I guess I’ve always had an insatiable love for flight, stemming from a young age watching ‘80s Documentaries of Apache Gunships and Kiowas on video tapes, seeing them in action at airshows and taking my first flight in a helicopter back in 2006. Ten years later I completed my AFF Qualification to become a skydiver, in 2017 I flew a Robinson R44 Helo, but there was always something missing, fusing all the above to create an incomparable Tactical atmosphere. I know there’s Airsoft/MilSim Events especially in the US that allow participants to take to the skies in Little Bird helos and shoot down out of them, but I guess I was looking for something more than that, so thanks to a recommendation from Kieru who participated in the course back in 2017, I booked onto Project Gecko Air Assault 2018.
The course is run over three days, the first two being spent in and around the Czech Capital City of Prague, and the third in the Slovakian Municipality of Trenčín. Friday was training day; kicked off with a classroom session detailing what we were set to do over the weekend combined with safety around helicopters, different deployment and extraction methods, the situations these methods would be utilised in and ergonomics surrounding different aircraft.
Shortly after we took to the tower, literally jumping straight into the Fast Roping. Initial briefs were made on how to take the rope, how to brake on the rope and how to land safely, this was then scaled up to about a meter, then 3 meters and finally approximately 10 meters where we’d be deploying from the Mil Mi8 ‘Hip’ on the Sunday. To tell you the truth this was rather tough considering with a helicopter you’re not worrying about hitting a wall on your way down, an issue you have to contend with on the tower. I would sometimes step out too far from the platform, causing the rope to swing to and fro with me on it and collide with the tower wall, all the while trying to ensure you’re not landing on anyone, not going too fast and maintain altitude awareness. This was especially prevalent from the 10m platform as you would spend more time on the rope and occasionally catch your feet on a lower window. Speeding up your decent would alleviate this – but at no point did I feel unsafe, everything was carried out in a controlled manner. By mid day we were simulating the speed of which a full team should be deploying then the formations we should be forming once we were on the ground. I’d made a few changes to my personal admin and equipment; the first aid kit on my back had been relocated as my rifle would get caught up on it, I’d get off the rope and move to a 360 defensive position with the rest of the team, but struggle to get my carbine up in time, of course. I’d also learnt to tape up my finger ends as the sheer heat generated in friction between the rope and my gloves was enough to blister all of them on my right hand. Before the end of the day we were also shown how to correctly attach to a SPIE rope system, something I’ll get back onto later on in this article.
Saturday was preceded with a drive into the Czech countryside to partake in the Small Helicopter Tactics. Whilst waiting for the helicopter to arrive time was spent learning how to mark a landing zone with smoke, a marker panel or a flashcard, and then covering the main aspects of marshalling a helicopter in to land. It’s likely a force on the ground will have a better understanding of the landing zone moreso than the pilot due to the fact they’d have been there longer, so communications with aircrew and troops needs to be well rehearsed to ensure the safety of all involved aswell as the aircraft, if that goes down then you’re going nowhere. Split into pairs, one person was to enact the helicopter and the other a person on the ground. Whilst it may look silly from a distance it was an invaluable lesson which paid off in the end when we had to do it with a multimillion pound helicopter hovering meters away infront of us. Once the Helo, a Eurocopter EC120 had arrived we were briefed on safely getting in and out of the aircraft and using restraints, then we spooled up and began the infiltrations.
One of my many highlights from the weekend was coming into land at the first LZ, we were being dropped into a clearing which had a river running through it, which was flanked on either side by tall reeds. We turned towards the location of our team which was marked by one member holding the marker panel, and began our descent toward them, and as the distance decreased I could see the other team members in the grass. You do get a major ‘Vietnam movie’ vibe as the rotorwash pushes the grass back, everything is a bit hectic once you’ve got your restraint off and you’re charging towards the Team Leader then into defensive positions. We’d swapped with another unit who’d now boarded the Eurocopter and were beginning their exfil from the location. Grass and dust is flying up into your face, the deafening roar of the helicopter blasting out any chance of other noise in the area, it then turns towards the other LZ and backs away, the pilot then lifts the collective and the machine thunders overhead. The strangest silence then ensues.
