Story by SGT Christie Smith on 04/19/2017By Sgt. Christie Smith
Black Hawk pilots and crewmembers with the Iowa Army National Guard have been given an opportunity to train on a first-of-its-kind flight simulator at the Camp Dodge Joint Maneuver Training Center in Johnston, Iowa.
The Black Hawk Aircrew Trainer, simply referred to as the "BAT," is a highly immersive, home-station flight training device for the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter, a modernized version of the UH-60. While the BAT boasts many advantages over past simulators, its primary purpose is to prepare pilots for situations they hope will never happen.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Travis Vanlengen, a Black Hawk instructor pilot with Company C, 2nd Brigade, 147th Aviation Battalion, of Boone, Iowa, is a certified BAT instructor-operator whose "day job" is to train pilots on this unique simulator.
"The BAT allows us to train pilots in situations we hope they never find themselves in," Vanlengen said. "Whether it be emergency procedures we cannot simulate in the aircraft, or to train pilots in threat scenarios, so they know how to properly react when they're exposed to those threats in Afghanistan, or Iraq or future environments."
Instructor-operators, like Vanlengen, are able to adjust outside factors in the simulator by increasing adverse weather conditions like cloud cover, or icing, or by introducing any variation of enemy fire.
"It also gives me the capability of inducing hundreds of emergency procedures by failing certain systems in the helicopter and having the pilots react accordingly," Vanlengen said.
These failures can include dual-engine failure, a fire in-flight, tail rotor malfunction, or various other mechanical failures which are often fatal in actual aircraft, Vanlengen said.
The idea of the BAT is not revolutionary. Flight simulators have long been a core of pilot training, according to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steven Stumbo, a standardization instructor pilot at Company C, 2nd Brigade, 147th Aviation Battalion, of Boone, Iowa, and the unit's training officer.
Before the BAT made its way to Camp Dodge in November 2016, Iowa pilots had to travel to Camp Ripley, Minn., Fort Riley, Kan., or Camp Grayling, Mich., to fulfill their simulator requirements. Based on the distance of these training facilities, pilots were mandated only six hours annually.
"Having the BAT at Camp Dodge is huge for us, because now we can send people down on an additional flight training period and they can get their simulator time without leaving the state of Iowa," Stumbo said. With the proximity of the BAT, Iowa pilots now have a mandatory 18 hours of simulator training each year, in addition to 96 hours of actual flight time.
"Now we're going from just meeting minimum standards to maintaining or increasing proficiency," Stumbo said.
The BAT is set apart from other simulators, first by its design. According to Vanlengen, the BAT is built from actual UH-60M parts, ensuring simulator training is realistic and current.
"This trainer utilizes a whole real front end of a helicopter, using actual components from the helicopter," Vanlengen said. "In terms of going between the helicopter and the simulator, there's no difference in the functionality of it the buttons [pilots] are pushing, the procedures they go through, are the exact same between the helicopter and the simulator."
Another benefit to the BAT's real-world design, Vanlengen said, is its ability to be updated as soon as the fleets are. Previously, simulators lagged behind the fleet when updates to the birds had to be recreated for the simulator a problem which could be amplified for the new UH-60M, the most technologically advanced Black Hawk to date, equipped with a fully operational autopilot, GPS coupling and a moving map display.
In addition to efficiency, the use of actual Black Hawk parts, combined with improved screen technology, allows pilots to train with full night vision goggle capability, something which was previously not possible.
"This is the most realistic simulator that I've flown," Vanlengen said. "This is a much more capable simulator for full tactical training."
Ultimately, the bottom line for the BAT is dollars. Vanlengen said the $9 million simulator is much more cost-effective for regular training than a $17 million Black Hawk, which costs around $4,500 per flight hour in fuel and upkeep. From conception to operation, the BAT has proved a cost-saving venture.
"The BAT is the only simulator that is actually Army-owned," Vanlengen said. So Army contractors, rather than outsourced contractors, are building, maintaining and functioning it.
The Iowa Army National Guard's BAT is not the first BAT built, nor will it be the last. A prototype, which was unveiled last May, currently serves pilots at Fort Carson, Colo., according to the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center. The first permanently-fielded BAT calls Fort Hood, Texas, home. Eventually, 11 other BATs will be built and based strategically throughout the U.S. for Army pilot training.
For now, Iowa's BAT is the only one in the National Guard's inventory, according to Vanlengen.
Iowa's BAT currently serves approximately 130 aviators per year from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota, providing a combined 2,030 hours of training, Vanlengen said, saving the U.S. Army and the taxpayer thousands of dollars.
For Stumbo, a veteran pilot and the officer responsible for training his company of assault pilots, the value of the BAT is not just cost-saving, it's life-saving.
"Emergency procedures can happen whether it's peacetime here in the states, or oversees on a deployment," Stumbo said. "Mechanical failures don't happen very often, but when they do, having the crew trained to deal with those emergency procedures can mean the difference of survivability or not."