LEUT Marcelo Lagos
(Image courtesy of Defence)
At what age did you become involved with the aviation / flying and how did it happen?
I became interested in aviation from a very young age, maybe around 5 or 6 years old. My father was a maintainer in the Chilean air force and works in the general aviation sector since emigrating to Australia, so I always seemed to be hanging around an airport with him, messing with aircraft.
What made you want to join the ADF and the Navy in particular?
Joining the ADF had always been an aspiration of mine. I got interested in the Navy while I was at University as I was on course with two Navy engineers. Couple that with a late interest in helicopters and the challenging environment of maritime operations and I was sold.
Can you tell us what educational and training pathway you have undertaken to end up as an Aviation Warfare Officer?
I liked mathematics and physics in school so that helps in the aviation space. I actually trained at University to be an aerospace engineer and worked briefly in that field prior to joining the Navy as an Aviator. You don’t need a degree to become a naval aviator but it helps down the track when you want to specialise.
What challenges does an applicant undergo in applying for a role as an AvWO?
When you first apply you go through a battery of aptitude and psychological testing as well as interviews to see if you are able to be receptive to the training. They involve things like maths problems, spatial comprehension and prioritisation tests. You then go through a selection board process which involves some simulation training to see how you would handle the aviation training environment as well as a board interview. If you are recommended you may then be offered a position in the ADF. It’s a long process but worth it when you receive that letter of offer from the service.
How did you find learning to fly – going through the stages of gaining type ratings and advancing up the system until you have reached the Seahawks?
Initially, I attended the RAAF School of Air Warfare where AvWOs train on the Beechcraft B350 King Air. Unlike the RAAF ACOs, Navy AvWOs do front seat training from the start to get familiar with ‘Cockpit Crew Duties’ and generally be a competent co-pilot. The course starts off with a fair bit of ground instruction and then moves into the visual navigation phase.
The instrument and system navigation phase is next where you make full use of the aircraft systems and may do some international flying. The final phases are the applied phases which involve search and rescue assist and maritime operations. That was the fun part; where you got to put it all together and apply what you have learned. Once you complete your final testing flight, which a lengthy 6 hour affair, your instructor will present you with your wings badge. It’s a moment I will never forget.
After the School of Air Warfare we move to 723 SQN. I trained on the Squirrel, then the Augusta A109 but now AvWO’s go straight onto the Bell 429 for their rotary conversion. From 2018 all training will be conducted on the new HATS EC135 which will be a great new platform. Post 723 SQN I went to 816 SQN for my Seahawk conversion. I enjoyed this most of all, as it was what I have been training for since I joined the Navy.
How did you find the transition to helicopters in training?
The helicopter transition was not as intense as the initial training at the School of Air Warfare. Learning to employ a helicopter, albeit a basic one, in the maritime environment was fun and the fact you can pull up in any little clearing or rock ledge you can find is good too.
Being a Seahawk TACCO what kind of specialised training do you undertake and what are examples of some of the different aspects you have to learn to be proficient in your role?
As a Seahawk TACCO we are training all aspects of anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare as well as more minor aspects such as search and rescue and visit, board, search and seize operations. We act as the aircraft ‘mission commander’. Where the pilots fly the aircraft, we ‘fight’ the aircraft.
We are responsible for all the tactical decisions on where we put the aircraft and direct the pilot to do so. We are also responsible for weapon employment and tactical communications. We also act as the ‘scene of action commander’ (SAC) during an anti-submarine warfare mission where we can direct and control several ships and aircraft to hunt down a submarine.
It’s a big job, but you bring it all together early on in your career. In one of my first CASEXs (anti-submarine warfare training exercise) fresh from Seahawk course, I was the SAC in control of three frigates, another helicopter and an AP-3C. A big responsibility for a lieutenant aviator, but the training was first rate and I was well prepared for it.
Could you tell us about some of your operational flying and what does that involve you doing when airborne?
I did a deployment to the Middle East in 2011/2012. We operated primarily in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. Our role was to find and board suspected smuggling vessels to intercept illicit arms and narcotics and anti-piracy operations. The job involved a lot of searching and identifying small vessels in a complex and busy shipping area.
What kind of interaction do you have with the Pilot and Senso during flight?
