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Prince Harry arrives at U.S. base for live-fire helicopter training

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 3:25 PM EDT, Fri October 7, 2011
Prince Harry stands in front of his Apache Helicopter while he was in the French Alps on his Mountain Flying training in March 2011.
Prince Harry stands in front of his Apache Helicopter while he was in the French Alps on his Mountain Flying training in March 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prince Harry arrives at a U.S. military base in California
  • 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 who complete the training go to Afghanistan

Naval Air Facility El Centro, California (CNN) -- Britain's Prince Harry, the younger son of Prince Charles, has arrived at a U.S. military base in California for the final phase of helicopter gunship training, according to a United Kingdom Ministry of Defense statement Friday.

Capt. Harry Wales, as he's known on the airfield, will begin live-fire training, which is combined with "environmental and judgment training."

The course will be split between Naval Air Facility El Centro and Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Air Field in Arizona.

If he passes the two months of pilot training, Prince 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 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. It is also where much of the film "Top Gun" with Tom Cruise was filmed, said U.S. Navy Capt. Devon Jones, commanding officer.

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.

Prince 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.

His 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, Prince 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 for 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. sorties 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, most recently from March to May this year, Bullen said.

The tactical exercises will test the fighting awareness of the prince and his 19 classmates.

The El Centro instruction will focus on aviation environmental training and crew judgment. The students will be tested on handling the aircraft in mountainous and desert conditions, including dust landings and desert landings by day and night.

"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 on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range complex at the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field in southern Arizona.

They will deploy the Apache's weapons system: missiles, rockets and cannon.

"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 British Apache MK 1 helicopter, which is a modified version of the American military's Apache.

Jones said that Prince 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."

Upon completion of Exercise Crimson Eagle, Prince Harry will return to Britain as a fully trained Apache pilot and will then be assigned to one of the Apache squadrons within 16 Air Assault Brigade, where he will gain more experience flying the attack helicopter and participate in exercises in the United Kingdom, the British military said.

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.

CNN's Phil Gast and David Ariosto contributed to this report.

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