Saturday, 4 June 2011

Riding the Dragon

So now we have ground attack helicopters operating over Libya. The news channels will be full of it for the next 24 hours I expect. Something new to talk about and some different footage to show off on television. So, I thought I'd do a little post about what I know of these Apache helicopters, from my own research after I first saw the early version demonstrated by an amazing American pilot at the Army Air Corps HQ in Middle Wallop, Hampshire way back in 1982 and from my reading of a couple of excellent books by a highly decorated British Army pilot, Ed Macy. Both his books, "Apache" and "Hellfire" are a truly gripping and fascinating read. The skill and bravery of the teams who crew and support this aircraft fills one with pride and admiration.

The Apache is an ugly spud and has been around a long time, but its latest and most deadly version, the AH64D, only came into service with the US in 1998 although, as I briefly mentioned, I watched one fly many years earlier when providing very heavy and very armed security at an Army Aviation open day. America was very cagey about selling this beastie to anyone other than those it considered its closest allies. Now it is operated by Israel, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Kuwait and the UAE. So what is the story behind the UK getting its hands on this remarkable aircraft? The following is in Ed Macy's own words, from his first book, "Apache":

"In 1998 the AH64D came into service. It was even deadlier; 400 per cent more lethal (hitting more targets) and 720 per cent more survivable than its predecessor. The most significant addition was the state of the art Longbow Radar which could operate in all weathers, day or night, simultaneously detect 1,024 potential targets, moving or static, up to eight kilometers away, classify the top 256 and display the sixteen most threatening for destruction - all in three seconds. Twenty five seconds later, every one of those targets could be destroyed by a single Apache's Hellfires (guided missiles). A squadron of eight AH64D's working in unison could terminate 128 tanks in 28 seconds - just by raising one Apache Longbow Radar above the tree or ridge line for a few seconds. They christened it `fire and forget`.

 In the late 1990's the British Government finally decided it needed them too. As a nation we didn't have an attack helicopter capability, just a few Lynx squadrons armed with a couple of TOW anti-tank missiles strapped to the side of each craft. Despite its cutting edge design and astonishingly powerful Longbow, the AH64D still had a few ongoing shortcomings. They couldn't operate off ships and they weren't powerful enough to carry a significant amount of ammunition and fuel at the same time. To fly them at low level meant heavy anti aircraft fire could still bring them down.

Our generals approached the government with an ambitious plan. Why didn't we buy Boeing's Apache shell, keep the good bits and make the rest even better ourselves? The boffins at Westland Helicopters went to work.  The most important change was two Rolls Royce RTM 322 engines. Each churned out more than twice the brake horsepower of a Formula One racing car, giving our model 30 per cent more power than the American AH64D. It allowed us to fly further, higher and fight with more weapons.

The Brits also scoured the globe for the best countermeasures and built them into the worlds most sophisticated defensive aide suite. It allowed pilots to take the the aircraft above small arms range, which downed 95 per cent of all military helicopters, and into the previously lethal surface to air missile (SAM) belt - because the British Apache could now defeat surface to air missiles. They also added a folding blade mechanism so we could operate off aircraft carriers in confined space; an automatic de-icer built into the blades so we could fight in the Arctic; Saturn radios so highly encrypted that their transmissions couldn't be decoded by any intercept; new motors for the CRV7 rockets, making them faster and more accurate; and a unique health monitoring system which enabled the aircraft to automatically diagnose any problems through dozens of microscopic sensors. 

The UK bought sixty seven of Westland's finished article for a cool £46 million each - making the Apache AH Mk1 the second most expensive British aircraft ever made, behind the £62 million Eurofighter Typhoon. The whole Apache project set the MoD back £4.13 billion. On paper, the British Apache was the most expensive - and best - attack helicopter in aviation history. For once, even the Americans were jealous. All the Army needed to do now was find the pilots to fly their new creation. And that was the most challenging part of all".

I could reproduce more from Ed's book but I need a break from copy typing and I want to post this up and have a beer. If anyone would like a little bit more of a taster, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do, but before I sign off I just wanted to say that I felt the MoD did a pretty darned good job in acquiring Apaches for our Army. When one reads about some of the other supply debacles one tends to overlook the good bits. But we've only deployed eight and we only have one ship that can do what is currently being done out there in the Med, off the Libyan coast. That is something that HMG and the MoD still have to look at, long and hard.  

And a  footnote to this post: I've just had a text from Mrs HD, who doesn't know I'm tapping this out, to say Ed Macy is currently being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about the Apache deployment in Libya - now how spooky is that?


CI-Roller Dude said...

I can tell you a story about how an Apache can really mess up an Insurgent trying to run away.

"Sir, can you identify this person from this pictur?"

Me: "NO! Is that a person? It looks like cut up chicken and beef bones with lots of blood."

Hogdayafternoon said...

Hi Dude. Talking about you today. Were you out in the Balkans in `98-99?

TonyF said...

It doesn't fly, it's so ugly, the Earth repels it.....

If only we had TSR2, we would have the best pair of aircraft in the world to ruin someone else's country.

Hogdayafternoon said...

Tony: Did you ever work at Coningsby during the Phantom era? I'm thinking, maybe, 43 Sqdn. circa 1970-73?

JuliaM said...

"It doesn't fly, it's so ugly, the Earth repels it....."

I actually quite like its looks! But then, I quite like the look of the A-10 too.. ;)

Hogdayafternoon said...

JuliaM: Yes, it has a strange appeal. Bit like the description I read recently about the difference between a Spitfire and a Grumman Hellcat: "If a Spitfire was like a ballerina with a knife, then a Hellcat was like a prizefighter with an axe".

sparkflash said...

Same as the Warthog, the Apache is so damned ugly, you just have to love it.

Hogdayafternoon said...

Spark`: I first saw an A10 do some practice manoevers when I was sat on the banks of the river Nene in upper Northants, gun dog at my side. Two `Hogs came over at about 100`, pulled up hard, Immelman turned and swung back for a second pass across the field at my back. They repeated this 3 times then headed off SSE, probably for the evening meal at Bentwaters. They seemed to managed these turns in half an acre of airspace. I looked down and saw the object of their desire. A parked combine harvester, clearly a suitable `target` for a last bit of practice. I have been hooked on Warthogs ever since.

sparkflash said...

A friend of mine, driving a tractor in a valley surrounded by trees, gets the same thing, now and again, from Chinooks. They come in over the tree line, drop like stones, those twin rotors flexing like you wouldn't believe as they come to a halt, just high enough for, oh, I dunno, say 8 men to come down on ropes, and then roar out on maximum power.
Can't imagine what they're up to.

Hogdayafternoon said...

Spark`: They're probably not up to what the TOW equipped Lynx's weren't up to, parallel to the A303, at about 2-3 miles range. I believe Volkswagens and Mercs were particular favourites.

CI-Roller Dude said...

For the last few rotations the Americans sent to Bosnia, they were sending Army National Guard units.
I was in Bosnia around Aug 2003 to about march 2004. We were SFOR 14 the group that replaced us (SFOR 15) was the last big American group to be in Bosnia.
I loved my job there.

Anonymous said...

I just love the technology. I wonder what a booted grunt could do to bring one down?

Hogdayafternoon said...

CI-RD: Just wondered. I've PM'd via e mail.

ACO: From what I've read, a grunt would have to wrench open the cockpit and beat the pilots to death. The knack being to get the grunt to the cockpit. That or a seriously unlucky hit from a SAM. Mind you, it still remains a helicopter and although I've flown in several military ones and really rate the pilots, I am wary of anything that won't at least glide :-/