Throughout the day many circuits were flown, dropping us off at different locations with a different landscape; open fields, long grass, dense woodland and next to lakes to get everyone thinking about the best course of action to take given the conditions. In most cases you’d already have guys on the deck so it was just a case of following the TL’s orders, but I wound up being in the first team to land on a couple of occasions so you had to pick out a suitable place to bed down, with good visibility of the landing zone so everything was ready for the next squads to arrive.
As the helicopter had been operating all morning the time came when it had to depart for fuel, so we were all inserted into a field to begin another stage of the course covering Small Unit Tactics. Whilst there was no OpFor it was good to brush up on these manoeuvres to both pass the time until the 120 came back, and get everyone working together as a force. This section covered basic patrol formations, initial response to combat, medical evacuation drills (and even a bayonet charge as a bit of fun!) Once the day in the field was over we departed on the journey to Slovakia to work alongside the Mi8 crew.
I hadn’t properly jumped out of an aircraft that was still flying for about a year and a half, terminal velocity and a hard canopy opening put my skydiving days to what I hope is only a temporary rest following a dislocated shoulder, so the day at the airfield in Trenčín was both full of excitement and a bit of apprehension. I guess most of the apprehension I felt prior to the trip was quashed when I was doing the drills on the tower without any problems, but there’s always something there when you’re throwing yourself out of an old piece of Soviet engineering. After an induction with the aircraft the engines were started and we were on the second load. One major difference between the Mi8 and the Tower is the rope placement, we had a beam extending out on the tower so you could realistically reach out to the rope and slip off the platform with no hindrance, but on the Helo the rope is borderline flush with the door, meaning you take the rope, step out and around it, then hop off to avoid catching your hands on the bottom of the door on the way down. Like on the tower we started low and brought the altitude up, before we knew it we were jumping from the length of the rope, I’d imagine at about 12 meters high. It’s pretty intense to say the least, when you’re off the rope and running towards your team you’ll get to an area in the rotorwash were it stops blowing down and starts blowing out, so you really have to lean back to stop yourself from falling flat on your face.
After a few runs we were all in the Mi8 once again, this time the whole aircraft leapt forwards and began to pick up speed, then banked left and did a circuit of the airfield before coming to a halt over the DZ (Drop Zone). If you were to fast rope operationally you’d be flying into the area so this was done to simulate the journey onto the X. After lunch the aircraft was refuelled and refitted to take the SPIE Rig. SPIE stands for Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction, and serves the purpose of evacuating reconnaissance teams from hard to reach areas where helicopters can’t land, such as maritime vessels or densely forested areas. A large rope is slung beneath a rotary vehicle which is dropped to the ground, from which troops connect carabiners to a set of loops which fall down the side of the rope. Once ready the team will move to the dead centre of the hovering aircraft as it slowly gains altitude, and will then lift the patrol up and out of the area, usually to a safer area of which they can disconnect and board the helicopter as normal. Just make sure you get the top loop of the pair as being on the bottom doesn’t do your crotch any favours at all…
For the afternoon we made use of both the fast rope and the SPIE, a team were ferried out a couple clicks away from the DZ we’d been inserting into all morning, and roped to the deck. The crew then brought the Fast Rope back up, dropped the SPIE system and took a batch of five men back to the first DZ and dropped them off, then five of us hooked up and were taken to the 2nd zone. Once all groups had used the SPIE system the Mi8 landed and took on a full load to fast rope, I think I did about 4 sling loads under the Helo and uncountable Fast Ropes from different altitudes and different directions, but shortly the time came for the Mi8 to RTB. The end of the course was signalled with a steep takeoff, a bank around the airfield and a high speed low pass above the attendees.
The course is an incredible experience, something I’ve never actually seen open to civilians at all so it’s once in a lifetime if you have the interest. However I enjoyed it that much I’m considering making the trip again in 2019. I can’t thank the organisers enough for the time effort they’ve put in to make the course a success, from Eli at Project Gecko for the seminars on aspects of Air Assault and Small Unit Tactics, Tim of ParamedCZ for the medical cover (and running me about the place, that was greatly appreciated!), Zdenek of Hard Task especially for his work on the Saturday piloting the EC120. Special mentions go to Martijn and Erwin of Black Scorpions NLD for generally putting up with me, HCAV for the top standard photos from the event and of course all the attendees and staff that made the weekend one to remember.
For more information on Project Gecko’s upcoming courses visit http://www.projectgecko.info/#projectgecko.