An Apache Pilot Explains How To Go From Being an Enlisted Grunt to Flying Gunships

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An AH-64 Apache assigned to the 1-130 Attack Recon Battalion, North Carolina Army National Guard. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Diana M. Cossaboom.

US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Diana M. Cossaboom.

Crouching behind cover to reload his M240 machine gun, Lance Cpl. Joseph Canty noticed a man standing 100 meters to his right with a shovel suspiciously propped against his shoulder. It was March 2011— just two months into Canty’s first deployment to Afghanistan — and the 19-year old Marine had already had his fill of combat. He had secured tourniquets around severed limbs, survived improvised explosive device blasts, and won several firefights.

Now, caught in an L-shaped ambush, Canty was wondering what the hell a farmer was doing casually watching the Marines trade lead with the Taliban. As rounds impacted all around him, Canty decided the man wasn’t actually a farmer, but rather a spotter for the enemy. He turned his machine gun toward the man, expecting to scare him off. Instead, the man immediately dropped his shovel and picked up an AK-47. Just as Canty was preparing to engage, a fellow Marine stepped directly into his field of fire.

“Hey!” Canty shouted at the oblivious SAW-toting rifleman, “Roast that motherfucker!” The rifleman saw where Canty was pointing, turned, and fired, sending a string of bullets through the man’s torso. The man fell, crawled a few steps into a ditch, and died. Almost as quickly as it had begun, the firefight petered out into an exchange of sporadic shots, then silence.

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Canty on patrol in Afghanistan, 2011. Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

Returning to base via the infantryman’s primary mode of transportation, his feet, Canty trudged under the weight of his full pack and cursed the heavy machine gun bearing down on his shoulder. A machine-gunner through-and-through, Canty believed that the uncomfortable weight of his weapon was worth every ounce of pain if carrying it meant he got to shoot it even just one more time.

In time, however, Canty began to consider a career shift. As much as he loved being a grunt, he wanted a job that would allow him to indulge his love of employing belt-fed weapons against enemy targets but also wouldn’t take such a heavy toll on his body. Fortunately for him, such a job exists.

Seven years after his first tour in Afghanistan, Canty embarked on an uncommon journey that would ultimately transform him from an enlisted Marine grunt into an Apache helicopter pilot flying for the US Army. We sat down with Canty, now a chief warrant officer two, to find out how, exactly, he made the leap from ground pounder to attack pilot, and hear his advice for other grunts who might also want to give it a shot.

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Canty deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand province twice as a machine gunner. Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

COD: What made you first consider trading in your machine gun for a chance to fly helicopters?

JC: I’ve always wanted to fly. My old man was an airline pilot, and before that he was a Coast Guard search and rescue C-130 pilot. So I’ve always had a fascination with flying things. I didn’t want to do the airline route and I don’t have a college degree, so after I got done with my time in a Victor unit I went to the School of Infantry-East to train machine-gunners. That was a really good time, then an instructor spot opened up at Advanced Machine Gunner Course. That was the best job I ever had because you have a hand in training every machine gunner in the Second Marine Division.

While I was there, I ran into an Army pilot. We were conducting a patrol exercise, and for whatever reason we used Army air for insertion. So this Chinook came out to pick us up, and the pilot took this giant helicopter and backed it up to the little shelter we were staged at, which is something that I had never seen a Marine pilot do. This dude came down to a hover and literally backed the Chinook up to the shelter, and then they shut the engines down. They let our Marines on to lick the windows and shit, give them a little tour of the helicopter.

I started talking to the pilot and he said to me, “You know, you could do this if you wanted to.” Apparently he was an Army grunt before becoming a pilot, but explained that I could do a service transfer, then start what’s called the Warrant Officer Flight Training (WOFT) program. So that’s exactly what I did.

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Canty inside his AH-64 Apache. Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

COD: What’s the first step in transitioning from an enlisted MOS to becoming a pilot?

JC: The very first step is being sure it’s what you want to do. The next thing I’ll say — and every single officer will tell you the same thing — the packet is the hardest part. And the reason the packet is the hardest thing to do is because it takes persistence. Nobody around you knows how to do it. If you’re going from “street to seat,” meaning you want to be a warrant officer to fly, most recruiters don’t know how to do the necessary paperwork. They’ll probably tell you to do two years as an underwater basket weaver or something and then you can put in your packet, but that’s not the case.

You can absolutely go straight to the pilot pipeline. You just need to be persistent, fill out the packet, and do an interservice transfer if you’re jumping branches. Here’s my other piece of advice — exhaust your own individual capabilities before you go to somebody for help. Google WOFT, print out the forms, do everything you can, so that when you do approach someone for help, you already have all your shit squared away. If you walk up to a senior warrant officer and have a packet you’ve already been working on for a few months, and say, “I’d like you to take a look at this” or “I’d like a letter of recommendation,” they will be much more willing to help you.

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Joseph Canty with his wife while training to flying helicopters. Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

COD: Was it difficult to transition from the Marines to the Army?

JC: It was strange. The Marine Corps is more disciplined in every sense. They’re better at indoctrinating their members — even the Marines that don’t buy into the bullshit are still more disciplined. The Army is much less confrontational, they’re less aggressive in how they do things. I would almost say it’s more corporate in nature, while the Marine Corps is more like a cult. But the bigger difference was not going from the Marine Corps to the Army, it was going from infantry to aviation. It’s like going from apples to oranges, because really, when you boil things down, a grunt is a grunt.

COD: What was the hardest part about flight school?

JC: The hardest tangible skill to learn, in my opinion, is hovering. Especially in the TH-67 because it didn’t have any advanced flight controls, there was no computer telling the aircraft anything. A lot of guys equate it to trying to milk a mouse, because it’s all very small, sort of intricate movements. If you move one control, then you have to correct two other controls, but by correcting the other two controls, now you have to correct another two that you weren’t fucking with in the first place. The hardest intangible is trying to teach yourself how to study again as an adult.

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Canty firing rockets at a target during a training exercise. Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Canty.

COD: Do you get to select the airframe you want? Were Apaches your first choice?

JC: When it comes time to select an airframe, it’s all based on a list. Everyone is ranked by all their scores, and you make a wish list based on what the Army needs. Although now they just do it alphabetically. I was lucky because all the pilots who were eligible in my class were able to select Apaches. As a machine-gunner, of course I wanted to fly Apaches. I mean it’s like being a machine-gunner, except you don’t have to fucking carry it. Oh, and also you have missiles, and you have rockets, and you have sensors that can literally spot a groundhog walking in the grass like 3 kilometers away.

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Joseph Canty (second from left) with three of his fellow Apache pilots. Photo by Reuben Lesondak.

Photo by Reuben Lesondak.

COD: What’s it like to go from being the man in the mud supported by aircraft to being the pilot flying in support of troops on the ground? Does having experience as a grunt help you as a pilot?

JC: It helped me quite a bit with situational awareness. As a ground guy, when someone shoots at you, you often don’t know exactly where it came from because your field of view is so limited. You might have to move just to see where it’s coming from because you’re so constricted by the terrain. Now, being in the air, I can visualize what those ground guys are seeing and better support them. At the end of the day, those ground guys are the customers.

Just like in the Marine Corps, where every single MOS exists to support the 0311 Rifleman, the Army is similar. At the end of the day, the ground guys are the customer, and having been one of those dudes really helps put my current job into perspective.

Read Next: Afghanistan’s First Female Pilot Is Now Fighting To Fly for the US Military

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He is a US Marine Corps veteran and a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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