Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Man and Machine in Combat

Apache – Inside the Cockpit of the World’s Most Deadly Fighting Machine
– by Ed Macy

I was captivated by this true story of a British Apache helicopter pilot’s career and experiences flying missions in Afghanistan in 2006. What impressed me with Ed Macy as a person was his focus on achieving his desire to fly in the military and especially the new Westland AH Mk1 Apache helicopter. A good summary of the challenge is given by this excerpt from the front cover overleaf –

“. . . the deadliest, most technologically advanced helicopter on the planet. As strong as a tank . . . the helicopter is remarkably fast and nearly impossible to shoot down. . . . [With] weapons and cameras, the Apache pilot can spot prey from miles away . . . And it is the toughest aircraft in the world to fly – only the top 2 percent of pilots make it . . . hands, feet, and even eyes need to operate independently.”

If it wasn’t clear that this was a true story of one man’s experiences, one could easily read it as a fictional novel filled with a character with beyond human capabilities. The action is palpable and the sacrifices Mr. Macy made to be a superior pilot in the face of danger are sobering and inspirational to reflect upon.

I have to admit having a passion for the virtual worlds of video games, human augmentation, and flight simulators so it is of particular interest to me how an Apache pilot becomes one with the machine. This is essential in order to manage the complexity of the controls, split-vision monocle, and the visual sensors that include low-light and infrared imagers. The daylight camera, for example, can magnify 127 times. There are over two hundred switches many multifunctional. The monocle over the right eye forced left-right eye independence as an efficient way to cram more information into the brain. “A dozen different instrument readings from around the cockpit were projected into it.” This alone is a significant learning obstacle to overcome.

Note Mr. Macy’s description starting with the example of driving your car -

“After you’ve driven it for a while, you don’t have to think; you just end up at home without having thought of driving one. It was the same with the Apache, but on a grander scale. Halfway through the first tour . . . I didn’t need to think how to fly and shoot because my fingers, arms and legs were working in perfect harmony with my mind. I was no longer strapped to the Apache, the Apache was strapped to me.”

And “. . . the unimaginable demanding need to multi-task . . . only a very small percentage of human brains could do everything required simultaneously to operate the aircraft.”

The powerful imaging capability makes enemy engagement much more personal than is typical for the military aviator. Mr. Macy often could see the enemy as if up close and personal such as a sniper could. And this capability offered a similar surgical precision in limiting collateral damage.

Partially reliving Mr. Macy’s experience helps you appreciate the challenges of conflict with powerful weapons and the discipline necessary to manage multitudes of information while making instant life and death decisions. In this world with a growing cadre of unmanned, remotely-controlled, airborne vehicles [UAVs}, the video-game mind-set intrudes the perspective of the remote pilot I suspect. The personal life-death risk is much removed to be replaced by the career-risk proxy. Sure, the adrenaline may pump as in the video game, but deep down you know that you will still be breathing tomorrow. It is certainly not so for Mr. Macy with the Apache strapped to his back.

I will add this title to my collection of true military experiences that include
“Into the Mouth of the Cat – The Story of Lance Sijan Hero of Vietnam” by Malcolm McConnell and “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10” by Marcus Luttrell.

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