Combat Aviator

Prose & Interview: James Woodard & Nicholas Pascarella
All Images: Bobby Triantos (@combataviator)

Every once in a while you come across an Instagram page that makes you think to yourself “WOW.” That was my reaction when I came across a page that was littered with Apache Attack Helicopter awesomeness. Some images were night time photographs under the stars with just the right light hitting the AH-64 that somehow made the machine look even deadlier. Then you have the images that completely blew my mind; the ones with the Apache in flight at sunset, above the clouds that are failing to keep the mountains of Afghanistan at bay. Seriously? Who is this the man behind such amazing work? I recently reached out to @Combataviator for an interview to learn more about him, his service and his photography. We are thrilled to introduce you to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bobby Triantos.

FDA: Can you give us a quick recap of who you are, your background, your current location and unit?
COMBAT AVIATOR: My name is Bobby Triantos, I am a Chief Warrant Officer 2 in the Army. I’m currently with the Charlie Company “Slayers” of the 4-2 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion “Death Dealers” in Korea. I joined straight into the Army as a pilot candidate after having previously worked in the tech industry in Silicon Valley.


Were you influenced by flight early in life? If so, who influenced you?
I definitely was always fascinated with military aviation at a young age. From as early I can remember as a child whenever visiting the library, I would always be taking home huge Janes’s aircraft books, nerding over the wide variety of aircraft, and their armament. Early films like Top Gun, and the Iron Eagle series inspired me to become a pilot later in life as I acted out my aspirations on early flight simulators like Falcon 3.0, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, and the Janes and Microprose series of games.

What was your first flight in? How did you feel?
My "nickel ride" and first time at the controls was in 2013 during flight school in a Bell 206 (TH67). It was an overwhelming sensation since I did not have any formal aviation experience at that point. It was like drinking from a firehose learning to fly in the army, and at times made me consider if I had made the right choice signing up. Eventually it all balanced out as I learned how to hover, and managed the multitasking that is required to fly helicopters.

What drove you to helicopters?
The Army attack aviation mission set drew me in. Being lower and closer to the action on the ground was most appealing to me. Also watching AH64 gun tape, and seeing what they can do with their firepower made a huge impact in my desire to fly that platform.


How many hours do you have in helicopters now? Do you have fixed wing hours as well?
I am a rotorhead only right now, with about 1200 hours, with the majority of those being in combat. I would eventually like to get a fixed-wing rating sometime in the near future.

How difficult was it learning to fly an attack chopper?
At first, it felt extremely overwhelming, just as it did initially flying the Bell 206, adding the complexity of night flying, in a now much larger aircraft along with learning how the computer and other systems integrated into the flying experience, versus the analog feel in the 206 was also quite different. Even after completing flight school it takes hundreds more of flight hours to really grasp how to properly employ this helicopter in its intended role.

What is the most challenging thing about flying the Apache?
In initial training it was definitely the “bag” phase where all the windows in the crew station were covered up and you had to fly solely through the video in the eyepiece. It was a quite unnerving experience, but eventually overcame that phase. Nowadays the most challenging thing is flying with a much lower experience crewmember in the front seat, and having to “puppeteer” them from the backseat into doing what you want them to do up there with the sensors and weapons.

Are there any old Army helicopters that you would love to give a whirl? Why?
Definitely the old skinny Vietnam Era AH1G. I would like to experience what my predecessors did in early attack aviation, diving at your targets like a plane at close range.

Can you explain the right eyepiece a little? What is it like to split up your vision like that?
The eyepiece is called the HDU or helmet display unit. It’s essentially a heads up display putting both flight and targeting information into your right eye, regardless of which direction you are looking. If you suffer from binocular rivalry or are left eye dominant, it can be difficult to prioritize the images and symbology in the display versus what you see in your left eye. Luckily for myself it wasn't difficult to adapt and focus on either eye's imagery.


How does it feel and sound to shoot the gun? Or fire off missiles?
Using the weapon systems is easily the best part of being an Apache pilot. The first time you fire the gun from the front seat and hear the bassy boom boom boom, and the aircraft rocks with the recoil of the gun, you know you are experiencing something special. Firing the missiles and rockets are actually a less significant event, with the missiles only being slightly louder than a rocket launch. At night is a slightly different story, watching the missile plume, or rocket sparkles as it departs the aircraft, and then the flash as the warhead detonates on target, subtracting a few more punks off the battlefield.

