Perspectives: Ian Feyk, United States Army
Written by Ian Feyk   
My name is Ian Feyk, and I fly Chinook helicopters for the United States Army. Like most, my fascination with flying began at a very young age.

When I was ten years old, my parents took me to an old barn-storming type air show where they sold aerobatic rides for $50. My parents signed me up. The wait was horribly long, and as dusk approached it looked like I wouldn’t be able to get my turn. I could tell my parents were getting tired of waiting, especially when they started offering to pay me off to leave.

Well, it wasn’t going to happen. I was going to get my ride!

Soon, it was very clear my folks had had enough, so I made my move. When the old bi-plane landed to pickup the next on the list, I was already moving toward the aircraft, putting on the parachute, and climbing in before the actual person who was next on the list knew they had “volunteered” their spot to an eager kid.

It was a blast – from take off to barrel-roll to loop to landing, I was hooked. I knew I was going to be a pilot.

The next time I was behind the controls of an aircraft wasn’t until 15 years later.

I grew up in Germany, and flight training really wasn’t an option there. After I graduated high school, I enlisted in the Army as in infantryman and spent the next five years being a grunt. I never thought I had the money or the opportunity to learn to fly back then, but I remember being extraordinarily jealous of a buddy of mine who started taking flight lessons. He had never even wanted to fly before, but he still did it anyway! Still, that apparently wasn’t enough motivation for me, and I transitioned out of the Army into college and ROTC so I could become an Aviation Officer.

I was determined to fly helicopters for the Army and finally quench the thirst for flight. Aviation turned out to be quite a competitive branch to earn – there were no guarantees I was going to get it. So, I studied hard, got good grades, performed well in ROTC and learned my senior year that I had done it – I was going to be an Army Aviator.

Flight school was at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Not a lot to do around there in the Deep South, but Panama City Beach was only 90 miles away. We started with aero-medical classes and physiology and had to wait an excruciating 4 weeks suffering through countless classes before being allowed near a cockpit. At one point we were introduced to a device meant to simulate hovering flight. It was a chair with a cyclic (stick) attached to a moveable platform holding a single ball bearing. If you could manipulate the cyclic and keep the ball bearing centered, you could hover. After repeated failed attempts I thought I was doomed.

Flight training consisted of four phases: Primary, Instruments, Basic Combat Skills, and Night. In primary, I flew the TH-67, a variant of the popular Bell 206 helicopter. It was in this airframe I really learned to hover, and despite the ball-bearing prediction, I managed to keep the helicopter in a relatively stable position over the ground in about five flight hours. It was a blast to learn in a modern, turbine powered helicopter. I learned how to hover, how to autorotate (the helicopter version of gliding after an engine failure), and how to handle a myriad of emergencies. After about four months, I moved on to instruments.

Instrument flight in a helicopter isn’t much different from airplanes, except that in a Bell 206 you didn’t have the luxury of taking your hands off the controls all that often. That made for some tough workload management, but it was a fantastic education.

From there, it was basic combat skills (BCS), and that was when the flying got really interesting. We transitioned from the TH-67 to the OH-58C, which was basically the same helicopter, only painted green and lacking some of the nicer civilian luxuries such as air conditioning and digital radios. I learned some great stuff, such as low level autorotations: we’d come screaming to the runway at treetop level and then roll the throttle to idle. I also learned slope landings and confined area operations, which were always a challenge. But above all, I learned nap of the earth flight, which means that you literally fly the helicopter in the trees to avoid enemy detection. I also learned to navigate more precisely than offered in any civilian training I’ve seen. A pencil, an E6B, a stop watch, and a 1:50,000 map were all that was needed to get anywhere. While out flying, my old, grizzled Vietnam-era instructor would often point to some random spot on the map and demand I fly him there. If I got within 300 meters, that wasn’t good enough. He wanted to be hovering over the spot.

With BCS under my belt, I started learning how to fly at night using night vision goggles. Night vision goggles allow you to see at night, but through an eerie green glow. You have ZERO depth perception and only a forty degree field of view while using NVGs, so the flying gets a little tricky.

After graduation, we got to bid on our helicopter of choice based off our overall standing in flight school. I got my first choice: the biggest, fasted, most powerful helicopter in the Army inventory – the CH-47D Chinook.

