AoF: Transport Pilot

This episode of Art of Flight will be oriented around acting as a helicopter transport pilot.

Pilot Skills

Fundamentals

Having a solid understanding of the fundamentals of flight in Arma is of course a major factor towards your ability to safely and intelligently conduct troop transportation. If you have not already done so, I’d recommend reviewing the following Art of Flight episodes:

  • Agility & Landing
  • Dead-Simple Tail Rotor Recovery
  • Autorotation
  • The Light Attack Helo
  • Arma 3 Community Guide: Air Assault

Each of those guides will cover important information to know – even if you don’t plan to fly a light attack aircraft, knowing how they operate will give you insight into hazardous flight regimes that can easily become relevant to a transport pilot when weapons are trained against them instead.

This guide is broken into two distinct parts – the first part we’ll talk about the different modes of flight, landing zones, landing styles, and how to gauge enemy fire. In the second part we’ll go through an air assault from start to finish.

Modes of Flight

There are four basic modes of flight possible, each with their own distinct pros and cons. It’s important for pilots to be able to pick the mode most relevant to their situation as well as be able to evaluate a changing situation and shift modes proactively whenever possible.

Flying High

The first mode is flying high. Flying high gives you the greatest visibility of the terrain, but in return, makes you a very visible target to any enemy threats. High flight is generally done at an altitude where small-arms are ineffective – 500 meters or higher is ideal – and where there’s no threat of anti-air missiles or anti-aircraft artillery.

Low-Level Flight

The next mode is low-level flight. Low-level is when you’re flying high enough to avoid terrain obstacles, but aren’t making an effort to stay at a constant above-ground height relative to the terrain. This is the most typical mode of flight for general travel – speed and flight cohesion make this an easy way to fly.

Contour Flight

Drop a bit lower and we have contour flight. Contour flying involves staying at a low altitude above ground level – as the ground level changes, you attempt to maintain the same relative distance from it. Contour flight is done at an altitude where you have little to worry about obstacle-wise – while powerlines and towers will pose hazards, you should be comfortably above trees and similar natural obstacles. Contour flight often occurs from 30-100 meters of altitude above ground level, with most major obstacles being 60 meters or less in height, such as powerlines, small towers, etc.

Nap of the Earth

Finally, the most exciting mode – nap of the earth. Nap of the earth, or NOE, is flying as low as you possibly can for maximum concealment and cover at the expense of speed. NOE is used to avoid enemy fire, using trees, terrain, and every other potential obstacle as a screen from enemy threats. Of all flight regimes, NOE is the most demanding, as only a slight judgment error can be the difference between clearing an obstacle and critically impacting it.

Choosing a Mode

To remember them easily, think of high flight as being out of the reach of ground fire, low-level as flying well within the reach of and likely visible to ground fire, contour as flying just above the trees, and NOE as flying around the trees.

A typical flight might use low-level flying from the pickup zone to within three or four kilometers of the landing zone, then switch to contour for the remainder. Extracting troops from a hot LZ will certainly use contour, and sometimes NOE flight to provide the most masking from potential enemy fires.

It’s important to know when and why to use the different flight modes – flying NOE when it’s not necessary puts the crew and passengers at unnecessary risk, just as much as flying high might do in a more threatening situation. It’s not about being fancy or trying to impress your passengers – rather, it’s about using good judgment to ensure the maximum safety en route.

Landing Zones

For our purposes, landing zones and pickup zones are the same – they’re sites at which we have to descend close to or land on the terrain in order to pick up or drop off troops. There are three basic categories of landing zones – open, confined-space, and pinnacle.

Open LZ

An open LZ is what you will most typically encounter. In this, an area has been chosen large enough to fit several helicopters comfortably, with few if any obstacles that could cause blade or hull strikes. This can be a large clearing in a forest, an open field, or anywhere with a reasonably low number of obstacles in the vicinity of the prospective landing sites. Most LZs are open LZs, as leaders tend to search for these as part of risk management.

Confined-Space LZ

Next are confined-space LZs. These are sites where one or more aircraft can fit, but there is a heightened risk of collision with obstacles, such as trees, wires, buildings, etc, which constrict around the landing site. Confined-space LZs can include small clearings in forests or jungles, streets or courtyards in urban terrain, forest roads, or similarly restricted areas.

The key to successful confined-space landings lies both in precise control of the aircraft, and precise knowledge of the aircraft’s dimensions. Ensure that you’re able to confidently clear any obstacles, and when possible, fly towards the far side of the space in order to ensure tail clearance and potentially leave room behind you for other aircraft. Having crew chiefs that can help spot for obstacles on the sides and rear of the aircraft can be helpful as well.

