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CURTAIN OF FIRE

SILHOUETTED BY THE LIGHTS OF IRAQI CITIES, APACHE PILOTS MADE THE PERFECT TARGETS FOR ROOF-TOP RIFLEMEN.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Page: 1A

By Michael Fabey

Series: DANGEROUS SKIES
THE SERIES
The Army and Coast Guard are struggling with safety concerns over their helicopter workhorses. The Army's Apache and the Guard's Dolphin have malfunctioned, jeopardized missions and, in the Apache's case, claimed lives.
TODAY: A CURTAIN OF FIRE
The story is drawn from interviews and government reports concerning one disastrous battle for the Apache.

1st Lt. Jason King and Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Tomblin were in the second Apache Longbow in a mile-long armada of the Army's most lethal helicopters at an isolated Iraqi airstrip southwest of An-Najaf.

The Longbows, engines growling to make takeoff, were powering up to launch a massive air strike against the tanks and troops of the vaunted Iraqi Medina Division 20 miles northeast of Al-Hillah, deep inside enemy lines.

 

It was a dark Sunday March night during the first weeks of the war. For most of the pilots, it would be their first combat mission.

King and Tomblin moved through their preflight check list. King, for no apparent reason, put a sterilized gauze pad on the dash in front of him. He was the aircraft's gunner, the front-seater. Usually, the pad would have been found behind him, in a small holding area, far out of reach.

Refueling trucks scurried about the makeshift runway like desert insects, raising a dust storm half a foot thick and making it difficult for the Apache pilots to navigate out of the launch zone.

Once aloft and pointing north, King and Tomblin felt their helicopter shudder with the weight of the ammunition - including rounds for their 30-mm machine gun and a cache of Hellfire missiles specifically designed to hunt and destroy enemy tanks.

Army Apaches had taken on the Medina before, during the first Gulf War. The Apaches could hug the ground, evading radar, to get an easy fix on targets - even at night. It was, said those who were there, like plinking tin targets at a carnival.

The helicopters put up impressive numbers during Desert Storm, knocking out 837 tanks, 501 vehicles, 66 bunkers and radar sites, about two dozen parked helicopters and fighter jets, 120 artillery sites and 42 anti-aircraft sites, according to Army records.

But, this time it would be different. And the pilots sensed it.

Mission planners had argued for days about the best attack route. The fuel shortage was so bad it delayed launch for more than two hours as crews jockeyed from chopper to chopper, looking for those with enough gas to make it to the target and back.

Just as the Apaches finally lifted off and headed toward the Medina, the radio came alive, voices squawking through the static.

One of the Longbows had crashed on takeoff, apparently because it was too heavy to lift off in the "brownout" conditions caused by the dust.

Another five Apaches were nearly grounded by the same fate.

King and Tomblin were not surprised that not all the Apaches made it into the air.

What did seem odd, though, was the bright glow of the lights in the town ahead as they turned west toward their target.

It appeared that all of the lights were on, even though it was after midnight.

They pulled their Apache up over a set of 200-foot wires and an even odder thing happened.

In the cities of Al Haswah and Al Iskandariyah, all the lights went out.

Two seconds later, they flashed back on.

King and Tomblin faced the firefight of their lives.

The Iraqis had staged an effective and terrifying ambush for the Longbows. Standing on rooftops firing guns of all sizes and calibers, they filled the sky with a wide, murderous, crisscrossing field of fire - small Davids to huge flying Goliaths.

King and Tomblin zigged and zagged across the night sky. But it was like trying to avoid raindrops in a summer downpour. The rounds peppered the Apaches. The pilots felt the impact in the roots of their teeth.

Tomblin knew his Apache was hit when he smelled an electrical fire burning. But he couldn't dwell on that. Down below, a man with a rifle was firing more rounds. Tomblin fired his sawgun, killing the man and hitting a nearby fuel tanker.

The explosion lit up the sky.

King started to radio that they were taking fire.

But a bullet tore through the cockpit canopy and into his throat, cutting his transmission short. One second he was talking, the next, a gurgling, choked curse. Then, silence.

