Warrant Officer Charles E. West eased the helicopter down, down, down into a tiny crease in the treetops, hiding everything from "the enemy" over the hill except a big-eyed turret sticking up above the whirling rotor blades. This put us in position for the kill.
The turret with the big eyes, called E.T. after the movie character, could see over the trees even though we could not. Its heat-seeking gadgetry sensed a simulated tank and projected it on a screen in the cockpit. It took only some moves of a control stick and the pushing of buttons to lock the helicopter's radar on the target.
In a war, West would send a laser beam from his OH58D AHIP (Army Helicopter Improvement Program) aircraft to the tank target. Behind West, and farther out of range of enemy ground fire, the Army's new AH64 Apache attack helicopter would fire a Hellfire antitank missile into the laser beam. The missile would follow the beam to the tank, blowing it up.
The Army is training helicopter pilots in these one-two-punch tactics in the belief that they would stop Soviet tanks. The concept hinges on the assumption that helicopters hidden in the treetops could not be seen and could thus escape deadly ground fire.
The Army put a visitor in an Apache at night to demonstrate how well this helicopter can see in the dark. By looking through a lens the size of a monocle attached to a $12,500 helmet, one of the most sophisticated in the world, the pilot and gunner in the Apache could see the clear profiles of armored vehicles invisible to the naked eye. The heat given off was sensed by the Apache's infrared gear and transformed into an image on the cockpit scope.
As in the OH58D, working the stick and punching buttons locked the radar on the target. The next step would be sending out the laser beam and firing the antitank missile. "Apache is different than most helicopters," Warrant Officer Randy F. Dyer, an instructor pilot, said during the night flight. Because it has so much sophisticated detection, navigation and firing gadgetry, he said, "We had to take these aviators and make them system managers."
Maj. Gen. Ellis D. Parker, commander of the Army Aviation Center here, said that in this era of smart weapons, "anything that can be seen can be hit, and anything that can be hit can be killed at unprecedented ranges."
What the Army is doing at Rucker, said Brig. Gen. Rudolph Ostovich III, Parker's deputy, is teaching helicopter pilots how to use the smart weaponry on the modern battlefield and live to tell about it. "The helicopter gives us the ability to break friction with the ground," Ostovich said. "We're no longer confined to the vulnerability of the muddy trail."