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Feature Story


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An ATIL Simulator Instructor runs through a training scenario from a Boeing built mission trainer in the United Kingdom.

Apache instructor trades simulator for real missions in Afghanistan

Lt. Cdr. Bill O'BrienBoeing Photo

Royal Navy Reservist Lt. Cmdr. Bill O’Brien stands in front of a Boeing AH-Mk 1 Apache helicopter while on his tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Lt. Cdr. Bill O’Brien’s flight commander wasn’t even born when O’Brien was flying combat missions in the Falklands in 1982, but at 54 years old, the Royal Navy reservist still has a lot to teach the younger members of his squadron.

Guiding a Boeing AH-Mk 1 Apache helicopter over the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan, O’Brien traded the security of work in Hampshire, United Kingdom, for the dangers of a war zone.

After retiring from active service in 2005, O’Brien began working as a full-time helicopter simulator instructor at Aviation Training International Ltd. (ATIL), a joint venture between Boeing and AgustaWestland that provides training for British Army Apache aircrews, ground crews and maintenance personnel in the UK. But in 2009, O’Brien answered the call to duty for a second time in his life. He volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan and stepped out of the training environment and back into the reality of war.

"The Apache had not been deployed when I retired so there is an itch yet to scratch," O’Brien told Shephard News Service UK in a recent interview. "I believe I have a contribution to make. There is still some life in the old dog."

O’Brien has more than 30 years of flying experience, and before signing up for this recent deployment with 663 Squadron Army Air Corps, he taught younger pilots the prowess of the Apache from ATIL’s high-tech training facility at Army Aviation Centre in Middle Wallop, Hampshire, initially as a simulator instructor and now as a civilian qualified helicopter instructor, providing live training on the aircraft.

"His story inspires all of us," said Mark McGraw, vice president of Boeing Training Systems and Services, a division of Boeing Defense, Space & Security. "Cmdr. O’Brien’s decision to unselfishly accept the risk of deploying to Afghanistan so members of his squadron could get the best Apache training possible is a lesson in sacrifice. He is bringing the ATIL model full circle."

Boeing’s Training Systems and Services is a world leader in the integration of Live, Virtual, and Constructive training (I-LVC) technologies. It’s that training that O’Brien took into real-life missions and that he said helped to safely return him back home to the UK.

From Gazelle to Apache

During the Falklands War between Argentina and the UK, O’Brien – then a Royal Marine – flew the French-built Gazelle helicopter and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his actions transporting ammunition and casualties to and from the front lines.

"We flew mostly at night in an armed Gazelle, not that we ever used the rockets in anger … they had a fairly basic aiming system, just a cross painted on the aircraft windscreen," said O’Brien during a recent media interview.

Today, sitting in the Apache, O’Brien has multiple integrated sight and weapons systems to account for in arguably the world’s most sophisticated attack helicopter.

Built in Mesa, Arizona, the Boeing Apache Longbow helicopter delivers longer-range weapons accuracy and all-weather/night-fighting capabilities. It can acquire up to 128 targets in less than a minute. Its enhanced integrated sensors, networking and digital communications give pilots unparalleled situational awareness

"We are tremendously proud of Bill," said Sarah Cook, managing director of ATIL. "We know he is extremely well versed in the aircraft and systems as an instructor. The fact that he is employing those lessons on real-life missions will be invaluable in helping ATIL get direct, current, operational feedback and knowledge, enabling us to continually improve the training service we provide to strengthen U.K. Ministry of Defence capabilities."

On his recent return from Afghanistan the Commanding Officer, Joint Helicopter Force Lt. Col. David Meyer stressed the importance of the training service provided by ATIL.  “From the first day of our training, groundcrew or pilots, we have had a first class service and it pays off,” Meyer said. “Apache delivers, but it only does so because we are all totally confident in our training.”
O’Brien, a father of three, recently returned to his everyday role as a simulator instructor with ATIL. He credits the Apache platform with protecting his safety and others while flying in Afghanistan and his wife with supporting his decision to move from the world of simulation into the realities of war.