In today’s episode of Art of Flight we’ll be looking at the role of a copilot.
A copilot’s role is to help distribute the workload of an aircraft. In Arma, this means that they focus on aspects other than flying – such as maintaining situational awareness, using observation gear like sensor pods, communicating with other units via radio, navigating, and assisting with emergency situations. Their job is to handle as much as possible, freeing the pilot to focus on flying.
Acting as a copilot is a great way for a player to gain experience in the air without actually having to fly. Flying as copilot for a more experienced pilot can give insight into the application of helicopters in scouting and combat and acts as a good stepping stone between an infantryman and an aspiring pilot. It can become extremely important that a copilot has the skills necessary to take over and land the aircraft in the event of an emergency – if not, they’re likely to be riding the aircraft into the ground if the pilot is killed or incapacitated.
If you’re looking at taking your first steps into the air as a copilot, make sure you’ve watched the other episodes of Art of Flight that pertain to this – at a minimum, you should watch the transport and attack pilot episodes, as they’ll give you the core understanding of how those roles work. Also take some time to practice in various airframes offline – for ShackTac, this means becoming familiar with the basic operation of Littlebirds and Blackhawks, our two most commonly-used helicopters.
The tasks involved with operating a helicopter can roughly be broken down into four categories – flying, fighting, observing, and communicating. Having both a pilot and a copilot allows for these tasks to be shared between them, allowing each to focus their attention on a set of tasks, with the other picking up the slack on the remaining tasks. Broadly speaking, the pilot will be the one doing the bulk of the flying. In some aircraft, like the AH-6, they’ll also be doing most of the fighting, due to needing to maneuver the aircraft to engage with rockets, guns, etc. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll avoid full-fledged attack helicopters like Apaches, Cobras, Comanches, etc, where the copilot is actually a copilot/gunner combination. Thus, the tasks a pilot is expected to focus most heavily on are flying and fighting.
Since the copilot doesn’t have to worry about flying or fighting, they’re free to focus on a different set of tasks – typically observing and communicating. Often they’ll have a sensor pod to help them be more efficient with observation – making it their specialization.
Prioritizing these tasks is flexible and dynamic, shifting based upon what the current situation is and how demanding any given task is at that time. When the situation is calm, a pilot might choose to respond to some radio calls directly – whereas if they’re busy making attack runs, the copilot will handle communication. Likewise, if a copilot is busily plotting out ground movements or working up a navigation plan, the pilot might be the one talking to other elements until the copilot has reduced their workload.
A copilot should pay attention to the pilot and help to identify when they might be becoming maxed out by the situation. This typically happens when things become particularly intense, such as a high tempo of attack runs or defensive maneuvers in a hostile environment. There’s only so much a person can do at once, and the more demanding their primary tasks are, the less mental capacity they’ll have for dealing with other aspects of the situation. When a pilot’s maxing out, the copilot should go to extra lengths to reduce their workload, such as by handling radio calls and monitoring the pilot’s flying in order to help avoid target fixation or similar flying traps. Some indications of pilot overload include reduced communication from them, the impression that they aren’t hearing you or radio calls, or a change in their flying style – such as becoming more aggressive. In extreme cases the copilot can even call for a wave-off or egressing out of an area in order to give the pilot a break and gain some time to evaluate the situation.
With that being said, the basic responsibility breakdown is that the pilot flies and fights, while the copilot observes and communicates.
Let’s look at intra-vehicle communication – talking between the pilot and copilot.
The most fundamental aspect of communication within an aircraft, when referencing things outside of the aircraft, is the act of giving bearings and directing attention to a specific area. There are a range of ways this can be done, and it can differ from crew to crew as to which method is preferred. Being familiar with each different method is ideal, as they can become more or less useful as the tactical situation changes.
Remember that as a helicopter, you’ll often be flying such that you’re orbiting or otherwise turning around a position. Because of this, any bearing given can rapidly become inaccurate. To get around this, a copilot will give a continuing update on a bearing until the pilot tallies it – indicated by them simply saying “tally”, “got it”, “visual”, or similar.
Relative bearings are where the frame of reference is the aircraft itself, and bearings are given relative to the aircraft’s current orientation and position.
Clock bearings are the most traditional means of communicating direction in an aircraft, as they give a simple means to communicate relative bearings. Twelve o’clock is straight ahead, 3 is to the right, 6 to the rear, 9 to the left – it’s simple and easy, giving enough precision to get someone looking in the right general area quickly.
Clock bearings can be modified with “high” and “low” calls, though helicopters generally deal with looking at ground aspects and “low” is therefore implied. However, when operating in mountainous terrain, with other aircraft or with enemy aircraft in the area, “high” calls can become relevant.
