement and medical evacuations.
  • The AH-64 Apache is, at least in my eyes, the helicopter equivalent of a fighter jet. Though not as fast as jets, of course, Apaches are small, light, fierce beasts that exist to support the ground troops by raining bullets and bombs on the enemy.
  • The OH-58 Kiowa Warrior performs reconnaissance missions.
  • The CH-47 Chinook, with its twin rotors, has been pulling duty as a troop transport and heavy equipment lifter since the Vietnam era.

Warrant Officer pilots may also pull collateral duties not directly related to flying (which is a given for anyone in the military). But unlike commissioned officers, they remained focused throughout their careers on being expert pilots, not pursuing larger command positions.

It’s no walk in the park, but as I see it, the Warrant Officer Flight Training Program is a remarkable opportunity to dive into a career as a pilot and a professional soldier, especially for those who can’t wait for (or afford) a four-year degree to start getting their hands dirty.