Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Archer.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Archer. (Steven R. Doty / Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — Apache helicopter crews, such as those who launched live Hellfire missiles at a target range off South Korea on Friday, have several key steps they have to get right before they ever hit the launch button in the cockpit, a veteran combat pilot said.

A crucial first step is to make sure they’ve found just which target it is they have to hit, something that seems obvious but that can be very challenging in real combat conditions, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Archer, 25.

Archer’s an Apache instructor-pilot with Company B, 4th Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, part of the 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade at Camp Humphreys.

Archer fired a dozen or more Hellfires in combat while flying Longbows in Iraq from February 2005 to March 2006.

On Friday, Archer and Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Butler launched four Hellfires. Archer flew as pilot-in-command and Butler as co-pilot-gunner.

“This is Korea, so you pretty much have a standard range,” Archer said in a phone interview several days before Friday’s live-fire. “But in combat, the hardest thing is identifying what is a target, what is friendly, what is not.

“Before you launch that off the rail, you have to identify the building, the car or whatever you’re going to launch that missile into, and that can take a lot of time to develop that,” Archer said.

The Apache’s sights scan the battle space and show a video image on each crewmember’s digital display screen.

They then must ensure the target is an enemy and not a friendly or civilian noncombatant, often through radio contact with friendly forces on the ground who may have alerted them to the target in the first place.

“You have to be very particular and very precise as to what you’re asking the ground guys as to what you’re seeing and what they’re seeing,” Archer said.

“Not only may you hit the wrong target but you may give away your position … but also kill the wrong thing, and that’s the last thing you ever want to do,” he said.

It helps to have a two-member crew.

“The guy in the front seat may see something the guy in the back doesn’t,” Archer said. “Now you have two sets of eyes.

“You’re like, ‘Zoom in on that’ … ‘Zoom in on that’ … ‘Zoom in on that’ … Then you put it in your crosshairs and begin to engage,” Archer said.

Once they’re sure of their target, the co-pilot-gunner’s key task is to guide a laser beam onto the target with one hand then launch the Hellfire with the other. But the job’s not finished.

“Once he launches the missile, he has to keep a continuous control of the missile while it’s in flight, and he has to keep positive eyes on the target and see that he doesn’t lose sight.”

Last week’s training was a key opportunity for Apache crews, he said.

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