Helicopters -- hard to master, awesome to fly

  • Published
  • By Joe B. Wiles
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The author Tom Clancy said, “Helicopters don’t fly, they vibrate so badly that the ground rejects them.” Capt. Zach Roycroft is one Air Force pilot that can live with that rejection.

“There are no bad jobs for a helicopter pilot -- even in North Dakota,” said Roycroft.

He flew helicopter security escort for the intercontinental ballistic missile mission while assigned to Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. “I hated the winter, which seemed to be 10 months long, but the flying was awesome.”

Roycroft is currently the 71st Operations Group’s chief of Functional Check Flight, and a T-6 Texan II instructor pilot with the 33rd Flying Training Squadron. But his love is flying machines with rotary wings – especially the Bell UH-1 “Huey,” the Air Force’s workhorse helicopter since the early 1960s.

It is his desire to share the rotary-wing awesomeness that motivates Roycroft to organize regular trips to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for other instructor pilots in both the 33rd FTS and the 8th Flying Training Squadron.

Roycroft received his helicopter flight training at Fort Rucker. Through his contacts there, he arranged for IPs and two T-6s to fly to Fort Rucker for graduation ceremonies once a month.

While at Fort Rucker the IPs are briefed on helicopter training and operations, get in some simulator time, and even get some front-seat time to wiggle the sticks – yes, that was plural.

Roycroft wanted to show the fixed-wing pilots that a helicopter is awesome to fly but hard to master.

An added advantage of the monthly trips to Alabama is the chance for a T-6 static display so family and friends of the new helicopter pilots can see what they flew during initial pilot training, said Roycroft.

But the primary reason for starting the monthly visits was to dispel any and all misconceptions about helicopters, especially among the student pilots, said Roycroft.

“In the Air Force, the helicopters are looked down on,” he said. The misconception is that if you aren’t good at pilot training, you can always go helicopters, he said.

But flying a helicopter isn’t easy, said Roycroft. “It’s hard to fly and harder to master.”

Not everyone can do the job. “There are two things that make a good helicopter pilot,” he said. “You have to have good hands and you need the ability to manage a mission well.”

Much of the helicopter mission is rescue operations. “You have to fly, while using your radios, often getting shot at -- especially in the HH-60 Pave Hawk -- and keeping track of the person you are rescuing,” said Roycroft.

Appreciation for the rotary-wing world has grown significantly among the Vance pilots.

“On one of the trips to Fort Rucker, I was in the jump seat of the Huey and an IP who is now flying F-15s in England, was in the front seat, attempting to fly the helicopter,” said Roycroft.

“We were in a field and the instructor told him to hover. He had gotten the lateral control down, but not the forward and backward movement. We were slowly drifting toward the tree line.

“The instructor said, ‘you know we have to stop before we get to the trees,’ and the IP responded, ‘Yeah, that’s not going to happen, you better take it.’”

Roycroft was particularly proud of the time Maj. Dennis Lewis, while he was the 33rd FTS director of operations, came back from a Ft. Rucker trip and said, “I missed my calling… that was the best flying I’ve done.”

Shortly after the visits to Ft. Rucker got started, the word spread. “Other training bases found out about our deal and wanted us to share the love,” he said.

Now the Vance IPs rotate trips to Ft. Rucker with crews from Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, and Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas.

Roycroft is always available to talk with student pilots about the opportunities for helicopter pilots in the Air Force, especially those that fly the Huey.

“There are always two, maybe three students per class that really want a helicopter,” said Roycroft. “It usually goes to someone in the top half of the class. It is pretty competitive.”

One of those students was 2nd Lt. Ahmed Groce. From Long Beach, California, he had always thought airplanes were pretty special. So he attended the Air Force Academy.

“The first time Major (Michael) Volkerding talked with the class about helicopters, he told us about the life-style, what he did, the different jobs and it all sounded exciting to me,” said Groce.

“Got me thinking, helicopters wouldn’t be so bad so I moved it up on my list,” he said.

Another student selected was 2nd Lt. Brandon Schneider. He received his commission through Air Force ROTC at the University of Idaho.

He talked with Roycroft about flying helicopters. “He told me what he had done, what the possibilities were in helicopters, and I was sold,” said Schneider.

“Helicopter flying is all hands-on, no autopilot and you use every inch of your control surface constantly. That sounded like what I was here to do,” said Schneider.

It was Roycroft’s love of helicopters that prompted him to initiate the visits to Ft. Rucker. And that love, and some urging by a former 33rd FTS commander, will soon have him back in helicopters. In November he will rejoin the rotary-wing community through the U.S. Navy’s test pilot school.