Naval Air: Ailing Apaches Go To Sea


October 6, 2009: Britain is training some of its AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship pilots to operate off aircraft carriers. Training for this was recently conducted aboard a helicopter assault ship (the 21,000 ton HMS Ocean, that looks like a small aircraft carrier). Eight pilots practiced day and night landings and takeoffs. While transport helicopters belong to the Royal Air Force, the AH-64s are owned by the army. The navy plans to carry some AH-64s, in addition to the transport helicopters normally carried on the helicopter assault ships.

Meanwhile, Britain is having problems  recruiting enough pilots for its AH-64s. Britain has 67 AH-64s, and is supposed to have 144 two man crews (pilot and weapons operator). But there are only about half that number of crews, and the army has lowered the goal to 120 crews. There are other problems. Because of parts shortages, and cannibalizing helicopters for parts, only about a third of the AH-64s are fit for service, either in Afghanistan, or for training pilots back in Britain. Crews serve two month tours in Afghanistan, often twice a year.

The problems have been building for several years. Cuts in defense spending has led to low stockpiles of spare parts for many major weapons systems. As a result, the eight hard working British AH-64 helicopter gunships in Afghanistan are suffering a chronic shortage of spare parts. In reaction to this, hundreds of parts were removed from Britain's AH-64 fleet in order to keep those in Afghanistan in working order. Some British officers would like to get more AH-64s to Afghanistan, but the spare parts situation makes that inadvisable (as it would ground a large number of other AH-64s that were cannibalized.)

Britain has been cutting back on defense spending since the end of the Cold War in 1991, as have most other European countries. But operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have put more helicopters into the air, more often, and in very demanding (hot and dusty) conditions. This has used up spare parts stockpiles (which were not large to begin with), causing many helicopters to be sidelined and often cannibalized for parts, to keep others in the air.

The lack of flyable AH-64s has been a major cause of the crew shortage (machines not available for training), in addition to difficulty in recruiting suitable candidates to operate the AH-64s.




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