Flying the Apache

Today, I was fortunate to fly an Apache helicopter, part of an Army Air Corps detachment to RAF Lossiemouth designed to give instructor pilots valuable experience in mountain flying.

Beautiful? I think so. Menacing too!

So what's it like? Well, mission planning is completed on a computerised system but compared to the fast-jet systems I'm used to, its a little way behind but with an upgrade coming soon I expect it will see some real capability upgrades.

Survival equipment fitting was straightforward – the flying helmet is made up of distinct components that Velcro and screw together to make up the whole thing. Although it is there for head protection, its real purpose is to support the monocle that provides flight and targeting data straight into the pilot's right eye. The aircraft can be flown and fought from either seat so controls and sensors are replicated in both although the UK puts the mission commander in the front whilst the handling pilot occupies the rear seat.

 

Clambering into the aircraft isn't exactly dignified, but once inside the cockpit is roomy and well laid-out, with extensive use of multi-function displays and Hands on Throttle and Stick-type controllers. The aircraft is fully digital so dynamically works out things like its own performance, safe single-engine

speeds, etc and as you can see above, features easy to interpret displays. This one is the fuel page, showing how much fuel is on board and where it is, along with fuel burn rates and associated endurance.

The checklist is straightforward and swift and soon we lifted from Lossiemouth to conduct some general handling to the south.

The visibility from the front cockpit is excellent all round

My first observation was that the aircraft was very light on the controls and the monocular display made it very easy to maintain a good lookout whilst still flying quite accurately. Apache likes you to interact with it as much as fly it and by that I mean that its always looking to remove the burden of flying so it has a speed hold, altitude hold and attitude hold that pilots with more skill than me can use to make the business of flying very relaxed and virtually hands-off. I struggled with the various trimming modes a little as they weren't either very basic as in Tornado and most older aircraft or fully automatic as in Typhoon. I suspect that with a bit of training though, they become second nature. In the general handling, we looked at the various modes and linking of some of the sensors and operated the Longbow radar in its terrain avoidance and air-to-air modes. The multi-function displays are akin to what you'd find in any modern fighter and allow the pilots to see fused data from all the sensors, making the Apache the fearsome weapons platform it is!

The monocle takes some getting used to but means there is information wherever you look

Next up, off to our Relief Landing Ground at Kinloss for me to embarrass myself in the hover and to try a few landings. The heads-up information is very helpful but I missed the 'reality' of some in-cockpit instruments. This was probably just my unfamiliarity with the symbology, although my instructor did a marvellous job of explaining them and helping me master the HOTAS – it really is an intuitive cockpit. Anyhow, after an approach that did anything but maintain a 'constant sight line angle', I wobbled us down onto the ground and I think we were both grateful for those shock-absorbing undercarriage legs! I found the running landings particularly hard as a fixed wing pilot, especially so because I regularly fly taildraggers. This means that I'm hard wired for a nose-up landing with the stick right back in my stomach – exactly the opposite of this technique, which I found uncomfortably nose-low. With a few thousand fixed-wing hours, its very hard to overcome the muscle memory, especially when it gets more challenging near to the ground and the best I could realistically hope for was 'safe'!

Then it was on to exploiting the weapons system and I have to say, this was fantastic. The aircraft can perform a fully automatic hover, leaving the crew to get on with the business of finding, allocating and striking its targets. The HOTAS is brilliant here and I was soon using the twin grip controllers to control the radar, Forward Looking Infra red and camera, zooming in on various targets. The ability to swiftly cue up a range of weapons, designate using the monocular and even to see where the other pilot is looking means that the Apache brings weapons to bear very quickly indeed.

Then we looked at the manoeuvrability of the aircraft by performing some wing overs, 'short-stop' approaches and transitioning from 120kts into the hover, pointing the other way, with a weapons solution available. Impressive. All too soon we returned to Lossiemouth for a final landing. The Apache blends firepower, manoeuvrability and protection (2 of everything, armour, shock-absorbing, self-sealing, etc) beautifully. It's beauty is in the eye of the beholder but its certainly a potent and flexible weapons system that is extremely fun and enjoyable to fly. I'm glad they're on our side….

