Apache Safety In Question

Last year the accident rate for the U.S. Army's state-of-the-art attack helicopter, the Apache, nearly doubled. That included two training crashes of the Apaches deployed but never used in the Kosovo air war. Two crewmen were killed.

As CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports, they were not the first casualties of the high-tech helicopter.

In 1996, Donald Lee was the Army's outstanding aviator. A year later, he and his co-pilot Phillip Bowers were dead, killed in a crash of their $15 million Apache helicopter.

The Army chalked it up to pilot error, but attorney Jon Kettles, himself a former Army helicopter pilot, says he is suing the Boeing Corp. and other contractors who made the Apache, claiming they built a defective aircraft.

"The aircraft made an uncontrolled descending turn into the ground. The Army didn't bargain for an aircraft that flies itself into the ground and kills two pilots doing it," Kettles says.

The prime suspect for a mechanical cause of this and other crashes is a system actually designed to save lives.

It's called the backup control system, BUCS for short. If the primary control system of mechanical rods gets shot up in battle, the electronic BUCS system is supposed to kick in.

"The backup flight control system will then engage and provide the crew with a means of recovering the aircraft to survive and fight another day," says pilot instructor Greg Turberville.

But BUCS has a history of coming on unexpectedly and sending unintended signals into the flight control system.

"At low level, at high speed, the flight crew doesn't have time to react, doesn't have time to save the aircraft," says Kettles.

The Army says BUCS was the cause or contributing factor in two crashes, but a pilot who survived one crash told CBS News the real number of accidents is 10 to 15.

The Army's own safety magazine says BUCS has become synonymous with "demons in the Apache" and that "aviators fear the system."

BUCS had so many problems it was simply disconnected in the first 500 Apaches to come off the assembly line. But that created a different problem.

Because the Apache was supposed to have a backup control system, the Army allowed the manufacturer to build a primary flight control system that was not up to military specifications for ruggedness and durability. The bottom line: The risk of flying the Apache is higher than it should be.

So the Army reversed itself and decided to connect BUCS on the next 300 Apaches it bought. The Army says the system has saved two of its Apaches from crashing. But the aviation safety center rates the Apache just as risky to fly with BUCS as without.

"Given all the problems with the backup flight control system, I believe the pilots would actually be safer with it deactivated," says Kettles.

But the Army now seems determined to make BUCS work. It has ordered a rucial part of the system pulled and tested, and it has set out to improve training, which, according to that safety magazine, was "totally inadequate."

But the first simulators that will allow pilots to train on BUCS won't even be delivered for three more years.

The Army insists the Apache is still the best attack helicopter in the world. But one of the Army's top Apache experts admits it has "a nasty history."