In July, The Attack Helicopter Force (AHF), based at Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk, hosted a Families Day to celebrate the completion of their role on Operation HERRICK, Afghanistan. This significant event allowed members of the force an opportunity to show their families what they did whilst on operations in Afghanistan as part of the Internal Stabilisation and Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, and, importantly, celebrate their key role in this campaign.
The families and guests were treated to a number of flying events including a Yak display and a flypast of the Spitfire based at Bentwaters. There were a great variety of static aircraft on display including an Army Air Corps (AAC) Lynx, a Phantom and a Hunter – all examples of aircraft based at the airfield over the years. Importantly, an RAF Chinook attended the event, an aircraft with which the Apache worked extremely closely in Afghanistan, on a huge variety of missions as part of Joint Helicopter Force (JHF). Of particular note was the V-22 Osprey; this came from the USAF based at RAF Mildenhall and was a greatly appreciated presence as it symbolised the truly multinational effort of operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The highlight of the day was the Attack Helicopter Display Team (AHDT) whose display used pyrotechnics to show the awesome firepower of the aircraft, mixed with the more traditional formation and display manoeuvres. All the AHDT members had been on active service in Afghanistan and, as well as seeing them brief and rehearse for the display, Helicopter Life was able to speak to the aircrew. Captain Jim Trayhurn, one of the Team members, explained, “It’s really great for us to be able to do the full pairs pyrotechnic display here at our home. Not only does it give us the opportunity to showcase what we as a Force have been up to on Operations, but it also allows us, the Team, to show the rest of the Force what we’ve been showing the general public at Airshows throughout the summer. Our message as been quite simple, here are operational crews, flying an aircraft at its operational weight and doing what we normally do whilst on operations. It’s also important for us as a Force to reflect on our time on in Afghanistan, which for some, has defined their careers over the last decade.”
When out in Afghanistan the Apache crews were based at Camp Bastion, a Main Operating Base (MOB) in the heart of Helmand Province. Most of their work was in support of ground forces and as such this meant that most of their missions took place in the Green Zone. This is an area of well-maintained irrigation set up by the Americans in the 1970s as part of their hearts and minds programme. As this is lush fertile green land in the middle of the desert, this is where most of the population lives. This beautiful countryside was the sight for a lot of the fighting as its trees, ditches and man-made tunnels offered the insurgents the vital cover they needed from ISAF.
Henry another member of the Team went on to explain, “Afghanistan was a very busy duty period and at any one time there would be a large number of aircrew based at Camp Bastion. Our four to five month tour would normally have a rotation that was twelve days long. This included a number of roles such as Very High Readiness (VHR), Deliberate Operations or Routine Tasking. This saw the crews get a large variety in their missions – whether that be in the profile, or the ground callsign they were working with. The most important role for us was VHR, with us responding to Troops In Contact (TICs) when things got ‘hot’ for the infantry and they needed air support, or escorting the Medical Evacuation Chinook with the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) on board. This extremely capable team was responsible for saving a huge number of lives in Afghanistan, and as a Force we feel extremely proud of being a small part in that.”
The Apaches worked very closely with all the Infantry units deployed out there, but would normally speak to only one individual in the patrol – the Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC). These highly trained soldiers would control the airspace overhead the patrol called a Restricted Operating Zone (ROZ). This airspace can at times have a large number of aircraft operating in it, all working to one or multiple JTACs. As a result aircraft would ‘deconflict’ with each other by height, also known as staking. At times a JTAC could have more than eight aircraft in the ‘stack’.
Capt Jim Trayhurn explained that: ” The JTAC is the most essential person in the patrol for us because they build our situational awareness (SA) on what is going on, on the ground. Depending on the mission profile, it could take up to thirty minutes to get to the target area. At such ranges, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to hear the JTAC, but if they had a stack of other assets in the ROZ above them, then you would be able to built you SA in the transit by listening to their conversation (albeit one sided) to the JTAC, so that once you got into the overhead, you’d minimize the time it took to get yourself orientated to the fight. Other times, you’d be airborne and overhead the friendly forces patrol within two minutes, so you’d be on the ‘back foot’ in getting all the information you needed to able to help the ground callsign. In terms of mapping, we’d use what is known as ‘compound mapping’. The whole of Helmand Province was sectored and within those sectors each building had a number – add those together and you had a unique code. When you’re getting SA on friendly forces and adversaries, then the JTAC would use locations in reference to the mapping. The difficulty is then getting the optics pointing in the right direction, so that you could start storing target locations on the aircraft systems for further use, or worst case prosecuting them. For most of us, the simplest way was looking out of the window, work out which area was which from the mapping and use the aircraft systems to slew the optics onto the area in question and store it into the computer.”
