Our Most Frightening Weapon

U.S. pilots flying Gulf War missions in Apache Attack Helicopters say they are tired of battling the enemy.

But it's not the Iraqi army that's making them weary. The shooting war is over, and the opposing forces have been easily routed. The pilots' primary adversary, they insist, is much more unstable, dangerous and unpredictable than Saddam Hussein's legions of unwilling warriors ever threatened to be.

One pilot, sitting in a tiny maintenance shack, standing alone at the end of a long, windswept desert runway, explains.


Apache helicopter

"Look over there," he says, pointing out the window toward a neat line of helicopter gunships tethered securely to the tarmac about 100 yards away. He shakes his head and smiles.

"My God. They are beautiful, aren't they?" he says reverently, his eyes surveying the flight line. "I mean, just look at them. They are mean-lookin' babies."

Each of the ten AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopters at this air base in Eastern Saudi Arabia does appear to be a truly fearsome machine, an evil metal insect bristling with machine guns, rockets and other state-of-the-art instruments of mass destruction. There is an air of danger about the helicopter's jagged profile, as if everything on its fuselage is razor-sharp and could cut the skin with just a touch. Mean-lookin' babies, indeed.

"Problem is," the pilot continues after a moment, "looks aren't everything."

Although it has been touted by U.S. senators, the Army and its Arizona builder, McDonnell Douglas (which employs 4,000 workers at its Mesa plant), as an unqualified battlefield success in the Gulf War--a claim as yet unsupported by complete data--the Apache does not receive such high marks from those who know the helicopter best, the men who fly it.

Three combat pilots--all officers and all military careerists--who saw extensive action during the Gulf War agreed to talk about what they say is the Apache's less-than-sterling performance. They spoke out even though under strict instructions from their superiors not to talk to journalists, and in spite of tough penalties that awaited them if caught with their mouths open--ranging from informal discipline at the hands of their commanding officer to possible court-martial. Understandably, they asked not to be identified in this story.

The military clearly doesn't want the pilots' story told. That's because these pilots point out that the Apache is a frightening weapon only when it's flying--which, in the Gulf War, wasn't often enough. The pilots tell of electronic failures, jammed guns and an abysmal mechanical record. In fact, one pilot estimates that, at any given time, one half of the 200 Apaches in the Gulf were not flight-ready.

"We call it the new, improved disposable helicopter," the pilot says, "because it is only good for about one mission, and then you might as well throw it away--or at least let it rest for a good while."

The Apache's performance has been so bad, the pilots say, that they often worried more about meeting death as a result of malfunctions in their own helicopters than from Iraqi antiaircraft fire. "We knew from the start that the Iraqis were trying to kill us," one pilot grins. "We didn't expect the Apache would get into the act, too."

To longtime Apache watchers, who have monitored the progress of the helicopter since its birth in the mid-1980s, news of the chopper's troubled performance against Iraq isn't surprising. Years before it saw combat in the Middle East, the Apache was fighting for its life in Congress and the halls of the Pentagon because of its reputation for unreliability.

Fixing a multitude of defects in the chopper has cost McDonnell Douglas--and the taxpayers--millions of dollars during the past half decade. But pilots in the Gulf say many of the problems with the gunship that caused the Army to ground its Apache fleet at least three times in as many years still persist today.

The poor performance of the Apache in tests, during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and now in the Gulf, threatens to prompt a merry game of pass the buck--as the Army blames the manufacturer, Congress and the manufacturer blame the Army, and the pilots . . . well, out there in the Saudi sand dunes, the pilots don't really care whose fault it is.

"All I know," says one, raising his hands in exasperation, "is that I don't like the thought of having to face another enemy behind the stick of this bird. And I don't think my family likes the thought of it, either."