Pinnacle LZ

Last up are pinnacle LZs. Pinnacles occur when the landing site is prominently above the surrounding terrain and restricted in size. For our purposes, pinnacle, ridgeline, and rooftop LZs are all treated the same, with the terms being interchangeable and the meaning understood situationally.

Pinnacles require precision in placing the debarking side of the aircraft as close to terrain as possible, such that dismounting troops can safely reach the ground unhurt.

Due to the terrain falling away around the pinnacle site, these LZs tend to be more vulnerable than other options and should be approached with caution.

Landing on rooftops carries some additional considerations, such as the presence of similar-sized or taller buildings near the intended landing site. For larger rooftops, landing on the side furthest from known contacts works well as a preventative measure. When contact direction is unknown, centering or coming close to centering on the roof can help to minimize risk.

Landing Styles

As far as the actual methods you’ll use to dismount troops, there are two fundamental landing styles – touchdowns and low hovers. You choose one based on the suitability of the landing site – if a touchdown is too risky or outright impossible, a hover is used instead.

Touchdown

When attempting a touchdown, be very mindful of the terrain slope you’re attempting to settle onto. It’s possible to land across a shallow slope or up it, but landing facing down a slope is to be avoided at all costs due to an increased chance of tail rotor strikes as well as the natural tendency to accelerate downhill while trying to come to a hover level with a downward slope. When landing on a slope, troops are instructed to exit the aircraft downslope and maneuver away from the aircraft as quickly as possible to avoid running into the rotor disc or being struck by the tail rotor during unexpected turns.

Low Hover

When a slope is steeper, low hovers are the preferred way to drop off troops. The easiest way to do this is to angle the aircraft’s nose into the slope, allowing for maximum spatial awareness to the front. This allows for a pilot to see his rotor disc and the terrain, avoiding collisions with them. In addition to that, it gives the troops a safe debarking route to either side of the aircraft, which makes it much less likely that the rotor disc will pose a hazard to them. Remember that the only time a hover will ever be conducted with the tail facing into the slope is for aircraft that have tandem rotors, tail ramps, and a ramp crew chief to provide instruction to the pilot, such as the Huron or Chinook.

Ground Fire

In order to help you assess the severity of any enemy fire you might encounter at or on the way to an LZ, let’s talk about the different factors that influence the risk from said fire. Being able to rapidly assess the threat of enemy fire allows a pilot to know whether to commit to or break off from a landing attempt based on an educated risk assessment. Remember that the safety of the aircraft and passengers is your top priority – you have the authority to break off from an LZ if you don’t believe it can safely be conducted.

Type and accuracy of fire

The first and most significant factor is the type of fire you’re receiving, combined with how accurate it is. If it’s scattered and inaccurate rifle fire, this is a lesser threat, while a heavy machinegun or autocannon, even if inaccurate, is significantly more threatening due to the power behind each round.

Orientation relative to fire.

Orientation relative to the fire is another aspect. Fire that’s being directed at the cockpit from the front of the aircraft is extremely hazardous – losing the pilots will doom the entire aircraft. Fire coming in from either side can pose a significant hazard to the embarked troops, as well as the pilots. On the other hand, fire coming at the back of the aircraft may be more of a threat to the passengers than the pilots, and requires the rounds to penetrate through the airframe in order to hit anyone.

Distance from fire

Distance enhances the difficulty of shooting at a helicopter – the longer and further the bullet has to travel, the less likely the helo will be where the bullet ends up.

Relative movement from fire

Relative movement is another big one. Flying straight at or straight away from a source of fire is easiest for the enemy to lead, whereas oblique angles or even perpendicular flight makes for a tricky gunnery solution.

Exposure time

Exposure time is how long the pilot expects to be taking fire, given what he knows about the remainder of his flight to the LZ. Short exposure times – perhaps due to terrain or trees – make fire less threatening, as the enemy may only have a moment to react, fire a few shots, and then have the helo become masked by terrain or obstacles.

Multi-Ship Flight Considerations

If you’re in a multi-ship flight, there are a few additional things you should keep in mind.

The first is that super-tight formations are rarely necessary in Arma, and due to the vagaries of netcode, flight model, visual acuity, and related spatial awareness aspects, can be significantly riskier than they would be in reality. It is of the utmost importance that you maintain awareness of where other flight elements are at all times, but you do not need to attempt to overlap blades with other aircraft to try to make things look pretty.

Next, never follow directly behind another aircraft at a short distance. Aside from the possibility of them suddenly flaring before you can react, netcode issues can potentially cause them to warp or halt in place long enough for you to collide with them.

