SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
The pounding of the rotors fills the air as the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter banks sharply to the right, hugging the terrain in a shallow valley between mountain peaks. From the side of the aircraft, a crew chiefs peers out the open window, his hands resting on the handles of a M240 machine gun. As the aircraft levels off, the sound of the rotors is overtaken by the rattle of machine gun fire as the crew chief unleashes a hail of bullets onto a target below, firing until the weapon has expended its supply of ammunition. The crew chief calmly releases the trigger and begins reloading the weapon in preparation of the next pass over the target. There's plenty of ammo ready to go--in fact, the crew chief will fire a total of 1,600 rounds of ammunition before his aerial gunnery training for the day is completed.
The ability to fire the M240 effectively and accurately is a critical skill for members of Joint Task Force-Bravo's 1-228th Aviation Regiment. Because of this, members of the regiment conduct aerial gunnery training in order to maintain proficiency and currency on the weapon system.
"To stay current, we have to fire at least 300 rounds every 180 days," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Lamont, the 1-228th standardization instructor for non-rated crewmembers. "It's important to maintain currency on the weapon in case of a deployment or any type of mission that may require it."
Crew members train on firing the weapon in a variety of conditions. During a recent training session, members practiced firing the weapon from a UH-60 that was equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks. The large outboard tanks, which sit directly next to the gunner position, pose a unique challenge.
"The tanks force you to have a smaller window for firing the weapon," said Lamont. "Because we normally fly with the tanks on, it's important to practice that. There are lockout blocks in place so the M240 doesn't move. The crew chiefs have to practice reaching out, pulling the weapon in and changing the ammo can. It's all about consistency, going through the motions and practicing accuracy on target."
U.S. Army Spc. Brad Spencer, a crew chief assigned to the 1-228th, participated in a recent aerial gunnery training session, during which he fired the weapon for the first time with the auxiliary tanks attached to the aircraft.
"A big thing is learning the difference in having a full range of movement without the tanks as opposed to firing with the lockout blocks, just getting used to firing in that limited range of moving the weapon," said Spencer. "But after getting used to that, it's a matter of looking downrange, seeing where the bullets are hitting and adjusting to hit the target."
To maintain currency, members must fire in both day and night conditions. Lamont said firing at night presents some distinct challenges as well.
"At night, wearing the night vision goggles, you have to deal with the muzzle flash from the weapon, which can white out your goggles," said Lamont. "That can bother the pilots as well, so the pilots have to get used to that and the crew chiefs have to get used to moving by feel. The training allows them to go through the motions, to learn muscle memory and how to change out the ammo can without any mishaps."
Lamont said the training serves two purposes: To keep members current as well as to increase their skill with the weapon.
"It's a good skill to have, and if you are more accurate, it means less rounds you have to put downrange and the target is eliminated sooner," said Lamont. "But it's a skill you have to keep current. If you don't use it, you will lose it."
The continuation of aerial gunnery training will ensure that the members of the 1-228th maintain this critical operational skill.