 

One very happy Station Commander after the sortie

 

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Who Gives a FOD?

Another major Exercise at RAF Lossiemouth is over and so once again, the whole Station’s personnel spend an hour or so of their Monday morning combing the airfield, like some giant police forensic team, looking for rubbish and debris. But why? Has the Station Commander gone mad and decided that tidiness must be maintained at all cost?

Well no, Foreign Object Damage or FOD, is a real mission-killer and can bring down aircraft. FOD comes in all shapes and sizes, although this is an extreme example!

Ever since the advent of jet engines, FOD has been a constant presence and military and civil operators have tried their best to reduce its occurrence. The Glouster Meteor used to suffer badly from sucking out and ingesting its own rivets and fasteners into the Welland engines, usually with disastrous results. This concept of ‘self-harm’ by aircraft to themselves and to other aircraft is an important one and is at the cutting edge of current anti-FOD campaigns.

The Concorde tragedy is a prime example of aircraft-caused FOD leading to disaster

Bringing this closer to home and the Tornado Force, why should we pay attention and what are we doing?

Safety. FOD has been responsible for a number of Tornado crashes over the years, from control restrictions to engine titanium fires, so there is a clear need to do all we can.

Mission Effectiveness. Unlike civil operations, military tasks often have little discretion over whether they can be completed or not – we simply must produce results or the consequences are severe. Therefore, mission cancellation due to FOD is something we can’t tolerate.

Cost. Tornado jet engines are expensive to repair and by reducing the number of ‘unnecessary’ repairs, we can dramatically reduce the cost to Defence and to the taxpayer.

So what’s the fuss about? Well, the Tornado engine rejection rate due to FOD had been steadily creeping up and in 2012 stood at just over one engine per 1000 flying hours. This equated to a large number of broken engines and ¬£millions spent on repairs, not to mention numerous hazardous situations and in 2011 a crash report concluded that FOD, probably metallic in nature, caused an engine mechanical failure. We simply had to get a grip on this situation and reduced FOD.

The graph below shows what causes most Tornado FOD and we’re right back to the 1950s and aircraft self-harm:

Just like in the days of the Meteor, aircraft metallic items – locking wire, fasteners, etc, are a major cause of FOD and an area where we can really influence. This became the basis of a joint Rolls Royce and Tornado Force campaign to raise awareness and reduce FOD. We combed the filters and bins of our runway sweepers, tracking down the source of each and every piece of debris and even purchased a new glue to attach vortex generators to the fin of the Tornado when we discovered that too many of them were becoming detached. In addition, we changed the way we marked small parts of the aircraft that might be vulnerable to detaching so we could identify their source much quicker. An example of this increased awareness and ‘Focus on FOD’ campaign was when a Tornado was hotpit refuelling (like a F1 pitstop, the fuel is replaced with an engine still running) and a technician noticed a missing vortex generator. He quickly informed ATC, the runway was closed, the culprit found and matched to the source airframe in minutes. Result = runway closed for very short time, no chance of FOD harming that aircraft or another one and no missing piece to account for.

The results so far are impressive: the FOD rate per 1000 flying hours has fallen by about 50% over the past 12 months. That’s 50% safer, 50% fewer missions lost and 50% financial saving. Our challenge now is to maintain the focus on FOD and keep driving down the rate. Further details on the Fous on FOD campaign can be found in Air Clues, the RAF flight safety magazine.

So, this is why, every time you drive onto an airfield surface at RAF Lossiemouth, you have to go over a cattle grid to shake out stones and then check and clear your tyres. And it’s why today, hundreds of people will walk across the airfield and operating surfaces, picking up litter and debris – I haven’t gone mad but I do hope to track down any FOD so we can continue to operate safey, effectively and efficiently!

A FOD-free diet for our Tornados please!

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