Instead, pick a position that is behind and off to one side, one which allows you to clearly see the aircraft you’re guiding off of and keep a good relative distance from them. This distance can be 100 meters or further away – the key is simply to maintain a formation that allows everyone to keep tabs on each other and avoid mid-air collisions.

If in a many-ship formation, remember that you should evade in the vertical plane before you make a horizontal maneuver. Horizontal maneuvers – hard turns and such – can potentially throw you across the path of another aircraft before they have a chance to react – while vertical maneuvers safely put you above or below the formation first. Once you’ve made vertical separation you can visually clear your horizontal and vertical airspace in order to allow a safe break turn. This can all happen very rapidly, and it’s best to communicate it over the pilot’s radio channel to help minimize the possibility for collisions.

Remember that the further back in the formation you are, the more you have to pay attention to what’s happening in front of you when evasive maneuvers are conducted. Sometimes a pilot will have no choice but to do a hard break in your direction, so you need to be aware and ready to react.

If you find yourself as flight lead, ensure that you give updates to the flight as you fly. This includes letting them know what cruise speed you’re setting, when you change speed or heading, distance to the LZ, and when you begin to bleed speed for the LZ and enter the final approach. Properly communicating this information will allow for the other pilots to more easily maintain formation and smoothly transition into the final approach.

The Air Assault

Now that we’ve covered the different modes of flight, types of landings, LZs, threat factors of enemy fire, and multi-ship considerations, let’s move on and take a look at an air assault conducted from start to finish.

LZ Considerations & Risk Assessment

We’ll start off with the assumption that the desired landing zone has been assigned to you either via a flight lead or ground commander, and that the assignment is a usable and appropriate LZ. At this point, you need to do a map reconnaissance of the area. This simply means that you open your map, find the grid or marker that indicates the LZ, and analyze the area.

What you’re doing at this point is building a mental picture of the area, visualizing and familiarizing yourself with the terrain features, landmarks, terrain slope, hazards and potential enemy threat locations, and also planning your ingress and egress directions. The more accurately you can visualize the LZ in advance, the more agile you’ll be when improvising and reacting to unexpected developments upon actually reaching it.

Your map recon should allow you to determine where you’ll actually set down, with the goal of having a personal primary and secondary landing target within the LZ, not including the higher-level alternate LZs that can be prearranged and potentially called for by the flight lead if the first site is unsuitable. When choosing your landing sites, pick them according to your skill level and with the intent to put your passengers as close to viable cover and concealment as is safely possible.

Choose your ingress and egress directions, and if possible, plot them out on the map – you can use different-colored dots to give you an indication on your GPS of when you’re close enough to the LZ to need to start preparing for your final approach. Ingress should be chosen relative to the expected or likely enemy threat directions. It’s stating the obvious, but you generally don’t want to overfly the enemy on the way to an LZ, and if you can ‘sneak’ up safely at lower altitude, this can limit your exposure and thus your vulnerability. Look over the routes you’ve chosen, think about what altitudes you’ll fly at, and consider any hazards that might exist along the way – whether obstacle or enemy.

Loading up and taking off

When it comes to loading up at the staging area, there’s not much for the pilots to do. Troop commanders will send the respective chalks to their aircraft, the leader of each chalk will tell the pilot when all his troops are boarded, and the aircraft will take off in an orderly fashion, with each aircraft calling over comms to state that they’re lifting, and each waiting in the assigned order before doing so.

When taking off, avoid overflying other aircraft when possible. There’s always the chance that someone will misunderstand the flight order and lift early, which can happen so rapidly that a collision occurs before anyone has time to react.

Transit

The period of time where you’re flying from the staging area to the landing zone, but before closing to within a few kilometers of it, is known as transit time. This is when you pick a mode of flight appropriate to the tactical situation en route – often this means simply flying at low-level, while some AOs might encourage the flight to stay at higher altitudes due to increased risk of heavy fire at lower altitudes.

Whatever mode of flight is used, a plan must exist for how and when the flight will transition down to contour mode for the final approach. Being prompt with this transition and knowing when to do it will help to ensure the smoothest possible outcome.

Ingress

For our purposes, ingress defines the period of flight that occurs either once you’re within several kilometers of your LZ, or when the enemy and tactical situation requires you to conduct contour or nap-of-the-earth flight. In short, it’s the period of flight where you’re at a higher risk – be that from terrain/obstacles, enemy fire, or actually landing at the prescribed LZ.

