Solid as an '88 Sable

Boeing's Apache helicopters are lying low in Kosovo.

The performance of Boeing's Apache helicopters in the battle for Kosovo has been, to be kind, inauspicious. Two of the gunships have already crashed—and they haven't even entered combat yet. In the first crash, several weeks ago, those aboard escaped, but in the second crash last week during an Albania practice run, two fliers were killed.

The crashes left some officials shaken but voicing confidence the Apache contains no inherent flaw. However, the $14 million-a-copy Army choppers—which some mechanics and pilots call "the best helicopters in the world, when they fly"—have yet to be combat-tested. Under rules of engagement, they must await actual deployment by both NATO and President Clinton, who have so far left the war essentially to the Air Force.

Even before the deadly crash, the Apaches faced some rough times in the Yugoslav conflict. Their much-talked-about arrival was delayed by a series of complications, including, no kidding, rain: aluminum pads had to be laid down to keep the choppers from sinking into the Balkan mud. (Pilots chronically complain the tank-killing Apaches can't wage war in wet weather.)

Then there was that special Catch-22: The choppers couldn't move in to protect anyone until the choppers themselves were protected. For all its vaunted prowess, the Apache is vulnerable unless safeguarded by perimeter troops and armament at its staging site. "The area of course is essentially hostile," says Boeing spokesman Ken Jensen at the company's Rotorcraft headquarters in Arizona. "It's not a prudent thing to leave the helicopters sitting out there in the open."

The Apaches, outfitted with missiles, rockets, and automatic cannons, also have to be reassembled and rearmed under protection once they're freighted into a combat area. "It's a little bit like doing some work on your car in the driveway," says folksy Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Mike Hackerson. "The neighbors are very concerned that you're going to get it back together by Monday, and it's a lot easier if somebody's not shooting at you."

Though designed for high survivability in combat, the slower, low-strafing Apache can be vulnerable to small-arms ground fire, the Pentagon concedes. But "that's why we take maximum advantage of the night and of the terrain," says Hackerson.

With 800 Apaches in service, the Army has no misgivings about the chopper, even after the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that Apaches are mission-ready only 50 percent of the time. Another GAO report says the latest Apache model lacks "the agility to operate successfully in combat."

"Right now the aircraft is operating well above Department of Army standards," says Hackerson, "and did the same in Desert Storm if you go back and look at the numbers." Apaches were credited with destroying 500 tanks and hundreds more vehicles in Kuwait, although it cost $100 a minute to keep a single chopper airborne.

Officials are optimistic the gunships will perform if called upon in Kosovo. But they suggest it's a little like relying on a quirky family car. "I have an '88 Sable," Col. Hackerson says, "that makes it to work most days."

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