Warplanes: Active Apaches in Afghanistan

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December18, 2006: U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Philip Learn, and his co-pilot, Captain Brian Hummel, were recently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroics a year ago in Afghanistan. But there's a lot more to it than that.

The two were flying an AH-64 Apache gunship at the time, escorting two CH-47 transport helicopters near Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. One of the CH-47's took some ground fire, was damaged, but managed to land. Then the 34 troops on the CH-47 found themselves under fire from a large group of Taliban gunmen in the area. So Learn and Hummel took their AH-64 in low and basically shot it out with the Taliban, killing and wounding many, and forcing the rest to leave the area. At times, the AH-64 was exchanging fire with over a dozen Taliban, who were armed with assault rifles, machine-guns and PRGs.

Learn and Hummel were in the air with their AH-64 for ten hours that day, and Learn flew for 700 hours during his one year in Afghanistan. Normally, an AH-64 pilot has to fly 140 hours a year to maintain his flying skills. But in Afghanistan, the AH-64 is a major supplier of air support. In the last five years, the army has awarded 95 DFCs, but 60 percent of them have gone to pilots in Afghanistan, where the army has only a fifth as many troops as it has in Iraq. The British have brought in some of their AH-64s as well. The eight ton AH-64 carries a 30mm automatic cannon (with 320 rounds of ammo), plus 70mm unguided rockets (up to 19 of them) and Hellfire guided missiles (up to eight). External fuel tanks can also be carried, although the AH-64 only stays in the air for about 90 minutes when just using internal fuel (that can be tripled with the maximum of four external tanks). Typically, AH-64s in Afghanistan will fly up to half a dozen sorties a day, often taking on additional ammo when they land to refuel.

 


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