THE DAY BEFORE the allied ground assault on Kuwait and Iraq, Arizona Senator John McCain paid a visit to the McDonnell Douglas Helicopter plant in East Mesa. To the wild applause of the workers who had gathered to hear him speak, McCain detailed how the "tremendous" Apache had fired the first historic shots of the Gulf War, knocking out Iraqi radar sites so quickly that the "Iraqis did not even know they were being attacked."

McCain's praise, part of a sustained flow of government and military glorification of the Apache that would continue throughout the rest of the war and its aftermath, included a video, recorded by an Apache's gun cameras, of the helicopter blasting entrenched Iraqi positions. With every missile hit, the crowd gasped with admiration at the power of the beast they had built.

It was a sweet, long-awaited moment of triumph for McDonnell Douglas workers and officials. A proud company that buzzes constantly about its dedication to quality--referred to in the halls of the Mesa plant as "The Big Q"--the aeronautical manufacturer had endured years of embarrassment as its most ambitious project floundered at nearly every turn.

Soon after the first Apaches rolled off the assembly line in 1984, the Pentagon's Office of the Inspector General blasted McDonnell Douglas for defects in the helicopter, including bulkhead cracks and concerns about the accuracy of the chopper's 30mm gun.

Troublesome reports began pouring in almost immediately from test flights--jammed cannons, cracked rotor blades and tangled hydraulic lines prompted McDonnell Douglas to make repeated changes in assembly procedures. But the problems only seemed to mount.

The Army temporarily stopped buying the helicopter in 1986 after a defective bolt in the control system of an Apache was discovered. That same year, a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress' watchdog agency, reported that "none of the 76 Apache aircraft delivered through March 1986 had met contract specifications." McDonnell Douglas spent $45 million during the next two years to bring the helicopter up to Army standards, but it wasn't enough.

Later in 1986, the Army grounded the Apache fleet because of a defective "electrical wiring harness" that caused the engines to shut down suddenly in flight. It did so again in 1987 because of a tail-rotor defect that caused a fatal crash in Alabama. And again in 1989, the Army kept its Apaches out of the sky after a crash in Florida killed a National Guardsman.

But perhaps the most stinging blow to the helicopter came when Colonel R. Dennis Kerr, the commanding officer of the Army's 82nd Aviation Brigade, wrote a 1989 letter to the GAO blasting the Apache as unreliable. Kerr cited a five-day military exercise in North Carolina, during which all twelve of the Apaches under his command were declared "un-operable" at least once.

Kerr went so far as to say that, in the event of war, he would prefer that his troops fly the twenty-year-old, Vietnam-era Cobra helicopter instead of the Apache. "The Army deserves to have an advanced helicopter that works," he wrote sarcastically, "at least for the first 72 hours of an operation." Kerr found the same old Apache problems--cracked rotor blades and jammed cannons--and discovered some new ones, including drive shafts that broke and motors that burned out. He also said the excessive vibration, produced when the Apache's cannon fired, tripped circuit breakers, which caused electronic target finders to shut down.

As a poster child for "The Big Q," the Apache was anything but endearing.

The result was congressional uproar, albeit a belated one. Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called for an investigation into the Apache by the GAO. To the chagrin of McDonnell Douglas officials, Dingell wondered aloud why the federal government was spending $12 billion on nearly 700 Apaches when their "readiness rate," a measure of what percentage of the fleet is prepared to fly, was at or below the Army's minimum standard of 75 percent.

After four of six Apaches assigned to combat duties in the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 were sidelined by broken parts after only one day of combat, other, higher-ranking, U.S. officials started wondering the same thing.

Despite attempts by members of the Arizona congressional delegation--most notably McCain, Senator Dennis DeConcini and Representative John Kyl--to defend the chopper from program cuts (and from the inevitable layoffs of McDonnell Douglas employees in Mesa), Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney sliced the Apache program from the budget last summer. In a concerted effort not to offend one of the nation's largest defense contractors, Cheney tiptoed around the reasons for cutting the program before its scheduled end in 1993. But after repeated questioning, the secretary eventually admitted "There were some problems with the Apache . . . It is maintenance intensive."

