Copter runs on its reputation


Apache: The Army's AH-64 gunship looks lethal, but it's fussy about humidity and unpleasantly prone to crashing.

October 16, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Its intimidating black shape and missile-spiked fuselage send enemy soldiers scratching for cover. Its name is considered so cool that children tattoo it on their arms in felt-tip marker. Its reputation reportedly swayed Britain's Prince William into considering a military career.

Few weapons of modern warfare inspire as much myth or radiate as much menace as the U.S. Army's Apache AH-64 attack helicopter.

Designed to tangle with tanks and melt mountaintops, the Apache - on paper at least - is the most lethal helicopter in the world, capable of carrying 16 Hellfire anti-tank missiles, 76 Hydra anti-personnel rockets, and 1,200 rounds of armor-piercing ammunition.

"Have you ever seen a flight of Apaches come over the horizon?" says editor Gunter Endres of Jane's Helicopter Markets and Systems, the bible of rotary-wing aircraft. "They're absolutely terrifying."

Nor have many aircraft sparked as much debate. Dogged by maintenance problems and deadly crashes, the Apache over the years has gained a reputation as a "hangar queen" - military slang for aircraft long on looks and short on performance.

"This is a prima donna type aircraft," Apache test pilot Bruce Heath told USA Today in 1991. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."

Test in Afghanistan

Killing machine or hangar queen? America could soon find out. As the United States exhausts its list of bombing targets in Afghanistan, some military experts expect the Apache helicopters to be subjected to their first test as they accompany Special Forces soldiers into the country on the ground, defending the Black Hawk transport helicopter.

Built by the Boeing Corp. at its Mesa, Ariz., plant, the first $12 million Apache AH-64A was delivered to the Army in 1984. Over the years Boeing has sold the helicopter to countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Netherlands and Great Britain.

Its troubles started from its very first mission: Operation Just Cause, the 1989 raid on Panama.

The initial attack force of six helicopters broke down, their sophisticated electronics too sensitive for the Central American humidity, according to a post-mission review by congressional investigators.

Spare parts, meanwhile, were in such short supply that they had to be taken from helicopters on the Arizona assembly line. In the end, the Army was forced to dispatch five Apaches to Panama as fill-ins.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the helicopter redeemed itself. The Army, which sent more than 275 Apaches to the Persian Gulf, credited the helicopters with knocking out Iraq's early warning radar sites, 500 enemy tanks, hundreds of armored personnel carriers and other vehicles.

Great lengths

Still, parts shortages and mechanical breakdowns continued to trouble the Apache. Perhaps eager to prevent a public relations disaster, the Army went to extreme lengths to keep the helicopters in the air.

For example, it limited all noncombat Apache helicopters to four minutes of flying a day to prevent wear and tear, and ferried 280 Boeing technicians to the Middle East to nurse the helicopters around the clock. The helicopter's 30-mm cannon, meanwhile, was kept just over half full to minimize its tendency to jam.

While the efforts paid off in the desert, the long-feared PR disaster arrived in Yugoslavia. In 1999 NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Wesley Clark ordered up 24 AH-64A Apache helicopters to join the fight against Slobodan Milosevic and his army.

But the helicopters sat idle for weeks. Army officials explained that the Apache, designed to fly low, would be vulnerable to the SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles carried by Serb soldiers. The U.S. press heard a different message and pounced: The war was too dangerous for one of America's most fearsome killing machines.

Alternative uses

The Apache became the butt of jokes. The New Republic published a Top 10 list of "some alternative sorties while the helicopter gunships await further orders."

Among the suggestions: "Herd sheep," "Assist local farmers with crop dusting" and "Fly ad banners past sunbathers on the Adriatic's beaches."

The mission wasn't a total loss. NATO was able to play off the Apache's fearsome reputation to inflict some psychological damage, bombarding Serbian troops with leaflets portraying an Apache swooping down onto their tank. "Remain in Kosovo and face certain death" it read.

Local radio broadcasts reported Apache sightings as though they were weather reports. "There is a feeling that it's only got to appear somewhere and the enemy lies on its back and surrenders," says Endres of Jane's.

But for many the Apache's reputation suffered a major hit. Worse, one of the few times the helicopters did fly during the Kosovo conflict - on a training mission - one crashed, killing its two occupants. They were the only known U.S. casualties during the NATO war on Yugoslavia.

Time on the ground

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