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Prince Harry, aka Capt. Wales, to use live helicopter fire at U.S. bases

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Thu October 6, 2011
Prince Harry stands in front of his Apache helicopter while he was in the French Alps on his Mountain Flying training in March.
Prince Harry stands in front of his Apache helicopter while he was in the French Alps on his Mountain Flying training in March.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prince Harry will be tested on whether he's "limited combat ready"
  • He will fire live missiles, rockets and cannon from Apache attack helicopters
  • His training will occur at U.S. military bases in California and Arizona
  • The majority of British airmen passing the maneuvers go to Afghanistan

Naval Air Facility El Centro, California (CNN) -- Mum's the word on exactly when he'll arrive, but Prince Harry -- or Capt. Harry Wales, as he's called on a military airfield -- will use live fire for the first time when he soon begins helicopter gunship training at U.S. bases in California and Arizona, officials said Thursday.

If he passes the two months of pilot training, Harry will be one step closer to becoming combat ready and possibly returning to the front lines of Afghanistan, where the majority of pilots and crews successfully completing the Apache helicopter training are deployed, said British Army Lt. Col. Peter Bullen.

His training space is a bit famous too: The El Centro naval base, which is in California's Imperial Valley about 110 miles east of San Diego and just minutes north of the Mexican border, is the winter home of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels precision flight team. It is also where much of the film "Top Gun" with Tom Cruise was filmed, said U.S. Navy Capt. Devon Jones, commanding officer.

British and American military officials showed reporters Thursday an Apache attack helicopter, the version that Capt. Wales and a second crew member will fly in maneuvers called Exercise Crimson Eagle.

But the prince's arrival date wasn't disclosed. And when it happens, it will be out of the public eye, announced only by a military press release.

Any public glimpse of the third-in-line heir to the British throne will only be gleaned when he and 19 other British airmen are given a break from the intensive training, officials said.

Prince Harry heads to Arizona

That personal time could range up to a day or two, and the prince and his brothers-in-arms will be free to do whatever they want -- either bowling in the small desert town of El Centro, population 42,000, or visiting San Diego, Palm Springs, or even Las Vegas, if they have the time or energy, Bullen said.

"That all depends on the flying program," said Bullen, the exercise director. "It is a very intensive course."

The only place that is off-limits to the British servicemen, as with their U.S. counterparts, is nearby Mexico, Bullen said.

The helicopter exercises will require the group of 20 British airmen to use all the lessons they have learned in the past 14 months of their training, Bullen said.

If successful, the prince and his mates will be deemed "limited combat ready" and will have four to six months more of training in England before they are considered fully combat ready, depending on their squadron's schedule, Bullen said.

Harry -- the younger son of Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, and the late Princess Diana -- served on the front line in Afghanistan as a forward air controller and saw combat. But he was withdrawn in February 2008 after news of his deployment broke.

Harry's brother, Prince William, is also in the military, as an army officer. But as second in line for the throne, he is specifically barred from combat.

According to the Telegraph in London, Harry intends to return to Afghanistan next year after he completes his training. He has been told by flying instructors he has a "natural flair" for flying, the newspaper reported this summer.

The British military, which has been training airmen at El Centro the past 20 years, chose the American Southwest for the attack helicopter training because the mountainous desert and fine dust resemble conditions that U.S. and U.K. pilots now experience overseas.

"The environment here is certainly what you encounter in Afghanistan. You can't replicate that in England," Bullen said.

The Exercise Crimson Eagle has been held several times at the El Centro base since 2006, and the last training was held from March to May this year, Bullen said.

The tactical exercises will test the fighting awareness of the prince and his 19 classmates. They will also have to execute desert landings by day and night, and they will deploy the Apache's weapons system: missiles, rockets and cannon.

"We'll have guys on the ground acting as civilians or the enemy, and they'll have to use their judgment," Bullen said.

In the second month of training, the two-man helicopter crews will use live fire at the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field in southern Arizona.

"We'll have friendly troops that will indicate a target, and they will have to engage it," Bullen said. "This is the first time they will fire armaments outside of simulators.

"The aircraft will be heavy and will have to be flown sympathetically," Bullen added about the U.K. Apache MK 1 helicopter, which is a modified version of the American military's Apache.

Jones said that Harry won't receive any special treatment on the base. "We will treat him as we do all our visiting British personnel," he told reporters.

Added Bullen about the prince: "He is treated exactly the same as any other student on the course, and he wouldn't want to be treated any differently."

The British Apache force, which is operated by that country's Army Air Corps, is based in Wattisham, Suffolk, in England, and has been active in Afghanistan the past five years, officials said. The force also provided support recently in Libya. Wattisham Airfield was used by the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, officials said.

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