BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (Jan. 24, 2013) – A small helicopter idles on a flight line, ready to fly. The rotor blades slap the icy afternoon Afghanistan air. Through the pilot's side door looms the formidable shadow of a beast, breathing furiously, waiting to be unleashed into flight.
Platoon instructor pilot for Troop C, 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Seth Armstrong, poses for a quick photo near the flight line on Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Jan. 24, 2013. Armstrong pilots OH-58 Kiowa helicopters, supporting ground forces on the battlefield. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Anna Rutherford, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
“That's definitely one intimidating looking aircraft,” says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Seth Armstrong, Troop C, 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), as he stares at the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter sitting perpendicular to his OH-58 Kiowa helicopter on Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
Armstrong is a platoon instructor pilot with Troop C. All the glamour and glitz of being a pilot aside, what keeps this soldier serving is a complex combination of his experience as an airborne infantryman and prior deployment experience.
“I serve because I like to work with the ground guys and to help them out, make it a little easier on them, to keep them out of harm's way as much as possible – that's the big drive behind why we do what I do,” said Armstrong. “I think they know that come hell or high water, we're coming if we're called. It's something to be proud of - that those guys trust you to come help them.”
Armstrong, much like his helicopter, has a small frame and stature. However, he quickly proves that looks are deceiving as he deftly pumps the pedals and works the controls, making the aircraft lean into the wind as the concrete ground fades away to a hazy landscape. The aircraft quickly becomes an extension of the pilot as he makes the helicopter turn and manuever with careful ease and precision. His movements are effortless, deliberate and almost too natural for an individual who originally didn't plan on joining the military.
“I've always wanted to be in the military in some regard, [but] that wasn't my original plan,” said Armstrong. “I graduated college and it was hard to find a job, so the Army offered to pay for my school and give me a paycheck.”
With time, Armstrong quickly found his relationship with the military blossoming into a fulfilling career motivated by sense of duty.
“I think this is a fight that has to be fought,” he said. “Somebody's got to go do it.”
Armstrong's military career didn't begin in aviation, though. His poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot so his foundation comes from the infantry.
“I came in originally to be a pilot, but I couldn't because my eyes were too bad,” Armstrong said. “So I joined the infantry, then paid for LASIK out of my own pocket, put my packet in and here I am.”
On this chilly day, Armstrong flies alongside two soldiers piloting an Apache attack helicopter: U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Les McNellie, brigade master gunner for 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, and experimental test pilot Maj. Joseph Minor.
The combination of the two aircraft are designated a “Pink Team.” The name describes a hunter-killer team, in which one element of the team acts as a spotter or “hunter” and the other element is the attacker or “killer.” The Pink Team concept is the same as a sniper-spotter team.
“We are out there to find the enemy,” said Armstrong. “[We] try to discern if it's a farmer or a Taliban fighter. So the attack helicopters will support us, covering us with their heavier fire power.”
Regardless of their separate jobs and drastically different statures, the team is united in one mission.
“My favorite part about being an attack helicopter pilot is supporting the ground forces,” said McNellie. “Defending the guys on the ground, making their job easier and making sure they go home. The other gratifying part is the ability to train, lead and mentor young warrants.”
Armstrong has the same perspective as McNellie.
“There's something about having a helicopter overhead when you're the ground guy and people are shooting at you,” said Armstrong. “It makes it feel like everything's going to be OK. You can hear it in their voice on the radio – you can hear the anxiety. Once helicopters show up putting fire down, [we're] able to turn the tide on the enemy. It's all about supporting the ground guys.”
As Armstrong flies his small aircraft near McNellie and Minor's attack helicopter, the slapping sound of rotor blades is drowned out by the deep popping sound of a large weapon and the sound of rounds impacting into a hillside. The Apache and Kiowa break away only to return to the same hillside and make another run, putting more rounds of ammunition into the hillside. The movements are perfectly synched.
An outdoorsman, Armstrong has taken his hobbies from his civilian life and found a way to continue the activities in his military career.
“[I enjoy] hunting, camping, hiking, that kind of thing. Here we go hunting for Taliban,” he jokes.
After the firing is complete, Armstrong turns the aircraft around to head back to the base, making tight turns and banking movements. The Kiowa sweeps the air above a stream and snakes its way along the length of the fast glistening water. Behind his shaded visor, Armstrong looks completely at ease, but alert as he steers the helicopter through seemingly difficult turns and movements. It's no mystery why this soldier is charged with the duties of instructing new pilots.
“It has a lot of job satisfaction to it,” said Armstrong. “To see a guy who's struggling, trying to learn a skill and then watch that person progress to where they're a pilot-in-command and now they're teaching the new guy.”
In the meantime, Armstrong plans on making the Army his career until retirement.
“Every job has its ups and downs,” said Armstrong. “But it's a good job. It's fun, we get to make a difference, I get to help that 19-year-old go home. It's about keeping the guys on the ground safe.”
By Army Staff Sgt. Anna Rutherford
Provided through DVIDS
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