"Sir, are you ok?" Tomblin asked.

There was no response.

King's throat filled with blood.

He could hear everything around him - but could not talk. Only 29 years old, the pilot from the small Michigan town of Bellaire thought he was going to die.

The Apache's cockpit design didn't make it any easier. One pilot sits behind the other, like riders on a roller coaster, so there was no way Tomblin, from his rear seat, could see how badly King had been hit.

Tomblin could hear the wind whistling through the cockpit. He thought his front-seater was dead.

THEORY VS. REALITY

When King and Tomblin climbed into their Apache that March 23 with the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment, the Army figured it had a slam dunk.

After all, the current crop of Longbows were a generation better than the Apaches flown in Desert Storm. Most of the crew members had trained some 4,000 hours in the Kuwaiti desert before going into combat across the border.

But the Medina mission would show that even the best of forces and equipment need the right kind of intelligence and supplies.

Still, there were problems beyond the control of even the most careful planner.

The Apaches had to launch at least a day earlier than Army planners wanted. The Medina mission was to support the advance of the 3rd Infantry Division. The Marne Express was living up to its name, cutting down Iraqi forces like a sickle and moving much faster than anyone thought it would.

To make matters worse, a sand storm threatened, one that would surely ground the Apache fleet, and might even push them out of this stage of the war.

But, according to an Army critique of the war, called On Point, crews and officers weren't going to let that happen.

Even though the Army didn't know exact enemy strength or location, fuel was scarce and communication among the far-flung U.S. military forces was spotty at best.

Then there was the in-fighting among Army planners about how to best attack the Medina.

The strategists agreed the three battalions of helicopters could destroy the Iraqi force in two nights. They disagreed on how to approach the battle.

The regiment wanted to avoid densely populated urban areas. Alternative routes, though, would be longer, without places to refuel.

In the end, planners chose the quicker, urban route.

The crew members knew such a flight path was risky.

The Iraqis - at least in theory - could shoot at the Apaches with small arms.

The most recent real-world experience the Army had with such a threat was in Somalia in 1993, the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident that left 18 Americans dead and more than 70 severely wounded.

Ground fire was a huge worry in Vietnam, but there were few pilots or crew members left from those days to put the theoretical threat into real perspective.

Capt. Karen Hobart, the regimental intelligence officer, understood the threat urban terrain posed to the aircraft, according to On Point, the study released at Fort Leavenworth.

"Iraqi guns had the advantages of high rates of fire and high gun elevations, and they were light and easy to deploy and move on civilian vehicles ... (the air defense assets) could be placed around schools, mosques, and hospitals, indicating Iraq's awareness of coalition attempts to avoid collateral damage," she said in the report.

Before the battle, Hobart warned of the possibility of an ambush.

"We could have highlighted the small-arms threat, but it would have been a failure of imagination for people to understand the magnitude," Capt. Hobert would later say in On Point.

Even at the final rehearsal, Col. Bill Wolf, the mission commander, highlighted the small-arms threat, noting he told his aviators small arms 'would ruin their day.'

Later, he added, "nobody in their right mind would have envisioned what we ended up facing."

The pilots knew they'd take some fire, but they never expected a curtain of steel stretching along their entire route.

The Iraqis, the Army found out later, had perhaps as many as a dozen teams set up along possible routes. Those teams included light air defense artillery cannon and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles.

In the end, completing the mission against the Medina became a distant secondary goal. Escaping the Iraqi ambush with their lives was the primary one.

For Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tomblin, the main objective was to save the life of his front-seater, 1st Lt. King.

INTO THE KILLING ZONE

The mission's two-hour delay in finding fuel meant the rounds fired to provide cover came too early.

The Army even debated if that kind of cover fire would make much of a difference. After all, how can you blanket a whole town with suppression fire without destroying buildings or killing innocent people?

Apache pilots figured the early and insufficient cover fire gave the Iraqis another heads up the choppers were coming.

The pilots were flying alone and vulnerable into a large killing zone.