During a mission, the SENSO is in the back running the Radar, link and FLIR (IR Camera). The information he gathers is passed to me as the TACCO who then makes a tactical decision on where to put the aircraft and how to get it there. I then direct the pilot on where to put the aircraft to achieve what I need to tactically. That is quite a basic explanation of how we do business but we all complement each other and back each other up.
While running the mission I also keep a scan of all the instruments and make sure the pilot is keeping us safe and out of the water. While the pilot keeps an eye on my tactical plot and looks at the ‘big picture’ in terms of fuel and where home plate is. It’s a dynamic team environment and everyone has to be in tune with each other, especially when you’re at 200ft over water at night chasing a submarine!
How challenging is it as a TACCO to operate a helicopter at sea in adverse weather conditions?
Adverse weather increases the workload for the entire crew. We are trained to fly in cloud down to about 100ft over water but there is generally no need to stay that low for long periods. In adverse weather the pilot will be flat out flying the aircraft on instruments and the SENSO and I will be achieving the mission without running the aircraft into hazards. You earn your pay those days.
What do you find the most enjoyable aspect about flying as a Seahawk TACCO?
I love the warfare and tactical aspects of the role. It is you versus the submarine captain as you try to out-smart each other. They’re crafty, so it’s not an easy task.
How do you feel about your role in contributing towards the FAA goals of fleet defence?
We really help build a Recognised Maritime Picture (RMP) and extend the sensor range of the ships so they are aware of what’s around them. The further out we can see a threat, the more time we have to react. And if we do detect a hostile submarine we can destroy it before it can threaten a task group.
Can you explain the role of the Aircraft Maintenance and Flight Trials Unit and how it fits in to the Royal Australian Naval aviation structure?
AMAFTU is the Fleet Arm Arm’s Flight Test organisation. It’s one of only two ADF organisations that conduct developmental flight tests. Our primary responsibility is ship-helicopter integration. We determine the wind and ship motion limits the helicopter uses to land on a certain class of ship. This is done for all helicopter and ship combinations including Army and international aircraft that land on our ships.
During a First of Class Flight Trial (FOCFT) we push these limits as far as we can safely to ensure we understand the greatest capability for that aircraft type. However, the limits we establish are not extreme that only a test pilot with 1500 hours under their belt can achieve. They must be able to be flown by pilots who have just undertaken helicopter conversion.
Can you explain the different functions and what type of trials does the AMAFTU carry out and where?
Aside from FOCFT, we also conduct smaller in-service trials on new equipment fitted to aircraft. We are also looking at UAS integration into our ships. I was part of the team that conducted the ScanEagle trials in HMA Ships Choules and Newcastle.
What is your role in the AMAFTU?
I’m an Aerosystems Specialist or ASQ. We do a year of training with the Royal Air Force in the UK covering all systems such as Radar, Communications and Flight Testing. We are responsible for any testing of aircraft systems such as sensors or avionics.
For instance, if we are integrating a new Electronic Self Protection suite into an aircraft, we will manage all the testing and reporting of the system. We will assess the overall performance and human-machine interface issues relating to that system and relate it back to an operational context.
Have you done any specialised project work or undertaken further training while in the AMAFTU?
I am currently working on getting the Navy’s new Schiebel S-100 rotary wing UAS integrated for use in our frigates. We are trialling the S-100 to inform our longer term UAS capability, which will include a permanent deployable maritime tactical UAS platform. An embarked UAS will bring a great capability to the surface fleet and the FAA. We are also working with new ship projects, advising them on aviation facilities to ensure we get the most capable platforms right from the start of the design phases.
What is your most memorable flight experience so far that you would like to share?
I have had a lot of memorable experiences but being in the first Seahawk Flight Test Crew to land on HMAS Canberra would be the most memorable so far.
What goals have you got for the future with your military aviation?
I’m moving onto the MH-60R ‘Romeo’ Seahawk in the next few months which is an amazing aircraft and a massive step up in terms of mission system from the Classic or ‘Bravo’ Seahawk. It’s going to be challenging but very rewarding at the same time.
Post conversion I will be posted to the warfare cell at 816 SQN as the Electronic Warfare (EW) Officer. I’m looking forward to assisting in the development of EW knowledge and understanding for operational aircrew, as well as flying the Romeo.
DUAN thanks Marcelo for taking the time to give us interesting and some great personal insights to his RAN career. We also like to thank Defence Media and Navy Media for facilitating this interview request.