Your altitude during ingress should be as low as is necessary to reasonably avoid threats – generally via contour flying. Since losing altitude in Arma 3’s flight model takes time, you don’t want to come in unnecessarily high or you’ll have an awkward and potentially unpleasant time trying to get back to ground level. Do not mistake this desire for low-altitude flight with unnecessary risks – if you have no reason to fly NOE between trees, don’t do it. You’re not trying to impress people – you’re trying to get them safely into the fight.

When conducting NOE or contour flight, be extremely vigilant for obstacles. Your map recon of the flight route should have alerted you to significant powerlines and similar, but you should never rely exclusively on the map to warn you of such things. Always assume that any man-made pole, tower, or similar object either has wires strung from it or guy wires running to the ground. The safest way to pass over a wire obstacle is to do so by flying over one of the poles or towers, instead of over the wires themselves. Large antennas and towers should be given a wide berth, at least half as far to one side as they are tall.

Final Approach

Once you’re within two kilometers of the LZ, you and your flight will begin to bleed speed and prepare for your approach. This will be announced by the flight lead, allowing the other pilots to follow along more precisely in the final maneuvers. An early and smooth deceleration helps to avoid ballooning into the sky while trying to kill speed, which can be a fatal mistake if the LZ or surrounding area is hot.

The final approach into the LZ area should be conducted in a curving fashion, as it allows greater depth perception, a better visualization of the LZ and surrounding threats, and makes for a harder target for any potential enemy to lead.

It will be at your discretion as the pilot as to when your door gunners and crew chiefs are allowed to fire their weapons. Dictate this to them in advance, keeping in mind friendly forces that may be in the LZ area ahead of you, the possible or known locations of enemies, and so forth. Ensure that the door gunners understand that they are to only fire after being given initial clearance by you, and that they should cease firing during loading and unloading in order to prevent accidentally Arma’ing a dismounting unit.

Final Risk Assessment

With the LZ in sight, it’s time to conduct a final risk assessment. This is the point where your mental picture, established by map recon, is compared to what you see in front of you.

Is everything in accordance with what you expected? Be thorough in your scan – you should be able to identify and confirm the main features thanks to your map recon, which frees you to focus on more subtle potential hazards or scan for enemy presence.

The pilot is ultimately in charge of whether to continue to make a landing approach or wave-off – he’s responsible for the safety of both the aircraft, his crew, and his passengers. To this end, a pilot must stay keenly aware of the situation and be prepared to make decisions in a timely fashion.

If you begin to take fire or suspect that you’re about to, you’ll need to be able to near-instantly make a go/no-go decision. Taking fire is a complex issue – you can expect some LZs to be hot, but being able to gauge what’s ‘hot’ versus ‘too hot’ will be important to avoid unnecessarily waving off of an acceptably hot approach.

Remember – you have final say. If you’re not comfortable and don’t believe that you can safely continue with a landing, call that you’re waving off and indicate the direction you’re breaking.

On the other hand, if you’re committing to the approach, the lead ship of the flight will indicate when they’re beginning the bleed flare that initiates the final approach. This allows all ships in a flight to flare at the same time and avoid over-running each other.

As you near your chosen LZ, continue to scan for obstacles and assess where exactly you’ll set down. Be very aware of any other aircraft entering the LZ with you, and maintain that awareness throughout the approach, landing, and later, egress phases.

Watch for trees, rocks, wires, structures, walls – anything that might damage your aircraft on the way in.

Landing

The landing itself should be done as smoothly as possible in all respects. The approach should be graceful, measured, and you should be mentally several seconds ahead of the aircraft at all times. You can get into the LZ area fast, bleed speed, and do all of that with measured intensity, but the final landing phase and touchdown must be gentle or everything else was all for naught.

As you look into the LZ area, whatever is growing larger in your field of view, but not moving relative to you, is the place you’re flying towards, and the line between it and you is your glide path. Carefully adjusting collective and cyclic to maintain a smooth, steady, shallow glide towards your desired touchdown means that you’ll arrive there with maximum efficiency – bleeding speed and altitude concurrently and landing as soon as both are within acceptable ranges.

Precision is the key. You need to know where you’re headed in order to get there efficiently, and you need to do everything with measured smoothness to minimize exposure time. Waffling around at an LZ and being uncertain and hesitant in your maneuvers not only jeopardizes your aircraft, crew, and passengers, but also any other aircraft in the area. Communication is important as well. For multi-ship flights, call where you’re landing, call when you’re landed, and give a warning before you take off and note which direction you’ll be egressing, such that other aircraft know to look for and avoid you as needed.