As King, Tomblin, and the other Apache crews headed toward their targets, the sky in front of the choppers erupted in a wall of fire, the air ablaze with red, yellow and white tracers. Pilots could see the shots with their naked eyes flying within feet of their canopies.

The Iraqis had plenty of electricity, too. Lights from farms and the towns silhouetted the attack helicopters against the night sky, making them easy targets.

Harried and hunted by Iraqi guns, the bullet-pocked Apaches struggled to maneuver and escape - or return fire.

The flying pilot in the Apache wore night vision goggles to see tracers. The crew member handling the chain gun did not. So the flier had to dodge enemy fire while directing his own.

But Tomblin had bigger concerns than retuning fire. His front seater was in bad shape, and his Apache was still getting hit hard by Iraqi guns.

And somewhere, the helicopter had an electrical fire.

The flight controls were sluggish.

Tomblin kept asking King.

"Are you OK?"

Still, no answer.

But Tomblin could hear his front-seater breathing.

And there were problems beyond those in his own cockpit.

Pulling in behind another Apache, he noticed billowing smoke trailing from one of the helicopter's engines.

A hydraulic line on the other chopper had been severed and fluid was flowing into the engine. The same hydraulic system controlled the chopper's weapons.

It couldn't return fire.

Tomblin pulled back and fired cover rounds.

While Tomblin battled both his Apache and the Iraqis, King fought to save his own life.

He took the gauze pad from the dashboard and clamped it on his throat wound.

Finally, he found his voice.

"I am OK. I am OK."

Despite his wound, he remained the warrior.

"You're taking fire from the right," he warned Tomblin.

The gunner's voice had never sounded sweeter.

The pair started return fire on the Iraqis.

King watched the tracer fire through his night vision goggles. He directed Tomblin where to shoot, the pad still jammed against his throat.

The pair broke contact.

The plan now was to fly back to the assembly area and get King to a medevac aircraft.

It wasn't until they were nearly back at the launching point that the small-arms fire stopped.

SHOT TO PIECES

King and Tomblin weren't alone.

Still taking a solid wall of enemy fire and short on fuel, all the Apaches started back. Officers realized they would lose many helicopters if they tried to continue. The Apaches turned toward home and began the 40-minute ride back through enemy fire.

Many were out of ammunition. Some had lost their hydraulics and communications and were flying on backup systems.

None of the Apaches got the chance to engage the Medina tanks they'd sought to destroy.

One Apache had to make an emergency landing in enemy territory.

That helicopter's wingman, Lt. Col. Dan Ball, tried to hold off the swarming Iraqis and help the downed crew avoid capture. But the intensity of the Iraqi guns made it impossible. Ball was forced to leave the crew behind, jettisoning his remaining missiles.

The two Apache fliers - Chief Warant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla. - were captured and later rescued by the Iraqis.

Back in their cockpit, Tomblin and King struggled to prevent their own helicopter from crashing.

They flew by the launch area, letting other damaged Apaches make their landings first. An emergency vehicle raced to meet them.

Once on the ground, King was loaded into the waiting vehicle and moved to the medevac aircraft. He was in a rage, cursing because, as a pilot of the Army's most dangerous attack helicopter, he'd been wounded by small arms fire.

King would not allow the medevac to leave. He knew other pilots may have been wounded.

Finally, the medevac pilots told King, "Sir, we need to go now!"

It was the last thing King remembered until he woke up in the aid station, little more than a windblown tent in the desert. He told the doctor he just needed a few stitches. But the doctor put the Apache pilot straight. King needed surgery immediately.

The rest of the Apache fleet continued limping home. But retreat proved as difficult as combat.

Having positioned himself at the center of the flight line, the operations officer, Maj. John Lindsay had a ringside seat as aircraft returned alone or in small groups. They turned into the wind, doing their best to avoid mid-air collisions.

Pilots executed running landings - a dangerous maneuver in the best of conditions - to give themselves some hope of staying just ahead of the dust clouds their rotors generated. Lindsay recalled it was terrifying to watch as some of the aircraft rolled in.

But most of the Apaches made it back.

