Story and photos by Chris Thatcher


On a clear, cool morning in mid April, a platoon from Charlie Company of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI) loaded into three CH-146 Griffons and a CH-147F Chinook and lifted off into the training range of 4 Wing Cold Lake to retrieve a downed fighter pilot evading capture behind enemy lines. 

Over the previous 24 hours, Jack, as they were calling him, had been on the move, meeting communications check-in windows while an uncrewed aerial system (UAS) monitored his progress from above.

A tactical aviation air mission commander (AMC) and a ground force liaison officer had planned, briefed, and rehearsed the extraction mission, playing out possible courses of action (COAs) and building in contingencies. Intelligence briefers had apprised them of suspected enemy strength and surface-to-air threats, including radar-guided missiles and man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS).

Throughout, the aviation battalion commander and senior officers had challenged their possible COAs, offering up alternatives or pressing for what would constitute a go/no go decision point. If they lost contact with Jack and could no longer confirm proof of life, would they still risk the mission? What if they lost that overhead intelligence picture? Did they have secondary landing zones (LZ) if the enemy was too close to their primary extraction point? Was close air support and suppression of enemy defence available throughout? Casualty evacuation? What was the plan for a downed Griffon or Chinook as they approached the LZ? And if so, where would the recovery aircraft be located? How far forward could they safely locate the forward arming and refuelling point?

Their detailed plan attempted to address all of that as well as the use of other enablers such as a joint terminal attack controller and supporting fires from artillery and the air to take out the surface-to-air systems and to create a diversion before they approached their objective. They even mapped out the covering arcs of fire for the Griffon door gunners holding overwatch positions, and which side of the Griffon the infantry would disembark from once they landed.

In the hours before they launched, the plan changed. A strike on the nearby airfield had reduced the number of surface-to-air threats, but enemy forces were congregating in the vicinity of the LZ, and the UAS was vectoring Jack to an alternate location. Reconnaissance, however, showed that the new site might be two narrow to land two helicopters at the same time, so the AMC and Army liaison officer were proposing one land and unload soldiers while the other provided a screen; they would then switch roles. In the end, they and the battalion commander agreed to make that call when they reached the LZ.


The aircrews and infantry were participating in the final phase of the Advanced Tactical Aviation Course (ATAC), a test of complex combined arms mission planning and execution that was last held in 2017, due primarily to the global COVID-19 pandemic, and to the operational tempo of tactical aviation. It’s a course helicopter pilots like to call their equivalent of the U.S Navy Fighter Weapons School’s Top Gun.

A step up from the annual Basic Tactical Aviation Course (BTAC) – where pilots build their knowledge of tactical aviation operations and the skills to lead small sections of aircraft – ATAC represents the apex of training.

In addition to commanding larger formations, pilots are thrust into the challenging environment of combined arms. They are evaluated on their ability to collaboratively plan and execute dynamic missions such as air assault, strike coordination and reconnaissance, non-combatant evacuation, personnel recovery, fire support, and others, with a mix of fixed- and rotary-wing assets, integrating land forces, tactical command and control systems, enabled by ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) assets, fires and other integrated effects.

“What we want people to walk away with is the ability to execute in complicated joint situations, to be able to execute in the chaos,” said Major Geoff Martin, the officer commanding the Aviation Tactics Flight (ATF) at 438 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, and the chief instructor for ATAC.

“A lot of what we’re evaluating here is their ability to provide their own intent, provide their own tasks to their subordinate commanders, and then manage and supervise that team, both in planning and during execution,” he said.

ATAC was delivered in several phases, beginning in mid-February with two weeks of distance learning, followed by two weeks of ground school in Valcartier, a week of mission rehearsal and tactical training, and then the final four weeks of mission planning and execution in Cold Lake.

While the core skills of an AMC have not changed since 2017, the context in which they apply has. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the shift in training to a peer enemy was a constant backdrop to the ATAC scenario.

As part of the effort to rebuild the course after five years and fill any knowledge gaps, the 438 Squadron ATF team sought guest lectures from a wide range of global specialists, including the U.S. Army Aviation 10th Combat Aviation Brigade Commander, a Royal Netherlands Army officer expert in air defence, U.S. Army MH-60M Black Hawk and A-10 Thunderbolt II experts on joint recovery of downed aircrew, a U.S. Army Aviation 3-10 GSAB UH-60M pilot, a U.S. Marine Corps weapons and tactics instructor, a U.S. Marine Special Operations Command Marine Raider Support Group AH-1Z pilot and fires officer, and a U.K. exchange Chinook pilot with combat experience in Afghanistan and Mali.


The 11 AMC candidates were drawn from across 1 Wing and included two captains from the Army, one from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment (2 RCR), in Gagetown, and one from the 3e Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment. The members of 3 PPCLI brought the realism of inserting infantry troops and served as some of the ground force liaison officers.

