© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003
UDAIRI AIRFIELD, Kuwait -- They call them Longbows, after the English archers in the Middle Ages who launched their arrows deep into the enemy's formation, thinning their ranks before the infantry attacked.
The infantry still loves the Longbows.
The U.S.-led attack on Iraq marks the long-awaited combat debut of the Longbow Apache, an updated, digital version of the model used extensively by the Army since the mid 1980s.
Fast and heavily armed, the Apaches of the 101st Airborne are escorting Black Hawks as they deliver troops into battle, flying ahead to clear landing zones and working as security guards during the troopships' trip.
The Apaches also provide convoy cover and hunt behind enemy lines, shooting tanks, artillery batteries, armored personnel carriers and other targets with its radar-guided Hellfire missiles.
As the sun set recently opposite a full moon at Camp Pennsylvania, soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division watched a trio of Apaches work the sky, swooping in circles as they trained.
"That makes me feel good," said Pfc. Pete Lemon, 28, a fueler from Evansville, Ind. "When we're in a convoy, they're out front, and they're going to see if there's any enemy tanks or enemy ahead of us. And they can take them out, too."
The 101st Airborne Division has 48 Longbows and 24 of the older Alpha models. About a quarter of the Longbows are equipped with fire-control radar, a bulbous disc perched above the rotor that can snap an instant picture of the battlefield and the targets on it, then beam the coordinates of those targets to other Apaches.
Once the lead helicopter scans the battlefield, the others can fire from behind a sand dune, or while they hug the horizon out of view.
Computer targeting and the computer-guided Hellfire missiles do the rest.
The old Apaches used lasers to aim, forcing the pilots to remain in the open long enough to lock in and shoot.
"You get the radar information to the missiles and off it goes. It's a fire-and-forget missile," said Col. Greg Gass, commanding officer of the 101st Aviation Brigade of the 101st Airborne.
And they can do it from more than 2 miles away. That's an attractive feature to Apache pilots like Capt. Terry Schooler, 26, of Philadelphia.
"You can get in deep. You don't have to go head to head because we're outside gun range with our missiles," Schooler said.
The Longbow, an AH-64D, features other improvements. The old version, the AH-64A, relied on hydraulic gauges and analog instruments, like an old airplane, and required the pilot and co-pilot to use paper maps and compass headings to navigate.
The new ones have satellite positioning systems and computers that keep track of the helicopters' location, direction and the location of its target. Getting to and from the battle is easier and safer, pilots say.
The Longbow features a better night-vision system that uses thermal imaging to see targets, and a video camera that allows the pilot to zoom in before firing.
The Apache carries a co-pilot and gunner in the front, with a pilot and navigator behind. It usually carries 38 rockets for light armor and eight Hellfire missiles for tanks and heavier targets and a 30mm cannon packing high-explosive rounds.
"Compared to the Alpha model, this thing is unbelievable," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles Curtis, 32, of Paducah, Ky.
"Leaps and bounds in terms of situational awareness, and the ability to talk to other aircraft digitally, that's a big plus. They only look the same."
And on the outside at that.
Inside, the two are of different eras. Hung from the pilot's helmet is a monocle that displays the aircraft's speed, location and other information.
The instrument panel has two computer screens that can show flight and battlefield information, including the location of targets.
"It knows where the aircraft is and where the target is," Curtis said. "It does all the math for us."
The Apache looks lethal: It is dark, dark green, almost black, with a sharp, angular profile. The seats aren't comfortable, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark Borden, 32, of Rupert, Idaho, likened flying it to trying to sit on top of a large ball. "It doesn't want to go straight and level like an airplane," he said.
But it's tough, too. In Afghanistan, Apaches kept flying even after being hit with rifle and machine gun fire and shoulder-mounted rockets. "If they don't knock out our weapons system or our computer controls, we can still fly," Borden said.
The biggest danger to Apache pilots are heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles and small-arms fire, although the bottom of the helicopter is armored.
And all the technology in the world can't do a thing about the weather. Aside from enemy fire, pilots say the biggest challenge to a successful mission is the blowing sand, the unpredictable winds and the lack of landmarks in the flat, faceless desert.
During takeoff and landing the dust makes them virtually blind. The engines also suck up sand and must be flushed daily, while the grit pits the blades.
Borden said the trick is getting the craft's nose to the wind, so the dust blows away, and not lingering too long.
"We try to land as quickly as we can," he said. "We don't sit there and hover, we just plant it."
MANUFACTURER: McDonnell Douglas.
MISSION: Attack helicopter.
RANGE: 380 miles.
SPEED: 232 mph.
DIMENSIONS: 491/2 feet long; rotor diameter is 48 feet.
ENGINES: Two 1,857 horsepower GE T700-700 turboshafts.
ARMAMENT: Typically one 30-milimeter cannon, eight Hellfire missiles and 38 Hydra rockets.
-- U.S. Army