FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Two North Carolina National Guard Apache Helicopters fly toward artillery rounds exploding on target.
"Marked by artillery," squawks across the radio from one of the Joint Tactical Attack Controllers on the ground. "Do you have visual on the artillery?"
"Roger, we have the artillery impact."
"100 meters right, in the treeline," gives the signal for the Apache's to fire dozens of rockets and hundreds of 30mm rounds into their target.
In a real world scenario this would take place in a warzone; Army, National Guard and Air Force working together on the battlefield, but on this day, they were training.
The 1-130th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion out of Morrisville, North Carolina, the 14th Air Support Operations Squadron and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team all worked together to complete several iterations of this scenario Sept. 22-25, 2014 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, validating the skills of 14th ASOS.
"You hear the radio call, you hear the JTAC controller, you hear the feedback, the artillery hits, the Apache comes in, he shoots rockets and 30mm," said Maj. Benny Collins, an Apache Pilot with the 1-130th ARB. "That's steel on target, when you have the machines and they're hitting the targets, you get chills."
The pilots are not the only ones who enjoy watching the rounds hit targets.
"My favorite thing is watching the things explode," said Tech. Sgt. Nathan Smith, with the 14th ASOS. "But also, the integration we get, working with the Army, working with the helicopters, working with the aircraft, everything that's flying, all the guns shooting. It's kind of a rare feat and it is kind of exciting at the same time."
The North Carolina Apache pilots are usedto joint training. Just this year they have worked with Rangers, Marine Corps Special Operations and the Special Forces, preparing them for future missions.
"It's important because how we train here is how we're going to fight when we go overseas," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Carl Glover Jr. "If we do it wrong here than those bad habits are going to transfer to where we go overseas when it's a two-way range."
"Any time we get to do live fire training integrated to this extent with ground JTAC's and artillery and possibly air force, it validates all the training we've done at our level as a battalion by putting the rounds exactly where the guy on the ground needs us to put them."
With so many moving pieces, the pilots and ground forces are faced with the additional challenge of working across several military components.
"Everything's a stress test, especially when you incorporate live munitions with it you always want to do the right thing, as an Apache pilot, you strive to be the best person, best pilot, best attack aviator you can," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Derek Williams, a pilot with the 1-130th ARB.
These types of missions require a lot of preparation and precision from the pilots and ground crew but most of them agree that no obstacle will stop them from loving to fly or completing their mission.
"It's a lot of stress and a lot of hard work and dedication that is required by pilots, especially with the Apache helicopter, but every one of our guys they stepped up to it, they knew what was required when they came in," said Williams, who works full time as a pilot instructor for the North Carolina National Guard. "They do an excellent job and they meet the standard almost every single time they fly, every flight, thousands of hours a year. I think we do a pretty darn good job of evaluating and making sure everyone does meet the standard. But everyone does their own part in making sure they're ready."
For a two-hour flight the pilots and crew spend three to four hours planning the mission, in addition to the hours of preventive maintenance required by an Apache helicopter.
"There's performance planning, mission loads, briefings, approvals, flying in local airspace, national airspace; it requires a lot of work," Williams said. "But once you get into that helicopter, and you get to fly with the people you get to fly with and you get to do what you love to do, it's entirely worth it. At the end of the day, we all signed up to do something that is a calling, it was meant to be for all of us to be here and work together."
All those flight hours and preparation had made is possible for the 1-130th to prove themselves as a ready, reliable force that can be called upon both for training and in war.
"The fact that we're operating the same machinery the active duty uses and doing the same mission using the same joint publications and doctrine, working with the same outside agencies, shows that we are on par with any other Apache unit from any other component doing this job," Glover said.