If you find yourself in a bad position, don’t force a landing that you aren’t confident in. The first option you have is to simply reposition within the LZ until you find something more suitable. The other option is to call for a go-around – do so over comms, such that other aircraft in or moving into the LZ know that you’re having to leave it to come back around for another attempt. When you do a go-around, ensure you fly out in a fashion that does not conflict with other aircraft operating at the LZ, extend away a safe distance, then set up another approach attempt.

The most common mistakes when landing relate to aircraft clearance and excessive descent rates.

Excessive Descent Rates

Excessive descent rates occur when a pilot has not sufficiently practiced proper landing techniques and slams the aircraft into the ground instead of gently setting it down. These tend to occur when pilots become stressed during the landing phase and fall behind their aircraft – being reactive instead of proactive in their control usage. The easiest way to avoid this, aside from simply practicing thoroughly in advance, is to have the confidence to take your time before setting down. It’s better to take a few extra seconds to be precise, than to slam down and either damage or outright destroy the aircraft, crew, and passengers.

Aircraft Clearance

Aircraft clearance accidents happen as a result of blade strikes primarily – either the main rotor or tail rotor being struck against an obstacle such as a tree, wall, pole, or similar. In rocky terrain, hull strikes can happen if the pilot sets down on a large rock without seeing it. Avoiding clearance accidents is a matter of good approach techniques, good map recon and visualization, good knowledge of aircraft characteristics, and good judgment on the approach. Helicopters do not “feel their way” to a landing – if you haven’t already seen what you’re landing on, or aren’t being guided by someone on the ground to a precise landing, you should not be descending. Hitting something unexpectedly on the way down is an accident that rapidly spirals out of control – usually in a fatal manner.

Touchdown & Lift-Off

Passengers in an aircraft will always wait for the pilot’s signal before exiting. This is due to the pilot being the one that knows what the situation is regarding landing, and they get the final say on when they’re ready to offload passengers.

Once you’re ready for troops to disembark, loudly state “GO, GO, GO”. Once the troops have dismounted, you’ll have several potential ways to know this – either via someone calling it over the radio, your crew chief stating it to you, being able to visually check for passengers, or via someone shouting it from outside the aircraft. If in doubt, simply ask “Anyone still mounted?” and give a moment for a response.

As the troops are offloading, you should already be thinking about how you’ll leave the LZ. Assess the planned egress route, and if it’s viable, go for it – if not, quickly assess a new option and how you can achieve it. You should be listening to any radio traffic at this point to help paint a picture as to what’s happening in the LZ that might influence you – such as aircraft diverting or lifting off.

Egress

Egress is very situationally dependent. The briefing and planning phase of the mission will have given you a probable egress route – at the minimum, you’ll know how safe the air corridor you used to arrive at the LZ is, and can assess from the LZ situation as to where enemy threats might be located relative to the LZ itself.

When it comes time for you to take off, state the direction you’re taking off in and vigilantly scan for any other aircraft as you lift off. Remember your tail rotor – lift it above any ground obstacles or troops before you swing your tail around, else you can cause a boom or blade strike.

Remember that speed gets you away from risks faster than altitude – your typical horizontal speed will usually be 5 to 8 times faster than your maximum vertical speed. You should gain enough altitude to confidently clear obstacles around the LZ, then pour on the speed and maneuver away from any known or expected threats. Contour flight is the most likely means to exit an LZ, with jinking maneuvers employed to throw off enemy gunners. Masking with terrain, obstacles, etc, is the most sure-fire way to mitigate enemy fire.

Once out of the threat environment, a multi-ship flight will reform and continue on with their mission – whether that means flying back for another lift, acquiring resupply, or similar.

Extraction

When it comes time to extract ground troops, there are two basic methods – one is a cold extract, in which there is no contact at the pickup zone, and the other is a hot extract. The fundamentals are the same as what we’ve already covered – the main differences are that the ground troops will be more involved in planning for a pickup zone due to their familiarity with the situation, and you’ll usually know in advance where any known enemies are and be able to factor that into your planning.

You’ll also have the bonus of ground troops being able to mark the pickup zone with smoke, infrared strobes or lasers, or even tracers in a pinch.

There’s not much else to be said on extraction. Pick routes that mask you from the enemy as much as possible, communicate clearly with the ground troops, and be precise with your landings.

Closing

Today we’ve covered all things transport pilot – both tactically and procedurally. As with everything, a solid foundation of knowledge must be practiced extensively for the best results. Whether you’re flying solo or part of a group effort, strive to learn something every time you venture out in a helo, as there will always be something new to add to your tactical toolbox or some knowledge that will help you further refine your edge over time.