As damned useful as helicopters are a recent story from the MoD highlighted just how difficult it is to keep them safely flying.
While specialist support crews in theatre conduct the day-to-day maintenance on the hi-tech helicopter, the aircraft also has a legion of engineering experts poised for action in the UK. Based at Attack Helicopter HQ in Wattisham, a highly-skilled group of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) craftsmen work alongside civilian contractors to run a Depth Support Unit (DSU) – an organisation charged with keeping the Apache fleet fit for flight.
Whenever an aircraft clocks up 600 flying hours it is booked into the state-of-the-art service centre to be stripped down to its bare frame and meticulously cleaned and inspected for wear and tear or damage. Parts are then repaired or replaced before the helicopter is rebuilt and sent back into service.
Warrant Officer Class 1 Christian Rouse, the man responsible for overseeing the movements of every Apache on behalf of the Joint Helicopter Force, said:
“Afghanistan is the priority and they’re flying a lot of hours out there. It’s always busy, there’s always another op on. They go out for seven to eight weeks then come back here and go into depth service. Then about 60 to 65 days later they’ll go back to the regiment.”
Up to ten Apaches at a time can be housed in DSU’s enormous hangar, where they will move sequentially along a pulse line of nine stands, spending roughly nine days at each
So an Apache can only fly for 600 hours before being completely stripped down, 6 weeks in theatre followed by about 9 weeks in maintenance and transport. This highlights exactly why you need quantity to sustain an enduring operation because you simply cannot compromise on safety.
Instead of seeking extra speed or payload, perhaps the next focus for helicopter designers should be maintability in theatre. Numbers of personnel in theatre are politically capped, would depth maintenance make more sense if it was carried out in theatre, are we compensating for a lack of personnel by shipping the airframes back and forth?
The article also mentions waiting for spares, what, waiting for bloody spares. These are war winning machines and waiting for spares is a phrase that should never appear on a whiteboard in the workshop.
The people carrying out this maintenance, military and civilian, do a fantastic and under reported job but the MoD should not make their lives harder by under resourced spares packages.
Of course, we could make sure the spanner bashers are maintaining helicopters instead of air bumming