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The Associated Press January 14, 2006

Military Copter Crashes Common in Winter

By Robert Burns

The number of fatal U.S. military helicopter crashes in Iraq has spiked in recent weeks, fitting a wartime pattern of more frequent accidental and combat crashes during winter months.

The crash of an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior reconnaissance helicopter near Mosul on Friday, killing two pilots, was the third in the past three weeks. That's half the average number lost in each year of the war, which started in March 2003 and has even seen an undisclosed number of helicopters inadvertently downed by unmanned U.S. drones.

Yet, the overall safety record of Army and Marine Corps helicopters has been remarkably good, military officials and private analysts say, given the enormous amount of flying in often-harsh conditions.

Army helicopters alone have logged nearly 1 million flight hours since the war began, with the UH-60 Black Hawk accounting for nearly one-third of the total, according to Army Aviation Warfighting Center records.

A total of seven Black Hawks have crashed during the war. The second-most heavily used Army helicopter, the AH-64 Apache, has crashed four times and the No. 3 helicopter, the Kiowa Warrior, has gone down seven times. Some were accidents, others were caused by hostile fire and some are still under investigation.

"It sounds like it's, unfortunately, about what you'd expect, because the things do crash," said John Pike, an analyst at globalsecurity.org, which tracks the military's performance in Iraq and elsewhere.

Pike noted that helicopter safety is a big challenge in Iraq, not only because pilots face the threat of ground fire from insurgents but also because of summertime heat and dust and winter winds and storms.

Helicopters are used not only for transporting people and equipment but also for reconnaissance and attack missions to support ground forces. Added to the traditional dangers is one not experienced before the Iraq war: swarms of unmanned drones, like the Predator surveillance aircraft.

Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, commander of Central Command Air Forces, said last fall that in the "very thick environment" of unmanned aircraft traffic in Iraq, "we have, in fact, had occasions where they have run into helicopters."

Of the 15 most recent fatal crashes, nine were during winter months. The deadliest was Jan. 26, 2005, when all 31 Marines aboard a CH-53 Sea Stallion transport crashed in bad weather in the western desert.

Only one was during a summer month: on June 27, 2005, an Apache crashed north of Baghdad, killing two.

Richard Eppler, aviation safety manager for the U.S. military in Iraq, said in an e-mail exchange that the Army had 11 major helicopter accidents last year and the Marine Corps had two, although his figures do not include crashes caused by hostile fire. In 2004, the Army had 13 major accidents and the Marines had three, he said.

Of those 29 accidental crashes, 10 resulted in fatalities, according to Eppler's count. He did not have figures for 2003.

"I believe this to be a phenomenal achievement, considering the adverse conditions, hostile factors and quantity of flight hours flown by our aircrews," Eppler said.

The Army is flying its Kiowa Warrior reconnaissance helicopters the hardest, according to figures provided by the aviation branch safety office of the Army Aviation Warfighting Center at Fort Rucker, Ala. Over the course of the war they have flown, on average, nearly 62 hours per month, which is roughly four times their peacetime rate.

Black Hawks have flown, on average, three times their normal hours in Iraq, as have the Apaches and the Chinook heavy-lift helos. The Black Hawk fleet has logged the largest number of hours because there are many more of them in Iraq — 271, compared with 173 Apaches, 84 Kiowa Warriors and 49 Chinooks.

From the start of the war, a total of 23 helicopters have been involved in 20 fatal crashes, according to an Associated Press count. There were six crashes in 2003, seven in 2004 and five last year. January has been the deadliest month, with six crashes over the course of the war, followed by November and May, each with four.

Earlier this month, a Black Hawk with 12 aboard crashed in bad weather near the northern city of Tal Afar. All eight soldiers and four civilians aboard were killed. Weather has not been officially declared the cause.

The recent spate of crashes began on Dec. 26, when two U.S. pilots were killed when their Apache collided with another helicopter near Baghdad. The second helicopter land with no injuries to anyone aboard.

 


Copyright 2006, The Associated Press