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NEWS | June 14, 2022

Pave Hawk special missions aviator hones marksmanship skills to razor’s edge

By David Bedard ,176th Wing Public Affairs

A typical day at the office for Alaska Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Corey Ercolani often involves spraying 7.62 mm bullets from the door of a speeding HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter at a cyclic rate of 4,000 rounds per minute. That’s 67 rounds per second.

During the 2022 Alaska Adjutant General Match in June, Ercolani had to slow things down quite a bit, deliberately taking aim with his M9 pistol or M4 carbine as he competed against Army and Air National Guardsmen for top honors.

Following a battery of marksmanship tests, Ercolani’s efforts bagged the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, native laurels as a member of the Governor’s Twenty. As the name implies, the crescent-shaped patch denotes he is among the best military shooters in the state.

Ercolani is a Pave Hawk special missions aviator with the 176th Wing’s 210th Rescue Squadron. The SMA Air Force specialty code combined the two positions into one for the only enlisted crewman assigned to the helicopter.

“A SMA is a mix between a flight engineer and an aerial gunner,” he said. “They consolidated those two career fields a while back. We run takeoff and landing data for the helicopter, operate the hoist, operate the guns, and, essentially, we are systems-knowledge experts who can diagnose problems with the helicopter.”

Ercolani operates both the 7.62 mm GAU-2 minigun and the .50-caliber GAU-18 machine gun. Though it doesn’t pack the per-round punch of the .50, Ercolani said he prefers the rapid-firing six-barreled weapon.

“The minigun is electrically driven,” Ercolani explained. “What it does is a motor spins the barrel cluster, and a feeder/de-linker de-links the ammunition and feeds it into the barrel bolt – each barrel has its own bolt.”

The GAU-2’s combination of precision parts adds up to a distinct ripping sound when it lets loose. Though Ercolani said he prefers the electric Gatling gun, he is just as happy using the GAU-18 to meet a clutch situation.

During the summer of 2012 while on deployment in Afghanistan, Ercolani’s HH-60 came to the aid of an allied armored column whose lead vehicle was disabled during an ambush. British AH-64 Apache attack helicopters took the lead using their 30mm chain guns to good effect.

“We got overhead, and I noticed enemy muzzle flashes and dust getting kicked up and immediately began to engage with my .50-cal,” he recalled. “We did two or three passes, and the Apaches were shooting down there as well, and I went through about 300 rounds.”

Through frequent visits to the helicopter gunnery range, Ercolani said providing accurate suppressive machine gun fire has become second nature.

“It’s actually a lot easier than you would think,” he said. “We train all the time. Throughout the course of my military career, I’ve probably blown through millions of rounds of ammunition. It’s an insane amount.”

The SMA said he relishes stepping away from his machine guns for the challenges of rifle and pistol marksmanship, where deliberate technique is required.

“I actually enjoy doing this because it’s a lot more complicated than shooting a machine gun,” Ercolani said. “There’s something about the fundamentals of marksmanship. You can’t lie your way out of it. You could have the coolest gear, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with it, it doesn’t matter.”

Though he bested dozens of other Airmen and Soldiers during TAG Match, Ercolani said he has to frequently practice his perishable sharpshooter skills. He also said he enjoys learning from others.

“What I love about this kind of marksmanship is you don’t ever get to know everything,” he said. “Every time I shoot, I’m always learning something else I need to practice on. It’s just like a martial art; you really have to practice at it to stay at a high level.”

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