Apaches come under heavy fire
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
CENTRAL IRAQ Advanced U.S Army Apache Longbow helicopters, making their first large-scale strikes deep inside Iraq, cut their operation short yesterday in the face of intense fire from anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, according to officers and pilots. One of the AH-64Ds went down in a farmer's field and its two pilots were captured.
The attack in pre-dawn darkness by a formation of Longbows was aimed at tanks and other weapons of President Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard around Karbala, south of Baghdad. Col. William Wolf, commander of the Army's 11th Aviation Regiment, said the air assault crippled four or five Iraqi tanks and several light vehicles.
But pilots said they were forced to abandon most of their targets because of a curtain of fire that rose from streets, roofs and back yards, hitting nearly all their aircraft. U.S. defense officials in Washington said the mission involved 30 to 40 Apaches.
"It was coming from all directions, I got shot front, back, left and right," said pilot Bob Duffney, 41, a chief warrant officer 4 from Springfield, Mass., who flew combat helicopters in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "In Desert Storm, we didn't have a firefight like this."
Later in the day, Iraqi television aired footage of two men it identified as the pilots of the downed Longbow. The two men, dressed in military flight suits, did not speak and appeared to be uninjured.
The footage also showed their aircraft still bearing missiles and appearing to be intact on the ground surrounded by Iraqis waving rifles. It was not known whether the helicopter was shot down or suffered mechanical difficulties.
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, overall U.S. commander of the war, confirmed that one helicopter did not return from its mission yesterday and that its two-man crew was missing. The Pentagon identified the men as Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla.
The $20 million Longbows, the new stars of the Army's helicopter fleet, have been depicted as a superweapon against Iraqi armor.
They have infrared night-vision capability and carry radar-programmed Hellfire missiles that pilots "fire and forget" because there is no need for attacking helicopters to remain locked onto a target. The Hellfires can hit targets five miles away.
But yesterday's engagement showed the weapons systems designed for conventional war can be vulnerable to unconventional tactics. "The Longbow is designed for going after armor and high-tech air defense," said one of the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Steven Kilgore, 34, of Gary, Ind. These weapons can be detected through radar and other sensor system. But with low-tech air defense, he said, "until they start firing, you don't know they're there."
"It's somewhat frustrating. We can't take out a street block, because of the way we go to war," said Wolf, the aviation regiment commander, referring to concerns about harming civilians.
Regiment officers said it appeared most of the damaged helicopters could be repaired. But, later yesterday, three CH-47 Chinook helicopters transporting spare parts from Kuwait were fired on near the Apache base in Iraq and had to jettison their loads.
Yesterday morning's operation was mounted as a U.S. ground force moved toward Baghdad, with Iraqi Republican Guard units standing in the way.
Rules for journalists traveling with U.S. forces prohibit reporting where the Longbows are based, or sensitive details of the operation.
A group of the helicopters took off from a makeshift base south of Baghdad under cover of darkness to engage Republican Guard units.
Air Force warplanes and Army artillery had pounded the target area in an effort to knock out Iraqi artillery.
A U.S. defense official said the helicopters were acting on good intelligence and were using infrared cameras to detect body heat and the heat signatures of tanks.
When the Longbows reached the target zone, U.S. pilots said, they came under a dizzying array of fire. Some was from Iraqi troops using conventional anti-aircraft artillery. But some was from individuals firing AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Much of it rose from tree-lined suburban streets and back yards.
The pilots speculated afterward that some of the people shooting belonged to the Republican Guard unit they were targeting, the Medina Division. "They definitely had their air defense arrayed in different zones. That's what we were fighting against, plus some small arms," said pilot Brian Stewman, 36, a chief warrant officer 4 from Palestine, Ark.
Pilots struggled as bullets whizzed past their heads and damaged some key components on their aircraft.
Duffney pointed to a small hole in the glass of his pilot's window where a bullet had smacked through at head level. During the attack, he said, pounding adrenaline made him focus intently on his job. "Instinct took over," he said. He became most worried when a pilot in the helicopter next to his was hit in the neck. The wound turned out to be superficial.
"At first, we were reluctant" to fire back, said Stewman. "But after you get (hit) a few times, you get less reluctant." Pilots said they responded with bursts from 30 mm cannons and 4-foot-long rockets.
During the battle, Duffney's hydraulic system was hit, blocking his ability to fire weapons. Other craft suffered more serious damage. One helicopter lost an engine. One sustained damage to its primary flight-control system, and had to return to the makeshift base. Gunners on the ground hit two of the aircraft's rocket pods, setting them on fire. The pilots had to jettison them.
The barrage of bullets was shocking both to seasoned Army pilots and combat newcomers. Stepping out of his helicopter back at the base, Duffney was as emotionally drained as his fellow pilots. "We all hugged each other," he said.
Lt. Carrie Bruhl, 26, a co-pilot and gunner who was seeing her first fighting, said the sound of bullets hitting "sounds like a sledgehammer. ... The first round that came in, I couldn't feel my legs." When her helicopter returned to base at about 2:30 a.m., the Oceanside, Calif., native said the first thing she did was "make sure my legs were still working."
Another pilot who was experiencing combat for the first time had a different recollection of the gunfire hitting his aircraft. "As long as I live, I'll never forget that sound: tink-tink-tink," said the pilot, Capt. Chad Lewis, 30, of Rolla, Mo. "There were trees and houses. People were firing everywhere."