“Integration between the Army and aviation is a difficult thing to achieve,” acknowledged Major Yvon Voyer, an armoured officer who serves as the land tactics advisor for the ATF at 438 Squadron.

“If [Army members] can’t understand the requirements to make aviation function properly in force projection, that leads to a lot of difficulties integrating. The Army will ask something of aviation that they’re not necessarily able to do. And if the aviation doesn’t understand exactly what the Army wants, then the default answer can often be ‘no’ because of risk to personnel, risk to mission, risk to equipment, etc.”

Because helicopter time is limited, the two communities often training in silos, he noted. Tactical aviation operations “is not a knowledge base that is spread across the Army – it’s very focused in certain spots.”

For the Army, ATAC represents a rare opportunity to collaborate on those skills and build a network of relationships with aviators.

The ideal ATAC candidate is a graduate of the Army Operations Course (AOC), a captain with combat arms planning experience. “This year, because of the short timeframe and the number of personnel being deployed, we have some junior guys,” said Voyer, a convoy escort commander in Kandahar, Afghanistan between 2007 and 2008, and then a staff officer at Regional Command South between 2009 and 2010.

“We have adapted what we’re evaluating those junior guys on to fit their level of background. But they’ll come out of here much stronger experts in aviation,” he said. “What I want these Army candidates to do is be able to explain aviation in the Army and be able to explain the Army to aviation, and really bridge the gap of knowledge between the two groups.”

Captain William Hand of 2 RCR was admittedly not the AOC-qualified candidate they were seeking. But he arrived with experience as a LAV captain on Exercise Maple Resolve in 2022, “working with the combat team and maneuvering the company’s LAV as per the [commanding officer’s] intent.”

The introduction to helicopter operations was a “massive learning curve for me,” he said, adapting to new acronyms and terminology, and developing an understanding of threats to tactical aviation.

“From the ground perspective, it’s interesting to see how they perceive threats versus how we perceive threats,” said Hand. “We perceive threats more from indirect fires, whereas they’re more [concerned with] direct surface-to-air missile and MANPAD threats. It was a challenge to integrate those in my mind and function them together.”

Mission planning had to account for the availability of helicopters – the larger Chinook is key for any significant insertion of troops – the duration of an operation, and the location of fuel. There were also terrain considerations such as firmness of the ground and clearance from trees. “A ground guy might not be so happy to be dropped off a kilometer or two away from the objective,” he noted, “but in reality, it’s probably a good thing because then the air assets are safer from ground threats.”

“I’ve learned exactly what information I need to extract from the ground force to help tailor the aviation plan,” he added. “I’m fortunate to be on this course, and have all the knowledge of tactical aviation. Most infantry officers don’t get this experience.”


Throughout the weeks of mission planning and execution, there was a constant push and pull between Army liaisons and the AMC candidates. In some cases, the Army member was the more experienced operator, in others the AMC had years of real-world mission planning with allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali and elsewhere.

“What I really liked was the strong understanding of commander’s intent and unifying purpose,” said Major Lex Luciak, the officer commanding Charlie Company, whose members provided the ground tactical plan. “That makes things a lot easier from a ground force perspective — we’re all working toward the same goal. There [wasn’t] an occasion where the [Air planners were] not able to allocate resources to a specific problem to set the conditions for Charlie Company’s success on the ground.”

Successful collaboration is about “finding common areas within the planning process,” he suggested, and knowing the questions to ask to bridge any gaps. “What I see with the candidates, especially with the ground candidates who may not have the experience that the air mission commanders would have, is that they have a strong base … and are then able to build it to that next level.”

With an array of expertise at their disposal, air mission commanders “need to be able to bring those people to the level appropriate to have the best effects on the battlefield,” said Voyer. “What we’re trying to teach, as well, is for people to not be as nervous about asking questions or letting people know what they don’t know, so that the experts around the table can help.”

Ultimately, he said, the goal is to learn how to build plans for complex problems that can be adapted to the reality on the ground.

“What we’re trying to get these candidates to do is go through the planning process, make sure you know where your holes are, and make sure you know what kind of contingencies you can employ on the ground, and when you encounter a situation that’s not exactly what you expected, but something you considered, then you have a rapid avenue to be able to deal with that problem and continue on and have success with your mission,” Voyer said. “The better the plan that they have going in to meet the enemy, the more likely that they’ll come out successful at the end.”

With the Air Force into the early stages of the next Tactical Aviation Capability Set (nTACS), a program that will eventually replace the CH-146 Griffon, the more Army members who understand aviation, the more information the Army will be able to provide about the capabilities it requires, he added.

“We want people to be experts in at least thinking about how you employ aviation, about the possibilities of what aviation can offer, and then be able to transmit that up the chain of command and transfer it over the Air Force. The more you know about aviation, the easier it is to articulate the Army’s needs.”