Inside ‘The home of the Apache’

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As a new journalist to the aviation industry I had been told by colleagues that trade shows and events are one of the perks of the job – if a little frantic at times. Nonetheless it was a great surprise to be given the chance to visit Boeing’s Mesa site.

This young grasshopper has much to learn about helicopters but if earning my stripes means shooting off to Arizona in December then sign me up. The brief in a nutshell was to spend four days at ‘The home of the Apache’.

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Production rates of the type are set to spike as Boeing look to capitalise on customer interest. The manufacturer even suggested, during the trip, that production figures of up to 100 Apache AH-64E per year by 2021 are a realistic target. The UK – the AH-64E’s second largest operator – will also receive their first delivery of the aircraft in June 2020, with service entry expected to occur two years later.

Beyond the formal newsworthy discussions held with senior executives, it was amazing to see the Apache flight line and production facility up close. When you get a chance to see the number of people involved in designing and producing the aircraft it’s an incredible sight to behold.

It’s almost akin to watching the end credits of a film roll by in the sense that you can appreciate how many different departments and variety of skill sets are required in order for the final product to be assembled.

The production warehouse consists of a 12 point assembly with eight spots reserved for individual Apache components to be added as required. Engineers are provided with their tools each morning, which are set out for them by their respective support teams.

The idea is that this quickens up the production process and means the job at hand can happen without delay. Short of the Apache’s fuselage which is produced in Asia and its composite blades which are assembled in a neighbouring building, the entire interior and exterior of the aircraft is assembled on site.

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Of course, being given privileged access to the facility itself, awakens an inner nerd and more than anything the AVgeek hashtag for which the aviation Twittersphere prides itself on, resonated immediately.

The opportunity to try an Apache E simulator first-hand was one that proved word associations between helicopters and cool are legitimate and should always be encouraged.

Having been airborne for a mere minute at most, I crashed, spinning hopelessly into a computer generated wood. Safe to assume I won’t be giving up the day job anytime soon.

That said, the technology involved in the simulator is much more interesting than my faulty flight. The simulator itself is encased in a futuristic white pod and as you steer the flight deck moves simultaneously meaning those on the side-lines also feel like they are moving, depending on the ‘pilot’s’ movements.

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Aside from everything that happened at the Mesa site, the highlight of the trip was most definitely listening to pilot Rich Lee talk in great detail about picking up Diana Ross (of The Supremes fame) from the Arizona, Sun Devil Stadium, during the 1996 Super Bowl halftime show.

Lee is a highly respected figure within the aviation industry having completed countless test and classified flights but even for a man of his experience the Super Bowl stunt ended up being a remarkable event and one that so nearly didn’t happen.

To begin with Lee recalled that the very idea of flying a helicopter into a stadium full of people is, to say the least, not a brilliant idea from a health and safety point of view. Planning and preparation was exhaustive with every stakeholder involved having to be satisfied that their interests were being protected.

Those parties included the operator, the NFL, their events management company, local emergency services, federal aviation authorities and of course, Diana Ross.

Every possible eventuality had to be covered too, including the possibility of engine failure, security threats relating to what to do in the event of a sniper or bomb attack and how to avoid items being thrown from the crowd, as well as ensuring smoke from flares during halftime wouldn’t effect visibility.

Running alongside all of this air traffic control would have to inform all operators that no flights could pass through the surrounding area of the stadium during Lee’s flight. All of this was eventually co-ordinated successfully.

At one point during proceedings cushions were thrown from stadium seats to test if objects thrown from the crowd would inhibit the flight! Lee would also go on to entrust his teenage son to manage ground operations on the basis that he was used to travelling with his father to air shows and was well versed in planning for trade shows and marquee aviation events.

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When the moment finally arrived to fly into the stadium, two key incidents occurred that almost led to the mission being aborted. In the first instance, flight tests had been conducted with only an empty stadium, now as Lee entered, at the point of descending, his collective pitch or pressure usually exerted to let the helicopter descend smoothly made no impact because of the heat created by a stadium full of 70,000 people.

Additionally, thousands of camera flashes went off as soon as the helicopter got to the stadium. ‘It felt like I was inside a giant diamond,’ Lee explained.

To his great relief, as he continued on his set course, the middle of the stadium produced a corridor of cold air which eventually allowed Lee to land as planned. In the end, without being able to see his landing spot, Lee had touched down four inches from where he was expected to.

Just to add to the script and in a perfect moment of synchronicity between pilot and star attraction, Diana Ross sang ‘I will survive’ before receiving her escort from the stadium.

On that note, I’ll depart the stage too.

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