One of the most useful aspects of the optics is the helmet-mounted display, which sits in front of the pilot’s right eye. This displays instrumentation just like a Head Up Display (HUD), but importantly because it’s attached to the helmet, the pilot sees the information wherever they look. The aircraft tracks the individual crews helmet movements, which means that the optics can be slaved to the crew’s heads (indeed this is used as a primary way of flying at night), but this also allows for quick handover of targets between the crew. If the rear seat pilot saw a target on the ground that the CPG hadn’t, then all the CPG needs to do is press a few buttons to make the Modernised Target Acquisition and Designation System (the optics on the front of the aircraft), look at where the pilot is looking. This quick method, although simple technology, is essential for a fast, unambiguous handover.
With in the Apache there are two roles: The Aircraft Command and the Mission Commander. Where possible those two roles are done by the person sitting in the front Co-Pilot Gunner (CPG) seat. However, at times, a Junior Officer may occupy the CPG seat where they will be the Mission Commander (who fights the aircraft) but they aren’t experienced enough to be the Aircraft Commander. In this situation there will be an experienced pilot in the rear seat, who will be the Aircraft Commander and in overall charge of the aircraft. On a typical mission, the pilot is flying and positioning the aircraft as required for the mission profile, while the CPG is using the multiple optics and sensors available to the crew to get eyes on the target to either prosecute with the weapon systems, or provide information and intelligence to the ground callsigns. Both crews will be listening to up to four radios, whilst potentially flying at night, in a stack with multiple aircraft and, if required, delivering weapons systems close to friendly forces locations: as you can imagine this takes a lot of training and very good communication between the crew.
When on duty the Apaches will travel in pairs for reasons of security, but how much they do and for how long they can remain on a job will depend on a large number of variables such as ambient conditions, fuel flow, mission requirements and importantly ammunition expenditure.
How busy the Apaches were in Afghanistan totally depended on what the ‘ground picture’ was like. Jamie, a Warrant Officer in the Team explained: ”Ramadan was statistically a quieter time on Operations, because the insurgents had less energy to fight because they were fasting. Activity would ebb and flow to such an extent that you might not fly for a few days and then end up flying ridiculous hours for the rest of the week”. All the crews are subject to a duty rest period and are supervised on the number of flying hours they log to ensure fatigue is managed correctly. Jim went on to explain: ”We always feel a bit guilty getting more sleep than the guys on the ground potentially did, and you definitely had better accommodation because we weren’t living in the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) but then you pay them back by responding as quickly as you physically could when a ‘shout’ happened. As an Infantry mate once said to me: If you’re flying that thing (the Apache) above me and firing those weapons systems, I’ll definitely feel better in the knowledge that you’re rested and on top of your game!”
Alongside the Aircrew are the Groundcrew and Signallers. The Groundcrew are trained to refuel and rearm an Apache with in an impressive time, all in potential darkness whilst the rotors are turning. Fuel and ammunition are a lethal combination, so Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were devised in the early stages of the Apache programme, where the initial fielding teams leaned heavily on Formula 1 pit crews experience do devise their own rules. The Signallers will setup and run the operations room, which is the heart of the JHF. Whether it is communications or mission planning these professional members of the Force are essential members of the whole team.
There are fifty Apaches in service in the British Army Air Corps, and although the number of airframes that were deployed to Afghanistan would fluctuate, there was always a significant presence out at Camp Bastion to provide the capability 24hrs a day, 7 days a week 365 days of the year for the whole of Operation HERRICK – in fact an Apache was in the overhead as the last troops left Camp Bastion at the end of 2014.
Providing that capability means that maintenance is always a huge consideration, and, inevitably, in an area where there is a lot of sand and dust, there tends to be more wear and tear on the airframe. The AHF’s maintenance support comes from the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME) along with civilian contractors who don’t deploy on operations with the Force. They all do a fantastic job, especially when on operations where different weather conditions provide intense challenges for correct, thorough and professional maintenance, for example, you wouldn’t want to pick up a spanner that had been sat in the baking fifty degree heat for an hour!
While the engines do work harder in ‘hot and high’ conditions, with regular compressor washes and intense engineering they can last a full life and are much less affected by the dust than they are by the sea water corrosion which affects Apaches when they are conducting Maritime Operations. The RTM 322 engine was developed by Rolls Royce in combination with Turbomeca to produce the most hardwearing and durable engine available. Each engine produces 2300 lbs of thrust, but even with those capable engines, when fully laden in the heat of the summer, you’d more than likely not have hover Outside Ground Effect (OGE) performance and thus a running takeoff would be required.
Rotor blades stuffer hugely from fast moving dust particles, which wear away at their leading edges and reduce their life significantly. The Army has tried various modifications including blade tape, but the problem remains.
Maintenance schedules ensure that routine and more in-depth servicing is completed whilst on operations, but for deeper maintenance and full strip downs the Apaches must return to Wattisham were there is a hangar totally dedicated to their maintenance. They were returned in one of the transport airplanes that regularly make the journey back and forth.
Since 2014 the UK has had no aerial presence in Afghanistan, and the Apaches have moved to focus on the future – whatever that might bring. Rest assured, wherever the next threat is presented, it’s safe to say that the Apache will be at the front supporting those on the ground.