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AWOL Apaches: What’s Causing Rash of US Military Helicopter Mishaps?

© AP Photo / Ahn Young-joonU.S. Apache helicopters take to the air during an aerial gunnery exercise at a military firing range in Pocheon, South Korea (File)
U.S. Apache helicopters take to the air during an aerial gunnery exercise at a military firing range in Pocheon, South Korea (File) - Sputnik International, 1920, 30.03.2024
The US Army suffered two back-to-back crashes of Apache helicopters this week, with the lost gunships constituting the third and fourth AH-64s lost since February, respectively. What’s behind the rash of mishaps affecting the well-known attack helicopters in peacetime? Sputnik asked US Army vet Earl Rasmussen.
Two Army Apaches went down during training in the space of 48 hours this week, injuring four pilots.
The first incident took place Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, with two pilots injured after their AH-64 went down during a routine drill. On Wednesday, another Apache, operating out of Fort Carson in Colorado, went down during training, with its pilots taken to a base hospital with minor injuries and quickly discharged.
The accidents are now under investigation, with Fort Carson’s command moving to ground its Apaches until further notice.

The incidents were the third and fourth incidents involving Apaches since February, with a Mississippi National Guard Apache gunship going down in northern Mississippi on February 23, killing both pilots and prompting the Army National Guard to temporarily suspend all chopper flights. On February 12, another National Guard Apache, this one from Utah, went down during training. Its pilots survived.

The US military isn’t the only one experiencing trouble with its Apaches, with Israel, Japan, Greece, the Netherlands and other operators of the $52 million apiece gunship reporting a raft of crashes over the past decade.
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Introduced into service in the mid-1980s as an attack helicopter to target Soviet armored formations marching toward La Manche in a WWIII scenario that never came, the Apache has been the mainstay of the US attack helicopter fleet for over forty years, upgraded repeatedly, and taking part in the Iraq War in 1991 (where they faced maintenance problems due to the high intensity of their use), the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s (where they ran into additional maintenance-related issues), in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, and in Libya in 2011 (where they were used by the British).

To date, at least 16 US Army Apaches had been shot down in combat, with some 2,400 built overall, and nearly a dozen variants developed for 18 armies around the world. The AH-64’s characteristics vary, but the helicopters can fly close to 300 km per hour and are highly maneuverable, making appropriate training and pilot skill a must.

What’s Causing the Crashes?

“What’s troubling is that this is the second occurrence within the last week, which we need to take a look at,” says Earl Rasmussen, a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel with over 20 years of service under his belt.

“Moreover, we’ve had a slew of helicopter mishaps, over the past year especially. Both the Apache as well as Black Hawk helicopter crashes,” Rasmussen told Sputnik.
The retired officer believes there are three factors to explain the rash of recent Apache-related incidents, including flight conditions, maintenance, and training, with the latter particularly important for National Guard pilots, who get fewer flight hours to master the helicopter.
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Differentiating between day and night flight is also important, Rasmussen said, pointing to the skill required to operate helicopters in night-time conditions, which require the use of night vision goggles and other onboard infrared capabilities. The observer pointed out that the Fort Carson crash in Colorado took place at about 6:30 PM, indicating an early evening or night-type operation, “which also may have played a factor,” in his estimation.

Part of Boeing's Troubled Safety Culture?

The AH-64 is manufactured by Boeing, the distressed US airspace giant facing growing scrutiny in the US amid a series of scandals related to a lax safety culture, design problems and executive greed which have been held responsible for a string of incidents and close calls involving its civilian airliners.
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“We’ve kind of heard in the news some of the issues with the civilian side” of Boeing, Rasmussen said. “We’ve also had incidents regarding Blackhawks as well during training operations,” the observer noted.

“The Apache has had maintenance issues and it’s had to require additional maintenance on it to keep it operational. But it’s a very, very exceptional aircraft. And it has been expanded in its mission capabilities” since originally being fielded, Rasmussen stressed.
The officer does not believe technical faults to be the main problem with the Apache, pointing to a 2023 Government Accountability Office report indicating that the vast majority of crashes involving the platform can be chalked down to human error.
“We need to look, and especially when we’re dealing with Guard units and reserve units – we need to ensure that we’re providing the adequate training and flight time, as well as maintenance on the aircraft to mitigate any type of incident occurring. I don’t see this as a maintenance issue per se, but we need to be aware of that, and I do think we need to look at our maintenance processes and policies, as well as our safety processes and policies and the training, to ensure our aviators get adequate training,” Rasmussen summed up.
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