Dispatches From Iraq

Received via Mike Sloniker 16 April 2003

Long Island Newsday
April 15, 2003

Back-Seat Role For Apaches

Not seeing much action in war

By Thomas Frank, Staff Correspondent

Baghdad - It was going to be the mission of their lives, the flight they had trained for back home, an assault so devastating that the Iraqi Information Ministry would deny for days that it had happened.

Capt. Scott Myers sat nervously in the dark cockpit of his Apache attack helicopter perched on the desert sand 20 miles south of his destination, Saddam International Airport. Myers also felt proud - proud "to be part of it."

All he could hear through his close-fitting helmet were clipped radio communications, and what he heard 15 minutes before takeoff April 3 changed the entire war experience for him. "Marne Six directs no rotary-wing aircraft east of the Euphrates River until further notice."

The meaning was clear - and crushing. Commanders of Myers' Army division, named to commemorate the World War I Battle of the Marne, had declared that helicopters would not fly above the infantry soldiers who would roll tanks and fighting vehicles into the airport. They were grounded. Again.

The U.S. victory over Iraq is being attributed to many weapons systems: fighter jets that annihilated Iraqi armor, bombs that hit key installations, artillery fire that blasted enemy rocket and missile systems and tanks that rambled into cities, practically invulnerable to Iraqi gunfire and grenades. But Apache helicopters - celebrated for wreaking devastation in the 1991 Persian Gulf War - played such a minor combat role that some pilots are wondering if commanders downplayed them deliberately to showcase tanks and other seemingly forgotten heavy armored vehicles.

"They used the armor to show they didn't need Army air assets to win the war," said Lt. Brett Lewis, an Apache pilot in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

The 18 Apache helicopters in the 3rd Infantry Division destroyed a total of 58 tanks, armored vehicles and artillery systems. During the 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. Lt. Col. Dan Williams, the Apache battalion commander, often had to counsel pilots not to get discouraged.

The battalion flew into the Baghdad airport two days after ground forces took control of it in heavy fighting. Apache pilots know their own war experience was different. "They took casualties. We haven't so far," Myers said. Capt. Dave Collins said: "We came here with stars in our eyes and thought we were going to be the division's main effort."

The Apaches were kept from much combat not to favor armored vehicles, Army officers say, but because the Iraqi military generally stashed its own armor inside cities, where Apaches, flying at 100 feet, are vulnerable to anyone with a rifle.

One Apache that did see action was forced down on March 23 in central Iraq by anti-aircraft artillery and individual Iraqis with rifles. Its pilots - Chief Warrant Officers Ronald Young and David Williams - were detained and were among the seven POWs who were found Sunday. One night early in the war, three-quarters of the more than 40 Apaches from the Army's 11th Aviation Regiment were hit by small arms fire as they attacked the southern city of Samawah.

The Apache battalion of the 3rd Infantry also was grounded by a brutal two-day sandstorm early in the war that kept them far behind the front line. During a key battle in early April about 50 miles south of Baghdad, a company of Apaches could not fire on what it thought was a column of Iraqi tanks because a ground commander took too long to confirm the tanks were not American. The helicopters, running low on fuel, had to return to their desert encampment without firing.

Removed from much of the fighting, Apaches focused on escorting medical-evacuation helicopters to retrieve casualties - "the kind of mission that makes you feel good, when you help save some lives," said pilot Rob Purdy, a chief warrant officer.

Weak Spots In Its Armor

Though the Army's Apache attack chopper is one tough bird, it has its vulnerabilities.

Production of the AH-64A Apache attack helicopter began in 1983. The AH-64D Longbow Apache, right, is the upgrade to the Apache family. This model, being used in Iraq, can be distinguished by its cylindrical bubble-shaped radar unit mounted above the main rotors. Improvements include radar, fire controls and navigation.


Weakest part of the helicopter. The tail rotor can easily be damaged by shoulder-launched rocket-propelled grenades and other ground fire, causing the pilot to lose directional control.


Bullets and even sand kicked up by the downwash can damage the blades, hurting aerodynamics. Helicopters in the desert have to have their blades inspected and resurfaced every few hours.


Sand can get sucked into the intakes and choke off the engine, or clog up and seize the gears that turn the rotor.


Unlike airplanes, helicopters need constant input from the pilot just to stay level. Sand clouds and incoming weapons fire can make this dangerous task even more perilous.