Do you have combat time? If so, are there any stories or events that stick out to you that you feel comfortable talking about?
I’ve had two tours to Afghanistan from 2015-2018. During that time there are so many experiences that will leave a lasting mark on my life. Everyone remembers their engagements, when the ordnance start flying, but it's the lighter moments when you are deployed that you really reflect on as well. I'll never forget the crazy ping pong tournaments, and the ridiculously competitive super Mario Brothers high score challenge. For example, a little known fact that one of the best barbers in the world is located at Fob Fenty in Jalalabad Afghanistan. Smooth like Baby's ass, he got you son.

What was your most memorable mission?
There's one that definitely stands out over all the rest, but I'm not quite ready to share the details of that one. However any time we worked larger scope missions with mutinational or with interservice agencies, those operations tend to stand out for me.

What's the most rewarding or meaningful thing flying the Apache?
Ensuring the ground forces we support in combat have the ability to call on us to get out of a jam, and making sure everyone that set out on an operation comes back in one piece. Being able to spot ambushes in the dead of night, and remove those threats before they were a factor for our guys, always felt most rewarding.

What kind of a team is necessary to support a warcraft like the Apache?
It takes a skilled and dedicated team to keep a complex aircraft like an AH64 running and fully mission capable. I really appreciate all the hard work our maintainers and crew chiefs put in to keep these aircraft ready to fight, day or night.

What is the standard timeframe needed to take flight in an emergency situation, from being alerted to getting in the air?
When everything is working right, we can take to the air in about 7 minutes from climbing in the cockpit, and we exercised that quite often, literally sprinting to the aircraft in many occasions.

What other aircraft types have you flown? Which was your favorite? Why?
Other than the Bell206 (TH67) and AH64D, I have flown the OH58 A/C during a phase in flight school. The Apache easily is my favorite.

What memories stick out to you thinking back on your flight time?
It's pretty amazing how in the Army you can cram so many different experiences in such a compressed amount of time. Flying missions with the A10 guys stands out to me, and it's a amazing to have managed to get some airborne photos with them in combat.


If you could fly the Apache anywhere on Earth, where would it be? Why?
It would probably be against the regulations, but flying in/near an active volcano would be epic. Could you imagine how amazing those photos would look with flowing lava in the background?

What do you know now that you wish you knew about flying when you were first learning?
I would tell my less experienced self to relax. Even though you find yourself to be very task saturated in the aircraft especially, in combat situations, the calmer you remain, the easier it is to sequence all your actions to be most efficient in fighting with the aircraft.

What is your callsign and how did you get it?
The Army tends to treat call signs a bit different than the Air Force does. We don't really earn a call sign based on and embarrassing or hilarious moment. We adopt the unit moniker and attach a number based upon your role within the unit. Nowadays I am a Slayer when I was previously a Silver Spur.

You document your experiences with the Apache in an amazing way, have you always loved photography or is it something you picked up later in life?
I've always been fascinated with photography and have learned and experimented with different techniques throughout the years. I still know I have quite a bit more to learn to improve myself, and look forward to doing so with my photos in the future.

What is the biggest challenge capturing the Apache while in flight?
Being inside a cramped cockpit, wearing a bulbous helmet and using a DSLR, you never can get a good look through the viewfinder, and with the other aircraft bobbing and weaving in formation, it is quite difficult to frame a focused, well composed image. Also the flat plate canopies on most AH64 never stay clean, and are scratched or distorted, which makes for additional difficulty in capturing clean photos.


What has been the most rewarding thing for you since you have started the @combataviator IG page?
I started the page prior to my last deployment in 2017 to share a few of my experiences while deployed. What I never expected was for the page to grow so quickly with it mostly being focused on the AH64. And for that I'm thankful for all the followers who have supported me to stay motivated and keep shooting and sharing my experiences.

Do you have an absolute favorite image you have made? Why?
Photos that are difficult to recreate tend to be my favorite, especially when those moments are temporary and fleeting. There was a series of photos I shot amongst a rising sun in the Afghan mountains, and it was made that much more spectacular since we were over top of the cloud deck with the mountainous terrain poking through. It was easily one of the most visually stimulating moments of my career.

Have you gained a desire to expand your photography skills to other subjects in aviation?
It's funny because previously I've always photographed a wide range of aircraft prior to my joining the Army, but it wasn't until I started the Instagram page that my focus became more singular. I guess what they say about being inspired more by what you're passionate about is true! I do however plan to vary my subjects, even outside of aviation, and make start another account to share those sometime in the future.

What is next for you in your Army career and Photography?
That is a big unknown at this point. It's going to be a roll of the dice to see where I end up and what I get to see next. Regardless, I still plan on keeping the shutter clicking, and hopefully have some new and unique experiences ahead.

Full Disc Aviation would like to thank Bobby Triantos for his service to this country, the interview and the use of his photography. We urge you all to go check out his store where you can purchase some of his spectacular prints.