They were riddled with bullet holes.

They would survive to fight again in the war. Army analysts were later astonished the Apaches were repaired and returned to battle so quickly.

1st Lt. King would return, too.

The bullet just missed his windpipe and trachea. He could easily have lost his voice.

Or his life.

The surgeon told him he was very lucky.

Most of the shrapnel and bullet fragments had been removed - except one. A small bit of metal remained in the officer's throat, too close to the carotid artery to risk an another operation.

King's wife Robin was notified her husband had been shot and was in critical condition.

As his condition improved, he was to be transported to Germany or Spain - the reports were unclear - where Robin planned to meet him.

The warrior, though, had other plans.

He told his wife he needed to finish what he started.

He wanted his squad to know he was OK, and he needed to know they were, too.

At the very least, he owed it to Tomblin to get back in the air as quickly as he could.

Instead of flying home, he convinced a sergeant major to coordinate a ride back to his unit.

About a week and a half after he nearly bled to death, King climbed back into the Apache cockpit with his back-seater, Tomblin.

A few weeks later, the duo flew a daytime mission over the same neighborhood that nearly brought the Apache armada down that March night.

The Iraqis were there again.

This time, though, it was different.

This time, thousands of small arms were waving greetings to the Longbow pilots as they flew by.

IN THE DARK

At the heart of the overall mission in Iraq was how the war was to be waged.

Early on, the Bush administration made it clear it wanted to avoid as much wholesale destruction as possible in order to make it easier to rebuild the country. Particularly, the United States and its allies wanted to keep the electricity running, a decision that concerned Army officers.

"City lights could silhouette aircraft against the night sky and hinder the pilots' use of their night vision goggles," the Army report On Point said. "Thus placing their air defense artillery in the well-lit population centers reduced one of Iraq's major weaknesses - the lack of night-capable air defense artillery.

"What (intelligent officer) Capt. Karen Hobart and others did not know was that the Iraqis planned to use city lights as an early-warning system, turning an entire town's lights off and on to signal the approach of helicopters."

That wasn't the only problem with intelligence. Because of communication glitches, Capt. Hobart had trouble even confirming there was a target for the helicopters to strike, On Point reported. Hobart told Col. Wolf she had only a 75 percent picture on the enemy disposition.

The intelligence Hobart did have from the interception of Iraqi communiques suggested that the enemy knew the helicopters were coming.

The Iraqis also knew how the Army worked - Air Force bombings followed by helicopter attacks followed by a ground troop push.

The Air Force had been softening up the region for days, so it was time for the choppers. Groups of Iraqis had been sighted driving around the Apache launching point for days before the mission.

Army planners decided to go ahead anyway. "Despite fuel problems, delayed liftoff, and uncertainty about the precise location of the enemy, there was no dissent," Maj. Kevin Christensen said in the On Point report. "They Would Not Be Denied. Everyone was past the point of 'can't.' It did not matter; every ounce of energy was devoted to making the mission work."

CLIPPED IN KOSOVO

In March 1999, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, asked the Army to send a couple dozen Apaches to Kosovo to take out tanks and armored personnel carriers.

As the Pentagon said at the time, the aircraft would give NATO "the type of tank-killing capability that the bad weather has denied us. It will give us the capability to get up close and personal to the Milosevic armor units in Kosovo."

One of the Apaches developed hydraulic trouble on the way to Albania and wound up grounded in Italy, leaving 23 for the mission.

Then on April 26, an Apache crashed at the local Tirana airfield, reducing the number again. The pilot landed short, an investigation found.

Less than two weeks later, on a night training mission May 5, another helicopter went down, killing both crew members. The cause apparently was a tail rotor failure.

That ended the Apaches' mission in Kosovo. The Army said Serb air defenses were too strong to use the helicopters.

Afterwards, the agency now known as the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found the Army came up short on planning, procedures and training on how to perform the Kosovo mission.

The Army said it had learned its lesson and would "modify Apache Longbows to meet specific theater requirements to include better night vision systems, more powerful engines, increased communications, and better aircraft survivability equipment."