Veteran pilots at Joint Base Lewis-McChord tick off their favorite features about the latest models of the Army’s menacing Apache helicopters they received this winter:
More power. Better lift. The ability to command aerial drones from their cockpits.
One more thing: Now they can fly in thick cloud cover, a crucial capability at their damp home station.
“These really are all-weather aircraft,” Chief Warrant Officer 3 Rob Teague said Thursday at a ceremony marking the arrival of the new choppers at Lewis-McChord’s Gray Army Airfield.
That could mean more hours in the sky training around Lewis-McChord for Apache pilots who were previously grounded under gray skies.
“We get out a lot and we train a lot. ” Teague said. “You’re going to see us a lot.”
His unit in Lewis-McChord’s 16th Combat Aviation Brigade stood at the front of the line to receive the new AH-64E aircraft in January. They’re a welcome addition to a helicopter battalion that moved to Lewis-McChord last year from its previous home at sunny and dry Fort Hood,Texas.
“We’re looking at the fastest and most powerful aircraft in the Army,” brigade commander Col. Robert Dickerson said.
The model improves upon a 30-year-old Apache program that has racked up more than 3.5 million hours of flight time for Army pilots. Production of the new model kicked into high gear in late 2010 when Boeing won a $247 million contract to manufacture the first eight of the helicopters. The Army expects to buy 690 over time.
Apaches are a constant presence in Afghanistan, where air crews collaborate with ground troops to attack enemy positions and provide an extra set of eyes in the sky for infantrymen. Their 30 millimeter chain-fed machine guns and hellfire rockets make them an intimidating weapon on the modern battlefield.
The latest model retains the same weapons as its predecessor, the Apache AH-64D, but incorporates new technology to make the helicopters more powerful and more fuel efficient.
Teams from Dickerson’s brigade traveled to Arizona this winter to train on them. They came away impressed.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Crabtree experimented with the new drone capabilities and took control of the unmanned vehicles from inside his helicopter. It’s a valuable asset that gives pilots a better look at terrain miles away.
Teague appreciates the upgraded efficiency and power. He said he’s been in situations in Afghanistan where he was limited in lift. At other times, the old Apaches burned fuel quickly and constrained their missions.
The newer model carries lighter and longer rotor blades, as well as a stronger engine. It can fly at higher elevations, protecting crews from ground fire.
“It’s safer to fly,” said pilot Capt. Ryan Garrow.
It also has a better navigation system that enables it to fly in cloudy skies– a capability common among planes and other Army helicopters, such as the Blackhawk UH-60.
Lewis-McChord’s fleet of Apache helicopters is not expanding with the new additions. The aviation brigade’s 1st Battalion, 229th Attack Reconnaissance Regiment is exchanging its older models for the new ones. It expects to have 24 of the Apache AH-64E models by the end of this spring.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Geoff Crawford said the Apaches could be noticeable to South Sound residents, but no more so than the unit’s older helicopters. His battalion moved to Lewis-McChord last May.
The base expanded its aviation footprint in 2011 and drew some complaints about increased noise from residents in Thurston County. The base has since revised its training routes, and criticism has abated.
Crawford said Lewis-McChord has limited helicopter firing ranges, and residents would rarely hear the Apaches fire. Those exercises usually take place at the Yakima Training Center.
Last week, however, his battalion participated in one live fire exercise at the base south of Tacoma.
The aviation brigade wants the public to get a better understanding of its helicopters so residents aren’t surprised by the choppers flying near populated areas.
“We are trying to work with the surrounding communities to become aware of the increased noise and air traffic,” Crawford said.
“Our soldiers live in those communities, and if we don’t have the support of those communities, we’re doing something wrong.”