Is there a higher rate of helicopter failure in the military than you would expect at this point? It seems that more helicopters go down than you might think.
When you look at the literally millions of hours we fly, it’s a miracle we don’t have more accidents or more aircraft go down. So we’re flying in an incredibly hazardous environment. We’re flying a lot at night. We’re flying with people shooting at you, and we’re doing pretty well. These crews, we’ve got the best-trained crews that I’ve ever seen in my entire career, I think since Vietnam.
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They are flying their trails off. Most of these warrant officer aviators and commissioned officers have three times the amount of flight time I did when I was their age. It’s because they’ve got repetitive, two, three, four tours down range where they’re getting hundreds and hundreds of hours. I had some guys who came back last year with 1,000 hours in one year, which is almost unheard of. When I was growing up, there were some officers would go their whole career and get 1,000 hours. Now we’ve got majors and captains that are at 1,500, 2,000 hours because of all the flying that they’ve done down range.
When you get that kind of flight time, the quality of your force goes up. I think accidents have gone down relatively speaking from the beginning of the war to where we are now. We’ve incorporated our lessons learned, our tactics, techniques and procedures. We’ve put modifications on the aircraft to help deal with the environment. For example, with the new Chinooks that we’re putting in now, we’ve got the capability to shoot an approach into a complete ‘zero-zero’—basically you can’t see in front of your aircraft, but you’ve got a capability now where you can do an approach to a hover and then mechanically bring it down to the ground because we’ve got sensors that are helping the crew by providing information. When we first started the war, we didn’t have that in our aircraft.
We’ve lost a lot of aircraft in dust landing conditions. So, the Army has invested heavily in this ‘reset programme.’ Reset is when we bring aircraft back from the theatre. We rip them down to the frame, and we replace components. We clean out all the dirt, and we do a comprehensive ‘depot level’ evaluation of all our aircraft. That’s helping extend not only the life, but it’s also identifying problems before they happen. In addition, the crews are more experienced—that helps, but it’s still dangerous.
I don’t know what caused that aircraft to go down in bin Laden’s compound. There’s a lot of speculation over what caused that aircraft to go down. It could have been enemy fire. Of course, nobody wants to believe that.
What do you think ensured it was successful getting out of Pakistani airspace undetected?
When you look at the terrain over there, it’s very challenging to be able to see ‘electronically’ the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So if you pick some valleys, you can probably beat it. We go through pre-mission planning, and if we’re trying to evade something, you can put up receivers, and you understand at what altitude that radar is going to be effective. So if you fly below that radar, then that would be a way in which you could conceal your ingress and egress. Also, we would have airborne command and control aircraft in Afghanistan on big operations.