An aide to Representative Dingell put it a bit more clearly: "`Maintenance intensive' means it requires superhuman efforts on the part of ground crews to keep it in the air. This helicopter has serious problems, it's that simple."

"THE MAJOR PROBLEM was that you didn't know what to expect," the most senior pilot sighs. "There were so many things that could go wrong."

The three Army fliers are sitting on collapsible cots stretched out in the cramped little metal shack, which vibrates every few minutes as jets roar overhead. They sip coffee and munch on doughnuts while outlining the major problems they encountered with the Apache--most of which have been repeatedly reported as recurring defects in the helicopter during the past three years:

* The targeting system was repeatedly "knocked out" by the vibration from firing the Apache's 30mm cannon mounted in the helicopter's nose. "We would fire the cannon," a pilot recalled, "and then we would just lose our siting capability. And you can't shoot if you can't aim."

* Hydraulic lines tangled and ruptured, leaking hydraulic fluid and causing some of the Apache's guns to jam. "In case you didn't know what loneliness is," one of the pilots says, "let me tell you. Loneliness is whizzing over enemy territory, where everyone and their brother is shooting at you, fixing your guns on a target and watching those guns jam. There's no one there to help you out of that one."

* The rotor blades developed cracks--perhaps the most long-standing complaint about the Apache. "When that happens," one of the pilots notes, "the bird is out of commission for a long time--days and days."

In addition, the pilots complained about the fragile nature of the helicopter's electronics. "The dust here is very high in iron, and that had a detrimental effect on the electronics systems," one pilot says. "Neither the navigational nor the target acquisition systems were very resistant to the dust and dirt.

"To be fair, you have to realize that the desert is an extremely hostile environment for a high-tech helicopter. The dust is very fine and corrosive, and the heat is a killer. But these 'copters were designed for combat, and combat doesn't make for a clean environment."

At first, the pilots are quiet, calmly describing the defects they have wrestled with for the past few months with a businesslike, professorial tone. But after a few minutes, the fatigue and frustration begin to show through the cool, calculated exterior cultivated by those who make their living flying multimillion dollar aircraft through enemy gunsights.

"You know," says one, his voice rising, "it is hard enough to fight a war when you have the best there is. But I can't believe this is the best we have to fight with. Fortunately, I never had to make a decision about going up in a helicopter that wasn't safe because we had so many of them. But it was close a couple times."

These Gulf pilots are most bothered by the possibility that the Apache's unreliability could force them--or other soldiers in other wars--to risk their lives by flying an unsafe helicopter.

"That joke here, that the Apache is the disposable helicopter--fly it once and toss it away--is only funny because this was a short war. We had hundreds of Apaches, and were able to just fly another when one went down for days or weeks. In a longer campaign, hell, we couldn't do that. At the rate they were disabled over here, we would run out of flight-ready choppers in a few weeks of heavy, active combat."

"And that's when we would have to start cutting corners. And people would start to die as result."

IN THE OPINION of the professional defense community, the Apache is forever marked as a wounded bird, regardless of its performance in the Gulf. For them, the only question that remains to be answered by the Apache's performance during the war is whether the helicopter's "maintenance intensive" nature is due to incompetent upkeep by troops in the field or poor design by McDonnell Douglas. The aircraft maker, with a helping hand from congressional Republicans who supported the Apache project, is doing all it can to convince anyone who will listen that it is the former.

For Congress and the Department of Defense, the stakes are high. No one wants to be blamed for purchasing a $12 billion herd of whirling white elephants. But for McDonnell Douglas, the stakes could be even higher.

Since the U.S. government stopped buying Apaches last year, the company's only market for the helicopter lies overseas, where foreign nations are expected to assess the Apache's Gulf War report card carefully. In addition, McDonnell Douglas is competing against the team of Boeing Helicopters and Sikorsky Aircraft for the lucrative federal contract to develop and build the new Light Helicopter (LH) for the Army--a program industry officials say is one of the biggest and most expensive in aeronautical history.