Simple relative bearings are similar to clock bearings, but instead of giving the clock number, a left/right/front/rear orientation is used instead. Front-right is 45 degrees off the nose to the right, front-left is 45 left, and so forth. It’s similar to making compass calls with cardinal directions – if you need more precision, you can say front-front left, which is roughly 22 degrees left of nose, akin to calling a compass direction as north-north-west.
An easy way to indicate a target is for the pilot to face the aircraft at it, then call it as “off our nose now”. This can very rapidly orient the copilot, though it should only be done when the tactical situation permits.
Bearings can also be given relative to a known point outside of the aircraft. Consider flying into a clearing – when someone says that they’re going to land far, on the right, you can easily visualize what they mean. These sorts of bearings are typically given as left, right, near/short, long/far, or up/high and down/low.
Absolute bearings are where the frame of reference is the world or an object within it, instead of the aircraft itself.
Cardinal bearings involve giving an absolute orientation via using cardinal directions - north, south, east, west - and subcardinal combinations. These tend to be used when referencing the relative position of something on the ground. For instance, a copilot observing friendly elements through a sensor pod might call over the radio that there’s an enemy contact to the east of friendlies, quickly giving them a direction to look for the contact. Note that giving ground a cardinal or subcardinal bearing to a threat is generally much faster than trying to give a precise compass bearing.
Cardinal bearings tend to have less application in the air, particularly when maneuvering, where it’s faster and easier to use a reference based off of the aircraft’s orientation. For instance – “They’re east of us” requires the crew to consider what exactly east means relative to their heading and the direction they’re turning, while stating simply “They’re at our 4 o’clock” or “Off our left” instantly establishes the relative position.
Compass bearings are the most precise of all direction calls, yet can be tricky to employ from a rapidly moving platform. When it comes to actually using compass bearings for directions, it’s important to keep in mind the helo’s movement. While orbiting, the compass bearing to a position rapidly changes – a bearing can be off by many degrees only seconds after being given. If an exact compass bearing is needed to orient on something, the person speaking can give updates until the other person tallies – or spots – the object. For example, “Bearing 125… 130… 140… tally”. This becomes most significant when the position is close or the aircraft is maneuvering.
Being able to visualize distance can help a great deal towards rapidly communicating locations both within your crew, as well as to anyone you might be talking to in other aircraft or on the ground. Extreme precision isn’t necessary, but spotting something as being 300 meters away is significantly different from calling out a contact a kilometer or more distant.
Here we’re showing what 500 meters looks like on the ground. You should work towards being able to give distances from ground units within a precision of roughly 200 meters when close.
In short, assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups. When it comes to communicating within an aircraft, don’t be timid! Don’t assume that the pilot is aware of a hazardous condition – state it clearly. If they’re already aware, no big deal – but if they had missed it, you might just save the aircraft. Hazardous conditions include situations like having wire obstacles in your path, having another aircraft moving to cross your path, drifting towards a dangerous obstacle while in a hover, or obstacles in general during confined-area landings.
When describing an obstacle, do so in a clarity appropriate to the urgency of the situation. If you spot wires ahead in the flight path, state it as “Wires, front, 300 meters”. If you’re about to fly into wires, give a command “PULL UP!” instead of screaming uselessly into the intercom. A pilot will execute a command spoken in an emergency voice without hesitation.
When it comes to landing, a copilot helps to scan their side of the aircraft, watching for obstacles – particularly in the rear-side blind spot – and communicating with the pilot as needed.
While the pilot will plan the initial flight from the take-off point, the situation may develop such that they don’t have time to navigate once in the area of operations. This can happen when the pilot is occupied with making attack runs on targets or doing low-level maneuvers while the copilot is communicating with ground elements – if a new target or element to support is radioed up, the copilot will need to help navigate over to it to share the workload. When time is of the essence, the copilot can check the map and immediately give the pilot a general direction to head, further refining it from there.
The copilot can also help to navigate intricate low-level routes by marking the path on the map, allowing the pilot to see the path in their GPS during flight.
Whoever is navigating will ensure that they identify obstacles en route, such as powerlines or towers. Wires can be marked with an exclamation point marker with the text of ‘Wires!’.
Both the pilot and copilot will be monitoring at least two radio channels – typically the Company or Platoon net in one ear, with the Air net in the other. The pilot monitors both and listens as time and situation permits, but the copilot is expected to be the primary radio user and handles communications by default. If available, the copilot will typically have a short-range radio – such as a PRC-343 – on their person or stashed in the vehicle cargo. This can become relevant when ground elements have lost access to their longer-range radios in emergency situations.
Sectors of responsibility in a helicopter are split based upon the position the pilot or copilot is sitting relative to the other when tandem seating exists such as with most transport and reconnaissance aircraft. Thus the person on the right is responsible for the right side of the aircraft and vice-versa. Of particular importance is the blind spot on that side – for instance, the rear-right is a blind spot when seated on the left. The opposite-side crewmember typically can’t see that at all and relies on the other to spot anything that falls into that sector, something which can become important when doing confined-space landings.
