The Apache Longbow attack helicopter made at Boeing's Falcon Field plant in Mesa is getting mixed reviews as reports filter in about its performance in Iraq.
Top Army commanders say they are very pleased. The aircraft was an integral part of the combat operations, flying all types of missions from leading the attack to providing flank and rear-area security, surviving heavy hits from enemy fire without a single pilot being seriously injured so far, said Lt. Col. Pat Garman, the U.S. Army's Apache Longbow program manager, who spoke to the media Wednesday at the Boeing plant.
But a published report in Newsday quoted some Apache pilots in Iraq as being disappointed they weren't ordered into more action, adding they believe they were deliberately held back from combat.
The 18 Apache helicopters in the 3rd Infantry Division destroyed a 58 tanks, armored vehicles and artillery systems. During the 1991 Gulf War, one company of six Apaches destroyed 20 of those in a single day, said chief warrant officer Scott Beiler, who flew Apaches in both wars. Third Infantry Apache pilots went days — sometimes more than a week — without flying attack missions.
The Apache battalion didn't fly into Bagdad airport until two days after it was seized by ground units in heavy fighting. Lt. Col. Dan Williams, the Apache battalion commander, often had to counsel pilots not to get discouraged.
“We came here with stars in our eyes and thought we were going to be the division's main effort,” said Capt. Dave Collins. Garman conceded the point, saying much fighting took place in cities where the Apache is not well suited.
The Apache is designed primarily to attack enemy tanks and other armored vehicles from long range, but it can be vulnerable to heavy enemy fire from underneath when it is only flying at about 100 feet, he said.
“Although the aircraft is extremely lethal and survivable, it is not a tank,” he said. “So once you get into heavy built-up areas, the aircraft was probably sent to do other missions.”
Army investigators have not yet determined what caused one Apache to go down on March 23, an incident in which Saddam Hussein claimed the helicopter had been shot down by a farmer with a rifle. The two pilots were captured by the Iraqis, but they were rescued by American forces Sunday. Although the cause hasn't been determined, Garman said it is virtually impossible to shoot down an Apache with rifle fire.
“Others took many hits and survived,” he said. “Some had all of their rotor blades hit, but not one pilot was seriously injured. They have been doing some very hazardous missions and have been very successful.”
He cited one incident in which an Apache took a hit from an anti-tank missile in one of its engines, but was able to fly back to its base safely using its other engine.
Most of the battle-damaged Apaches have already been repaired and are flying again, because damaged internal systems can be quickly replaced in the field, he said. For example, sections of a damaged drive shaft can be removed and replaced without having to replace the entire drive shaft, he said. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who also visited the Boeing plant Wednesday, called the Apache a weapon for a “noble soldier” because it can distinguish friend from foe and attack its targets with precision. “We are very privileged to have this weapon built in Arizona,” he said.