Over the last 20 years, the U.S. Army has spent $14 billion for more than 700 Apaches. The mainline attack weapon is designed to fight in teams of four or five aircraft, but all that training stopped earlier this winter, when a large portion of the Apache fleet was grounded.
"Basically, 75 percent of my fleet was grounded for training," explains Army Lt. Col. Frank Ippolito. "One day we're flying it. The next day it's not available to train with."
Eighteen of the 24 Apaches in Ippolitto's Fort Campbell, Ky. battalion were out of commission because both the transmission and a bearing in the drive shaft had to be removed, inspected, and in some cases replaced after they began failing at an alarming rate. According to Ippolitto, "Those are two major components. They're in the drive train of the aircraft and we can't fly without a good transmission."
Ippolito tried to make up for the loss by increasing the time his crews spent in the simulator, where they can go through the procedures for handling in-flight emergencies like engine failure. The simulator uses real motion to mimic a real aircraft. Inside, there's computer-generated terrain for virtual flying. Still, says flight instructor Olin Ashworth, it can't take the place of the real thing. "Of course you can never duplicate flying the aircraft with the simulator," he says.
It was all the battalion could do just to keep a handful of its best pilots proficient enough to still fly the aircraft. Ippolito says, "I focused on my combat crews, the crews that I would send out if we were called to go to war tomorrow."
Apaches have been bedeviled by problems, and not just at Fort Campbell. The Army has more than 600 Apaches in its operational fleet, deployed in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait. Three-fourths of them were grounded.
In addition to the frontline Apaches there were also the ones at Fort Rucker, Ala., where pilots learn to fly the most complex helicopter in the world.
Lt. Col. Tom Young says that initially only three aircraft were operational, a situation he says virtually shut down training there. The shortage comes at a time when the Army is already so short of Apache pilots, it is asking retired flyers to come back on active duty.
"The Department of the Army went out and asked to recall Apache pilots as we went into this personnel dilemma," Ippolito says.
The Army has been working night and day to get its Apaches back in commission and expects to have them all up and flying again sometime this spring. The helicopter's problems, however, are far from solved.