The Chinook qualification course was 12 weeks of intensive training. First was a detailed systems class, followed by extensive simulator sessions. Finally, I got to fly the big beast itself and was instantly enamored. Over 50ft long with a massive 60 foot rotor diameter and powered by two Textron Lycoming 714 turbine engines producing more than 4000 shaft horsepower each, this was one fast, capable helicopter. The 12 weeks flew by, and I was moved to the “line” as a pilot.

My first assignment was with the 101st Airborne Division, famous for its helicopters and helicopter tactics. Though fully qualified in the helicopter, and with over a year of flight school behind me, I still had plenty to learn. To be qualified as a mission pilot, I still had training to accomplish, similar to initial operating experience (IOE) found at the airlines. After 14 more hours with an instructor, I was finally let loose as a “fully mission capable” (FMC) pilot (PI – similar to a First Officer) in the mighty 101st.

One month after I arrived, the tragic events of September 11th occurred. By January of the next year, I was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The day I arrived in country, I learned how dangerous the flying business was. One of our helicopters crashed at a remote landing strip near the Pakistan border. You can read the amazing story here.

Afghanistan was a tremendous learning experience, sometimes filled with hair-raising excitement, but most of our time was spent in a tent trying to find some way to deal with the constant 120 degree summer temperatures. The first thing I learned about “combat flying” was that you needed a lot of “stuff” you didn’t need back in the States. Besides all the personal gear you took on every flight – such as a helmet, survival vest, and charts – now I also had to wear a flak vest, carry two personal weapons, carry an escape and evasion kit in case we were shot down, and bring extra water and food.

The helicopter needed a lot more stuff, too. At night our command required a third pilot to ride jump seat during night missions to provide an extra set of eyes in the cockpit. We also needed an extra crew-member in the back to man a third machine-gun. The crew had to load thousands of machine gun rounds, missile-defeating flares, and countless other things needed to make a combat mission safe and successful.

Sometimes it was exhausting just getting ready to go fly..

There was no “typical” mission; instead, they ranged from troop insertions to external and internal cargo operations during the day or night, through, over and around mountains in almost any weather condition.

After six months in Afghanistan, my unit redeployed to the United States. During this time I achieved something I set as a goal in flight school: I was selected to “upgrade” as a Pilot in Command. After a grueling check ride, I finally became a PIC and would from then on be the aircraft commander. And one of my first missions as a PIC was ferrying helicopters down to Jacksonville, Florida to be put on boats to go to Kuwait. We were deploying again.

With no more than 15 PIC hours under my belt, I started leading combat missions in Iraq. Once the war began in earnest and units started crossing the border, I anxiously awaited my chance to get into the fight. In twos and threes, our helicopters left on missions with vague instructions to meet up at some point in time at a random grid coordinate south of Baghdad. I watched the helicopters leave daily, and waited. Finally, only three out of our sixteen helicopters remained in Kuwait, and I was the ranking officer in charge of the few remaining crews. We finally received a mission, and I led the flight of three across the border into Iraq.

I didn’t make contact with the rest of my unit for eight weeks. I flew from Kuwait to Iraq and back again more times than I can remember. Each time we landed to complete a mission, someone would hand us an index card with a grid and a call sign, load us up, and send us on our way. It was awesome. But, after eight weeks of running my own little flight detachment, we started running into other members of the unit and were forced to consolidate somewhere south of Baghdad.

In retrospect, that year flew by, and my entire battalion made it home without one lost-life.

Some words of advice for those considering military service:

• Join the military for your commitment to duty, not to become a pilot; you never know when you’ll be yanked out of the cockpit to fly a desk for a while.
• In the Army, there are two different categories of pilots – Commissioned Officers and Warrant Officers. Commissioned Officers are leaders first, and pilots second. Warrant Officers are the technical experts who are the primary pilots. However, it is very common for Warrant Officers to be assigned non-flying additional duties.
• Use all available resources you can before you make a decision to join the military. Do not take the word of a buddy, the media, or a recruiter. The military is a great choice for the right person, but like anything in life you’ll want to do your research before signing a contract.

Army aviation is a fantastic experience. The quality of training is unmatched, and the diversity of the people you’ll meet and the wide range of experiences you can encounter are incredible. And flying helicopters is really an unmatched experience. I’ll be leaving the service soon to pursue a civilian aviation career, but the military will always be my foundation. Even though I am excited to transition to a new life, I know I will eventually come to miss the Army and all the great people I’ve met along the way.