European Stars and Stripes
December 19, 2000
Apaches Are Ailing Warriors
After latest grounding, Army struggles to get helos airworthy again
By Jon R. Anderson, Stars and Stripes
HEIDELBERG, Germany - The Army grounded its entire fleet of AH-64 Apache helicopters over the weekend - including those in hotspots such Bosnia and Kosovo - in what is just the latest in a series of woes for the tank-killing attack aviation community over the past two years.
Of the Army's 742 Apaches, more than 100 are in Europe, mostly in four battalions spread across Germany. Sixteen Apaches also are deployed to Bosnia from stateside units.
In Europe especially, gunship units have faced a roller-coaster ride of steep problems - and aggressive pushes to address them - since the Army deployed two battalions of Apaches from Germany to Albania during NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia last year.
After two crashes left two aviators dead during training missions along Albania's rugged frontier with Yugoslavia, the Army task force was not called into action and leaders have spent the 18 months since then trying to adapt the lessons learned.
Maintenance problems also have been a Hellfire missile-sized thorn in the side, however. Among them:
* Faulty tail rotor assemblies grounded the entire fleet in November.
* A bad clutch in the Apache's accessory gearbox exacerbated the grounding a month later.
It took until March before most units had their aircraft running again. But fixing the aircraft is only half the problem.
"Those two problems alone meant more than three months of not flying for us," said Lt. Col. Timothy J. Edens, commander of one of Germany's four Apache battalions. "There's a serious atrophy of skills when you're out that long. In terms of our training, it's almost as if we had to stand up a whole new unit from scratch."
The latest problem, said Dan O'Boyle, a spokesman for Army aviation at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., involves a faulty tailrotor piece. The grounding came after a critical "swashplate assembly" crumbled during a recent inspection.
The "swashplate was in an advanced stage of degradation with catastrophic failure imminent," reads the Armywide order grounding the Apaches.
At least 28 of the assemblies are believed to be bad, but officials aren't sure where the parts have been sent. All units have been ordered to inspect the assemblies while the Army investigates the problem.
"We really don't have any idea - at this point - how long this is going to take," O'Boyle said.
A steep climb
Dogged by maintenance woes, it has been that much harder for commanders to address the systemic training and readiness issues that plagued pilots who were sent into Albania last year.
In a sharply worded memo, Maj. Gen. Dick Cody, commander of the Apache pilots in Albania and now commander of the 101st Airborne Division, wrote to incoming Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki shortly after the air campaign ended.
Cody attacked the training of junior officers and said incoming crops of battalion commanders were not being sufficiently groomed.
"We are not growing our young aviation leaders well enough in the first three years after flight school," Cody wrote. The result, he said, is company commanders "with little flight experience and little aviation savvy on what looks right. Most importantly, we are placing them and their unit at risk when we have to ramp up for a real-world crisis."
The training accidents aside, Cody said it took 16 full mission rehearsal exercises over the first three weeks in Albania before he was confident his men were ready for action.
A changing mindset
"We have come a long way," said Col. Rickey L. Rife, commander of the 11th Aviation Regiment in Germany who oversees two of the four European Apache battalions.
"Before Albania, we were not focused on rapid deployment," Rife said. "Now, the mindset has changed - we're focused on going anywhere we're needed and being ready to go with 96 hours."
With the ability to conduct short-notice deployments directly into combat as his guidepost - and the recurring theme of Cody's recommendations - Rife said there have been many changes in the way units in Germany have been training. Among them:
* Night vision. Almost all of the pilots who deployed into Albania were not qualified to fly with night-vision goggles. All that's changed now, however, with goggle training becoming a major focus.
* Load ups. While Apaches can fly directly into hotspots, sometimes it's quicker to load them onto big lifters like the C-5 or C-17 cargo planes. However, preparing the aircraft and loading them correctly can be training intensive. Two new C-17 mockups - one at Ramstein Air Base and one in Grafenwöhr -are helping.
* Underwire training. One of the biggest threats facing the Apaches as they prepared to attack into Yugoslavia were high-tension power lines. To learn the tricky art of flying under the wire, pilots have been using a German training area to practice.
* High-altitude training. Another problem in Albania was that pilots were unaccustomed to flying in the mountains because of tight restrictions in most of the Alps. Officials are still looking for a site where units can train regularly.
* Over-water flying. As part of a larger effort to qualify Apache pilots to fly off of aircraft carriers, units in Germany have been infused with $100,000 in funds for "dunk tank" certification in England.
* Deep-strike training. For the first time since Albania, Apache units in Germany gathered in Poland recently for large-scale deep strike training. Dubbed Victory Strike, it also was the first time the aircrews had been involved in any kind of training above the small-unit level.
A long way to go
Despite the efforts, many of the more experienced pilots say there's still a long way to go.
"Fundamentally, the things that need to be changed, still haven't been," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Zimmerman, an Apache pilot with 2nd Battalion, 6th Aviation and a veteran of Albania.
One of the key points raised by Cody was the need for pilots to gain their "pilot in command" rating, a top-level qualification.
"It's still the same," Zimmerman said. "The problem is that [commissioned officers] go away to staff jobs after their platoon time and come back to command a troop and they're still wet-behind- the-ears aviators."
Fellow Chief Warrant Officer 3 R.S. Jackson agrees.
"That's an area where we've really fallen on our face," said Jackson, one of the senior pilots in 6th Battalion, 6th Aviation. "If we could keep a lieutenant around for 18 to 24 months, we'd get them PIC [pilot-in-command] qualified. But many only get as little as 12 months as platoon leaders."
In the Army, both commissioned officers and warrant officers like Jackson and Zimmerman are pilots, but commissioned officers - who actually lead the units - also must work in non-flying staff jobs to round out their career development.
"It's completely different than the Air Force where you're most experienced pilot is almost always the commander," Jackson said. To get young officers moving in that direction, he said, the answer is simple: more of the right kind of training.
"We're still flying the same amount of hours, but we're not doing nearly as many big exercises like this one anymore," he said during the recent maneuvers in Poland.
"The ability for pilots to get PIC qualified is directly tied to doing exercises like this and we just don't that many of them. We only shoot gunnery once a year."
"We're getting there," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Al Gomez, also in Jackson's unit. "We're about 60 percent of the way right now, but we're getting there."