by Richard Sheffield
Unlike some previous helicopter designs, speed was not the prime focus for the development of the Apache. This aircraft was intended to fly at speeds in excess of 100 knots at an altitude of 15 feet or less! In order to safely fly in this manner, an aircraft must be nimble and reliable. At an altitude of 15 feet, you do not have much time to react to system failures.
Fortunately for current and future Apache pilots, the AH-64A has exceptional handling ability. It has been tested and approved to take maneuvering loads of between +3.5 and -0.5 gs. This allows for hard-turning maneuvers needed to fly low and fast. The excess of power available from the twin engines frees the crew of the worry of losing power and altitude during nap-of-the-earth flying, as was common with the AH-1 Cobra. The negative g ability allows pilots to stay close to the ground when coming over the top of a hill. Once they see that they are clear of the crest, they can pitch down hard and reduce the amount of time that they are exposed to ground detection and fire.
The specified combat weight for the aircraft is 14,700 pounds. At this weight, the Army required a climb rate of 450 feet per second in hot, desert conditions. The Apache, as delivered, can climb three times as fast as the specifications—1450 feet per second. The Apache is also capable of carrying much more weight. It is rated at a maximum load of 5000 pounds, which is more than can be stored in weapons currently.
Despite being a very complicated machine, the Apache has been described as one of the smoothest and easiest-to-fly helicopters currently in the U.S. military. The DASE (Digital Automatic Stabilization Equipment) allows the pilot extended hands-off flight when moving forward or to maintain a hover when stopped.
Although not designed for speed, the Apache can hold its own with a maximum level flight speed of 164 knots. Its nimbleness is again demonstrated by the ability to fly backwards or sideways at 45 knots.
The amazing thing about the Apache is that it can demonstrate all of these abilities, including nap-of-the-earth flight, in extremely bad weather and at night, with very little, if any, loss of performance. It can do this because of the high-tech avionics equipment it carries. We'll examine it next.