A decision on which company gets to build thousands of the next generation of helicopters during the next twenty years is expected early next month, and reports that the Apache failed yet another test in the Gulf could hurt McDonnell Douglas' chances to win the LH project.

To ensure that doesn't happen, Hal Klopper, a spokesman for McDonnell Douglas, is busy hyping the Apache's war record and covering the corporate fanny with a touch-all-the-bases approach. McCain's pep-rally visit and recent unsupported assertions that the Apache proved to be a technological marvel during the war are the cornerstones of this new McDonnell Douglas PR campaign.

While he admits the Army, as of last week, hasn't released any "official numbers" on Apache performance, Klopper claims the chopper may have had the highest readiness rates of any aircraft in the Kuwaiti theatre of operations. "Based upon what we've heard and what we've seen on TV," he says, "it looks good."

But just in case there were problems with the Apache in the Gulf, Klopper says, it isn't the fault of McDonnell Douglas.

He says the Army's failure to purchase enough spare parts and properly maintain the Apache is the cause of any "readiness deficiency" in the helicopter.

Robert Rangel, an aide to House Armed Services Committee member Larry Hopkins, a Kentucky Republican, agrees, suggesting that any difficulties the military may be having with the Apache is due to inadequate repairs. He views the Army grunts who maintain the Apache with the same condescension a Nobel scientist would feel toward high school chemistry students who had invaded his lab. They aren't smart enough boys to play with the toys.

"The Army has traditionally structured their work force as sort of a truck mechanic work force," Rangel says. "But the Apache is a high-tech, complex helicopter. You can't maintain it the way you would a truck."

But in the Gulf, pilots laugh at the charge that the Army's maintenance crews are to blame for the Apache's poor performance.

"Those guys," one says, motioning to a crew out on the runway fussing over the engine of an Apache, "are the only things that stood between us and not flying at all."

The pilots say that because of the hazardous conditions of war and the complex, fragile nature of the Apache, ground crews were forced to "re-write the book and learn all the quick fixes" to repair the helicopter.

They are quick to stress that the reason Apaches didn't "drop out of the sky like rocks" is because the maintenance crews detected the defects before takeoff and grounded the helicopters. "Thank God for our repair boys," one says. "Come on, criticizing the field people is just politics, a way to lay blame on people who can't defend themselves."

AS McDONNELL DOUGLAS waits breathlessly for word on the LH project, Klopper is optimistic that when official reports on the Apache's Gulf record--scheduled for release by the Army this Friday--are available, they will paint a rosy picture of the beleaguered helicopter.

"There were problems in the past, but they have been worked on. They are the problems of old," he says.

Initially, that may seem to be the case. Congressional defense experts expect the first reports from the Pentagon to be favorable, no matter what actually happened out in the desert. "Initial battlefield reports from the military," says a House Armed Services Committee staffer, "are about as reliable as your daily horoscope."

To McDonnell Douglas, it may not matter what the official reports say anyway, since the complete story--in the form of a congressional investigation and report--probably won't be out for months after the LH decision is handed down.

And even if stories of the Apache's shortcomings do manage to drift out of the war zone, the company can take comfort in knowing that it's the lawmakers and bureaucrats, far removed from the fighting, who will be awarding the LH contract, not the pilots who flew the Apache during Operation Desert Storm. The pilots, for whom the "problems of old" are still the problems of now, might be a bit less charitable toward McDonnell Douglas.

"They told us that this bird was ready for war," says the youngest pilot among the three, who only began flying the Apache a few months ago. "I'd like to get my hands on the guys who built it and show them why it isn't ready for combat.

"They said it was fixed this time. If this is fixed, I would hate to see it when it was broken."


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