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U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Justin Brye, an AH-64 Apache pilot assigned to 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, stands ready for his next mission. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael Wilson)

Army Apache pilot recalls journey from Marine Corps attack aviation

Sgt. Michael J. Wilson

10th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Office

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Nov. 18, 2021) – Chief Warrant Officer 2 Justin Brye, an AH-64D Apache helicopter pilot assigned to 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (LI), has progressed from fixing ghost grey-colored helicopters in the U.S. Marine Corps to flying olive drab green gunships in the U.S. Army here.

Brye, originally from Pompano Beach, Florida, grew up attending air shows, seeing the Blue Angels fly in south Florida, and watching Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun.” It was these things that cemented his love of aviation.

“Growing up in the ‘80s of ‘Top Gun’ played a significant role in that, so I always kind of had that itch from the beginning,” Brye said.

Coming out of high school in Detroit, Brye wanted to play football in college. However, he felt like he was not ready for the classroom environment. Instead, Brye went to his local recruiting station. Brye’s interest in aviation had his mind sold on joining the U.S. Air Force, or so he thought.

“We were going to the Air Force recruiter, but I had to pass the Marine Corps recruiter to get there, and he jumped out and grabbed me and pulled me in the office and said ‘we got planes too,’” Brye said.

Brye enlisted in the Marine Corps as an avionics crew chief on CH-46 Sea Knights, or “Phrogs,” he said. After that, however, the aircraft was phased out, and Brye began working on AH-1 Cobras and UH-1 Huey helicopters.

The Florida native gained interest in flying helicopters, but he missed the cut-off age requirement to fly in the Marines, he said. “I thought that dream was over.”

One day, Brye said, he attended a maintenance meeting and overheard his maintenance officer talking about writing a letter of recommendation for a Marine to attend flight school in the Army. Brye was astonished. “I didn’t know it was a thing,” he said.

Brye said he took that route and transferred to the U.S. Army in 2016. Then he attended Army flight school in Fort Rucker, Alabama.

After serving in the Marine Corps as a crew chief on AH-1 Cobras, Marine’s attack helicopter, Brye graduated flight school and became a pilot on the AH-64 Apache, the Army’s attack helicopter.

When comparing the two attack helicopters that he has flown in – one as a crew chief, the other as a pilot – Brye said that the AH-64 is physically larger and more advanced, but it has more complicated maintenance requirements compared to the AH-1, which is slim.

Working in the presence of two different attack helicopters is not the only thing unique about Brye’s experience in the military. He was assigned to aviation units in both services, which is a rarity in itself. The former Marine, now Soldier, said he was a part of the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268, also known as HMM-268, and the Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadron 778, known as HMLA 778, in the Marine Corps. Brye has deployed four times in his career – three with Marines and one with the Army as a part of the 10th Mountain Division.

When asked to compare how the two branches of aviation units tend to operate, Brye put it this way: “So really, they're more similar than different. In terms of missions, they're very similar.”

Brye’s experience as a crew chief on three separate airframes displays his aviation knowledge on rotary-wing aircraft. He said his background and expertise in aviation with the Marines has carried over to the Army, whether it’s executing missions or having a positive bond with his crew chiefs in his unit.

“When I'm interacting with the crew chiefs, I reminded myself how I was a crew chief and the interactions I had with the pilots,” Brye said. “I embrace that relationship just like a NASCAR driver would with a NASCAR crew chief, you know, and having them working together as a team to get the mission done.”

Spc. Aaron Mecum, an Apache crew chief who deployed with Brye in 2019, has seen his hard work and mentorship firsthand.

“I've been with him (Brye) since Afghanistan. That's where I first met him, and he's honestly a hard worker; he loves flying,” said Mecum. “You see him (watching) you working on aircraft, and you can tell he's been there, and he knows what you're experiencing.”

The former Marine staff sergeant said he feels terrible for the AH-64 Apache crew chiefs across the Army because they cannot fly with their pilots, unlike AH-1 Cobra crew chiefs who can fly as a front seater due to the AH-1 being a single pilot aircraft, Brye said.

“That's something I wish we could do here,” Brye said.  “Our crew chiefs would have a different experience if they could fly.”

It has been five years since he left the Marine Corps, but Brye said the Marines still have a special place in his heart. Brye continues to stay in touch with the pilots he worked with in the Marine Corps. 

“The saying, ‘once a Marine always a Marine,’ is ingrained deep in us,” Brye said. “I still keep in touch with a lot of the pilots that I flew with in the Marine Corps.”

Brye plans to spend his career in the Army as a pilot and continue to mentor the Soldiers he works with in the service.

“You can always grab something good out of people and learn from whoever is around you, so take the best out of people and roll with it,” Brye said.