Apache down: the hunt for a sensitive US copter

US forces changed plans several times to secure a downed helicopter and its high-tech gear

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On Day 3 of the war in Iraq, a US Apache helicopter was forced to land after encountering a curtain of small-arms fire northeast of Hillah.

Pilots Ronald Young of Lithia Springs, Ga., and David Williams of Orlando, Fla., were immediately taken prisoner. They were freed on April 13 by fleeing Iraqi forces on a road north of Baghdad, and both men spent part of Easter Sunday back in Texas with President Bush.

Their story made headlines in the US. But what is less well-known is the story of what happened to their highly sophisticated $20 million Apache Longbow helicopter.

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Although the crew's ordeal was the foremost concern to the military, officials were also worried about the aircraft, because it contains some of the most sensitive military technology in battlefield use. They wanted to keep it out of hostile hands.

"The aviators are trained to try to destroy any sensitive equipment," says Lt. Col. Joseph Richard, a V Corps spokesman. "But sometimes you don't have that opportunity. Sometimes you just have to get out of Dodge."

The Apache Longbow has an advanced radar system that can scan eight to 10 kilometers for potential targets. It helps pilots detect enemy forces even when they may be concealed by smoke or fog.

Longbows also carry secure communications equipment, encoders, radar and infrared jammers, enemy-missile warning systems, and missile countermeasures systems.

Aided in part by television news images that showed the downed Longbow apparently intact, recovery officials were able to pinpoint the helicopter's location. An order was given to destroy it.

"We directed an aircraft to the site, but when it got there, there were too many clouds," says US Army Lt. Col. Eric Nelson, air-operations officer for V Corps. "The pilot could see the helicopter [on the ground between the clouds], but he couldn't get a good lock on it to shoot it."

So recovery officials changed plans. They decided instead to use long-range artillery fire. But the crash site was close to US troops, and it took some time to clear the artillery barrage with commanders in the area.

By then, however, the Iraqis had loaded the helicopter onto a transport truck. For two days, US officials lost track of the Longbow.

At this point of the story, military officials choose their words very carefully. "Someone saw it and reported it," is all they will say. But it is no secret that a significant number of Special Forces troops were working behind enemy lines.

The Iraqis had transported the helicopter to a gully near what then was the Saddam International Airport. They covered it with camouflage tenting.

"Once we located it, we put an Air Force jet on it, and this time he destroyed it," says Colonel Nelson, who also answers to the call sign "Evil-6." "You want it blown apart. We didn't want to disable it. We wanted to totally destroy it so its parts couldn't be exploited."

The pilot dropped a 1,000-pound bomb.

About a week later, the 3rd Infantry Division pushed through the area, capturing the airport. A special detail was sent to recover whatever was left of the Apache.

Today, it is barely recognizable as a helicopter - a twisted hulk of green and black metal about the size of a small dump truck. The blades are doubled over and shattered. The only recognizable piece of equipment is the protective Kevlar shield that supports the pilot's seat. The seat itself is gone.

The wreckage is awaiting transport to American salvage specialists in Kuwait. "We don't leave our combat junk out on the battlefield," Nelson says. "The Iraqis won't have to clean up after us."

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