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.

"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."

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Darrin Hostetler