European Stars and Stripes
November 3, 1999
Apache Pilots Take High Ground
Exercise in the Alps will equip them for the Balkans
By Marion Callahan, Heidelberg bureau
HEIDELBERG, Germany — U.S. Apache helicopters from the 11th Aviation regiment were to take part Wednesday in the first tactical flying exercise in the Bavarian Alps.
The training will better prepare pilots to face the rugged terrain and jagged mountain peaks of the Balkans. Apache aircrew training typically has focused on areas that are predominantly open desert and flat terrain.
Albania and Kosovo, however, are more than 75 percent mountainous. The danger of the unfamiliar terrain has prompted the Army to revisit aviation training for Apache crews. During Task Force Hawk last spring, two of the attack helicopters crashed, and two crew members were killed in Albania near the Kosovo border during training missions. Aviation officials said crews deployed to Albania were unfamiliar with the region’s topography and faced difficulties navigating the steep terrain with heavy loads at low-flying levels.
"They learned from that experience just how difficult it is to fly in mountainous terrain," said Col. Harry Tomlin, V Corps assistant chief of staff, Civil Military and Host Nation Operations. "This (exercise) is a product of a lesson learned."
Apaches were never given the order to fly into Kosovo during the 78-day NATO airstrikes. Instead, pilots navigated the likeness of a three-dimensional landscape converted from up-to-date satellite imagery of Kosovo via supercomputer. With the help of a million-dollar computer program called TOPSCENE – or tactical operations scenario – U.S. pilots at Camp Able Sentry flew above Kosovo.
Col. Rick Rife, commander of the 11th Aviation Regiment, said the training mission in the Alps will most closely replicate the environmental conditions found in the Balkans.
"We want pilots to execute in training what we anticipate they would encounter during real operations," Rife said. "It’s our intention now to incorporate such exercises into the mountainous training program instruction."
The three-day exercise will take place in the Alpine community of Sonthofen, just west of the Austrian border. The Illesheim, Germany-based pilots will fly 12 helicopters on a route no lower than 100 feet, without ammunition or explosives. The 20-minute course snakes through deep ravines and steep valleys in "high density altitudes," Rife said.
They will fly in teams of two, both during the day and at night. Rife said the route was carefully planned, requiring input and approval from German authorities, hunting associations, environmental organizations and national officials.
The approval of such an exercise marks a significant leap for U.S. forces in Germany, after a two-year period when changes in German law and revisions in joint U.S. agreements tightened Germany’s grip on military exercises on private property.
"We were asking for something the German military doesn’t ask of its own government," said Tomlin, who added the exercise was granted a one-time approval.
"When we ask to fly later at night, during the weekends or to go to the Alps, it’s because of a mission," he said. "We are not the boy crying wolf."
Army officials have launched an extensive information campaign aimed at educating local officials and community members about the Apache AH-64, the training needs of its crews, and its capabilities. The attack helicopters are designed to destroy tanks and armored personnel carriers and kill troops.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Army’s Apache helicopters used an arsenal of missiles, rockets and cannons destroying more than 500 Iraqi tanks, hundreds of armored personnel carriers, trucks and other vehicles. But the military learned in Albania that the mountainous Balkan terrain is far more dangerous for Apache pilots than the deserts of Iraq.
"The German government is helping to ensure our troops are ready to deploy," Rife said. "We’ve been very pleased with the cooperation."
Rife held a special briefing Oct. 25 in Sonthofen to explain the importance of the mission and to display the aircraft to area residents and the local media. He said during the exercise, a liaison and an Apache pilot will staff a county office to answer questions and address concerns. A few concerns already have modified original training requests.
Army officials initially hoped the exercise would take place in the summer. But local officials insisted the low-flying aircraft would disturb the cows grazing on the slopes of the mountains, a much treasured Alpine tradition. Tourism and environmental concerns were also major issues.
"We’re going to great lengths to comply with local German requirements and to ensure we have a minimal impact on our surroundings," Rife said.
Army officials hope to conduct similar exercises in the future for its Apache units. This week’s exercise was approved on a one-time basis. Apache units in Germany are limited to flying in local training areas and in Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels.
"Where we train is predominately flat," Rife said. "It’s not like the Alps."
Rife said mountainous terrain training always has been part of the instruction for Apache crews; however, actual flying time in such conditions is not required.
"We’ve known the academics associated with it, but we never mandated the flying hours in the actual conditions. Now, because of expected deployments in the Balkan theater, it’s absolutely essential. We would like to train in the Alps on a regular basis. For now, we’ll have to wait and see."
The Apache is armed with as many as 16 Hellfire missiles designed to destroy tanks and other targets. It’s also equipped with 70mm rockets and a 30mm cannon that can fire at a rate of 625 rounds per minute.
Length: 57 ft. 8 in.; Speed: 184 mph (cruise and level), 227 mph (maximum); Weight: Takeoff maximum 8.54 tons; Range: 229 miles; Armament: 30mm gun, Hydra 70 rockets, Hellfire missiles; Engines: Two General Electric turbine engines; Builder: McDonnell Douglas; Unit cost: $14.5 million; Crew: Two