While most civilians are unaware of a small group of guardsmen flying in a West Virginia training schoolhouse, the Fixed Wing Army National Guard Aviation Training Site – or FWAATS – is well-known and well respected among United States Army aviators.
“What’s great about FWAATS is that you’re actually flying an airplane,” Chief Warrant Officer 3 Anthony Wozniak said in July while in the midst of the Instrument Flight Examiner (IFE) Qualification Course at the training site in Bridgeport, West Virginia. “And these guys are incredible instructors to be able to balance all of the instruction while flying the plane the whole time.”
The FWAATS, based at Northcentral West Virginia Airport, operates a small fleet of three to five C-12 Hurons – the military designation for the Beechcraft King Air 200 – and one twin-engine Fairchild C-26 Metroliner. This is the only Army National Guard training site for fixed wing pilots. They also get students from the Active and Reserve components of the Army for initial qualification and graduate-level qualification training.
Wozniak, an active-duty instructor pilot stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, said he was thankful to not have to wait long to get into this course. He’s been in the Army for 19 years and started flying helicopters in 2012, then switched in 2016 to fixed wing. He flew the Canadian-made De Havilland Dash 7 turboprop aircraft in Korea for two years and now flies the DHC-7 and DHC-8 in El Paso.
He completed the instructor pilot course in 2019 and about a year later, spent much of his five weeks at the FWAATS in a pair of C-12 aircraft. He returned to El Paso able to give checkrides as an instrument examiner pilot.
“We all speak C-12,” Wozniak said of the King Air. “If we ever need to do anything, that’s the one aircraft that we’ve all flown. The ones here at FWAATS seem to be in really great shape and the maintenance support has done a great job of always having the aircraft ready to go in my time here. It’s a smooth aircraft that makes for a good training platform.”
History of FWAATS
The Army was the first branch of the military to use the King Air variant C-12 Huron, mostly for transport of personnel and cargo. The C-12A – a Super King Air 200 powered by the type’s standard Pratt & Whitney PT6A-42 engines, with a commercial, off-the-shelf cargo floor system installed – entered service with the Army in 1974. It took several years of acquisition to replace the Army’s aging fleet of King Air 90 aircraft designated U-21, which had been in service since 1964.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Army National Guard set up four accredited regional aviation learning institutions of excellence, called Army Aviation Training Sites (AATS). The FWAATS, formed in 1996, is the only one of four that offers fixed wing training.
The FWAATS provides the U.S Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker in Alabama with a professional and reliable training resource, and surge capacity to meet the Army’s fixed wing training requirements here and abroad, in support of combatant commands engaged in decisive action operations.
“Our mission is to conduct fixed wing initial qualification and graduate-level qualification training, such as instrument examiner, maintenance test pilot and instructor pilot courses, for the Active, National Guard and Reserve components of the U.S. Army,” said Lt. Col. Wade A. Johnson, commander of the Fixed Wing Army National Guard Aviation Training Site. “We train approximately 100 pilots and nonrated aircrew members annually, the majority of which is conducted in our King Air fleet.”
The FWAATS has also historically played a critical role in the Army’s Task Force Observe, Detect, Identify & Neutralize (ODIN) operation overseas, surging its capacity and capabilities to train more than 300 ODIN pilots and back-seaters in the King Air 300 and King Air 350 variants in a two-year time period, in addition to its traditional course offerings.
Johnson worked previously with the Operational Support Airlift Activity (OSA-A) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and the FWAATS continues to work hand in hand with OSA-A, serving as their primary fixed wing flight and academic training institution. King Air magazine highlighted in a 2018 issue the large fleet of C-12 aircraft dispatched by OSA-A, which conducts non-executive airlift for soldiers, civilians and light cargo for the Army, the Department of Defense and other government agencies.
Like OSA-A, FWAATS contracts with DynCorp International for King Air maintenance.
Fixed Wing Army Aviators
Besides offering airplane training versus simulator courses, Wozniak sought out the FWAATS for the quality of the instructors. The institution’s leaders say that’s a common compliment they hear.
