Three American helicopters have gone down in Iraq in a little more than a week. Is there anything behind this collection of crashes? Or is just lethal coincidence -- part of what happens when troops do something death-defying, over and over again? I asked Defense Tech pal ME, a former Kiowa Warrior pilot who served in Iraq, to weigh in with his thoughts.I haven't heard of any reason as to why we're losing more lately, but we also haven't lost any in a long time prior to this - I think it's reflective of somewhat of the odds catching up to us and an increased combat operations tempo.[That said], I would point out that US helicopters aren't that heavily armored. [Something David Axe noted about last week's Blackwater copter crash -- ed.] They have blocks of armor protecting some key parts of the engine, and crew compartments, but it's not nearly comprehensive. Most don't have flare systems, and their only active countermeasure against IR missiles is an ALQ-144 jammer. Relatively speaking, there is very little protection from direct small arms hits.In my opinion, our greatest threat was from small arms and RPGs while operating at low altitude and low airspeed. My troop was under standing orders not to fly above 500 feet AGL (above ground level) or under 60 knots - and never hover unless absolutely necessary. At low altitude - we felt that it was key to minimize the time available to acquire us as a target. We used the ALQ's but at the time I was there, we didn't see much threat from SAMs [surface-to-air missiles]. Towards the fall of 2003 we did start getting more reports of SAM engagements - spiral smoke trails arcing up, rather than lob shots from RPGs, but in our flight regime, AK's and RPGs were the biggest threat.The Kiowa Warrior... has very little armor [see the pics]. The Blackhawk is similar, and the Apache has relatively more. A friend of mine who was a troop commander in the (in)famous deep strike to kick off OIF said the only positive from that mission was that they learned that the Apache could soak up a lot of small arms fire and keep flying. When you look at the armor though, it's easy to see how a few small arms rounds in the wrong place can bring a bird down.There are some other issues with the ALQ-144. Some of them are classified. Some are mundane: they're difficult to keep operational in the desert, and must be cleaned to be effective. They also must be turned off and on as part of a landing checklist (see my next point). The Blackwater birds don't appear to have them at all. If there are new supplies of SAMS coming in, they may be much more effective than RPGs and AKs.Complacency kills, especially in an environment as unforgiving as Iraq is. With high temps and flying at high gross weights, there is little performance margin. Combat maneuvers take power, and familiarity (read boredom) take their toll, even on experienced pilots. After a few months, I could fly from Baghdad to Al Asad without a map, and knew every neighborhood in between - and it made me too casual at times, about mission prep and procedures. As pilots go back for repeat tours, they may fall into that even more quickly."Since May 2003, the U.S. military has lost 54 helicopters in Iraq, about half of them to hostile fire," according to the AP.
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