Pilots tend to orbit such that their side of the aircraft is towards the center of the orbit – when this is the case, copilots often find themselves looking outside of the orbit, scanning for anything that might be approaching the area from further away.
The copilot maintains awareness of the ground situation, noting friendly positions and helping to communicate attack directions and progress to the pilot. The pilot should maintain awareness of friendly positions as well, but when things are heated, it’s expected that the copilot will spend extra time to maintain this level of awareness. The copilot typically talks to ground through a forward air controller – or FAC – who communicates significant events up to the aircraft as well as requests and directs air support. The copilot then processes this information and conveys it to the pilot, helping to navigate or otherwise paint a picture for the pilot’s use.
Observation involves scanning for enemy threats of all types, be they ground, air, or sea. When available, the copilot uses observation pods that give extra range and clarity through magnification and stabilization, and even potentially different sensor modes such as nightvision or thermal. While they can still act as an observer without a sensor pod, the use of a pod gives vastly superior results and greater flexibility in employment.
A copilot scans diligently for threats, communicates them to the pilot, and marks them on the map for reference. When threats are relevant to ground forces, the copilot will communicate this through the FAC and ensure the ground elements know what they need to know to help them react to any given threat.
Sensor pods allow a copilot to direct the pilot onto threats more rapidly and accurately, and when attack runs are made, can allow for adjustments and battle damage assessments to be conducted rapidly. Their high magnification makes identification of friend and foe vastly easier, as well as allows identification of specific infantry threats such as anti-tank or anti-aircraft launchers, machineguns, vehicle armaments, etc. Some sensors even have laser designation capabilities, making it possible to designate targets for attack aircraft or communicate targets between similarly-equipped helicopters.
Proper usage of a sensor pod allows for a pilot to keep their aircraft safely outside of effective enemy fire without compromising their ability to maintain observation on an area. From the enemy’s perspective, a helicopter flying a kilometer or more away doesn’t pose as obvious of a threat as one circling directly above, and the enemy may not appreciate that while the helicopter is far away, the copilot is seeing them clearly thanks to the power of the sensor suite.
Remember that if using a sensor pod, a copilot should regularly come out of the sensor view in order to refresh their broader-level situational awareness. The pilot can request this simply by stating for them to “go off scope”, at which point the copilot leaves the sensor view and orients on the bigger picture.
The most important part of preparing for an emergency is to ensure that controls are unlocked before you ever take off. Doing this makes it possible for a copilot to take over control of the aircraft in the event that the pilot is rendered incapable.
Emergencies take two basic forms as a copilot – either the aircraft or the pilot has been compromised. For pilots, this could mean they’ve been killed or knocked unconscious. For the aircraft, anything that takes it out of the air – such as losing fuel or having the engine destroyed – or causes a significant loss of capability, such as by losing the tail rotor.
The difference between these situations is what the copilot’s responsibility is. If the pilot is capable, the copilot helps to observe for a safe place to land and directs the pilot towards it if necessary, watching for and announcing obstacles on the way down and communicating the emergency over the radio if needed. If the pilot is incapacitated, the copilot takes control, communicates the emergency, and either leaves the area (if the pilot is dead) or seeks medical attention for the pilot (if incapacitated). If a pilot is bleeding or in significant pain due to a wound, they proactively hand the controls off to their copilot.
As a copilot, there will be times where a pilot is hit while you’re using something like a sensor pod. Flying towards the enemy during an attack run is the most dangerous time for the crew, so the copilot should be aware of this and plan to leave the scope view in order to visually confirm the pilot’s status. It isn’t always obvious from the sensor perspective as to whether the aircraft is in controlled or uncontrolled flight, and by the time the copilot realizes that the pilot is dead, it might be too late to recover. At other times a copilot should be watching for the signs of ‘dead man’s drift’, where the aircraft has become uncontrolled due to the pilot’s death. This is generally indicated by the nose drooping, and if a turn was in progress, that turn continuing smoothly and gradually becoming worse. Noticing this flight behavior can cue a copilot into taking controls in time to avoid flying into terrain.
In the event that the pilot is unresponsive and the copilot has assumed control, the expectation is that they’ll fly to a safe area, set down, double-check the pilot’s status and get them to medical aid if needed, and then assume the pilot’s seat and continue with the mission.
To recap, as a copilot, your task is to increase the effectiveness of the aircraft by sharing the workload between yourself and the pilot in command. Maintain situational awareness both inside and outside of the aircraft via map, sensor, and radio communication, and make sure you’re prepared to contribute towards solving any emergencies as they arise. If you do your job well, you’ll find the results to be significantly smoother than otherwise, with faster responses to threats, quicker and clearer identification of the same, and greater survivability.