“The quality and professionalism of the instructors at FWAATS is top notch,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bill Douglass, who serves as the Senior Standardization Instructor Pilot.
Alongside Lt. Col. Johnson, Douglass oversees 23 personnel on the aircrew training program. That includes standardization instructors and enlisted instructors (the back-seaters): 12 are full-time Active Guard and Reserve officers, seven are part-time National Guard officers. The four back-seaters are senior noncommissioned officers.
The Army operates its King Airs as a two-pilot aircraft at all times. At the FWAATS, student pilots always fly with an instructor pilot, sometimes two. One of the C-12 pilots is Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joe Weekly, who joined the FWAATS in 2019 after a long stint at Fort Rucker. The prior active duty/reservist works under Douglass as the C-12 Section Leader, and he said he passed up opportunities to finish out his Army career flying jets because of his respect for the King Air.
He called the King Air the most reliable airplane he’s flown in his 4,500 hours, which includes about 2,500 hours in the King Air. He praised the platform’s mission flexibility, the simplicity of the Pratt & Whitney engine and the integration of Pro Line 21 avionics.
He appreciates flying with other seasoned instructor pilots who share his commitment to sharing his knowledge with the younger pilots coming through the schoolhouse.
“We’ve all been flying for 16 to 20-something years and a minimum of six to seven years flying the King Air,” Weekly said. “Our mission is to train and impart experience on younger guys, which I think is a huge benefit to the Army in general, whether that’s Active Duty, Guard or Reserve. So I think we’re in an excellent position to do that.”
FWAATS’ King Air Fleet
The King Air 200 is the Army’s go-to aircraft for fixed wing qualification training and its durability, dependability and low operation costs help FWAATS meet its goal of delivering high quality, low cost training.
OSA-A manages the National Guard’s fixed wing share program of roughly 50 C-12 aircraft and approximately a dozen C-26 aircraft, moving the aviation assets to where they are needed most. That means the aircraft assigned to the FWAATS change often, and the courses offered adjust with aircraft availability.
There are usually no fewer than three C-12 aircraft on the ramp, most often the C-12U in standard cargo and key leader/strategic level transport configuration, and the C-12R, which can be modified with EFIS glass cockpit instrumentation for reconnaissance missions.
That means an array of models for FWAATS pilots to be familiar with, and Douglass hopes the Army’s future utility aircraft will be standardized on one airframe. While the variety of avionics packages make the cockpits look different, Douglass and Weekly said, all the variations fly like a King Air.
Sometimes FWAATS pilots get the chance to fly interesting missions to rehome an aircraft. Douglass recalls once when two C-12s at FWAATS needed to be moved to Afghanistan. The crew flew 100 flight hours over the course of about three weeks to deliver the planes.
“They were what we call slicks, so there was no mission equipment on them until they are in theater and then put into operation,” Douglass said. “We took the northern route: Clarksburg, West Virginia, to Canada to Greenland, all the way over to Iceland, to Scotland to Germany and then across the Swiss Alps, down to Italy, down to Kuwait and then up into Afghanistan. The flights were among the most fun I’ve done.”
This past August, the National Guard Bureau opted to move a newer C-12U from FWAATS to Hawaii. Douglass and a fellow standardization pilot instructor prepared for the ferry flight with an overland validation flight.
“We flew the King Air 2,000 nautical miles nonstop, starting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and flying south to Florida and then back up,” Douglass said. “We were checking the airframe, fuel flows, and everything the book said it should do we verified. We flew around thunderstorms and with headwinds. When we landed, we still had fuel left for our reserve.”
In the end, the decision was made that it was too risky of a mission and instead the C-12U was shipped to Hawaii aboard the USS Essex from San Diego.
The Army always pushes the limitations of the King Air because we get charged to take it to 14,090 pounds, we put more equipment and more stuff on it,” he said. “We put more avionics systems into it, put the Common Missile Warning System on it. I mean we load the aircraft to its limitation, and it has always done what we have asked of it. The Beechcraft King Air has been an awesome aircraft.”