The Israeli Air Force (IAF) recently grounded its entire AH-64 attack helicopter fleet, AFM correspondent Noam Mensahe reports. The grounding order came after a large crack was discovered in the tail rotor of one of the helicopters during a routine check.
It was decided to ground the two-squadron fleet for one month with an exception in case of war, in which case the aircraft would return to immediate service. After investigating the crack and further testing conducted by representatives from the Boeing Company and the US Army, it was decided to reinstate the aircraft to regular service.
Apache in Israel
Numbering almost 50 aircraft, the AH-64 fleet is now backbone of the IAF’s attack helicopter force. The fleet has been built up gradually over the last 22 years. The first procurement contract for 18 examples of the AH-64A Peten (python) was signed in May 1990, with the first helicopters arriving only four months later, on September 11, 1990.
The first AH-64 unit was the ‘Hornet’ Squadron. The unit has a long history, being the second Israeli jet squadron, flying the Ouragan between 1955 and 1971, the Nesher between 1971 and 1976, and the Kfir until 1985. It was officially reactivated in its new attack helicopter incarnation on September 12, 1990, with an unprecedented tasking – to become combat ready by January 15, 1991, the expiry date of the US ultimatum for Iraq to retreat from Kuwait. Israel planned to use the new helicopters for Scud-hunting missions in Iraq’s western desert. The helicopters were assigned tail numbers in the 8XX range.
The ‘Hornet’ Squadron was not used during the 1991 Gulf War, and the Peten’s first operational mission took place on the night of 24 October 1990, attacking Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. The last of the 18 Petens arrived in Israel during May 1991, and in September 1992 the US Department of Defense announced the delivery of another 24 AH-64As to Israel. These were a reward to Israel for its willingness to absorb Iraqi missile attacks during the 1991 war, and was made possible due to the US Army’s decision to use only the new and improved AH-64D helicopters. The surplus Apaches were delivered to Israel on board four C-5 aircraft on September 12, 1993. Aircraft in this batch were named Peten II and assigned tail numbers in the 9XX range.
On 22 March 1995 a second Peten squadron was officially activated. This was the ‘Magic Touch’ Squadron that previously flew the MD500 Lahatut (magic trick). The 42 AH-64As were divided equally between the two squadrons. In the same year a conversion line was opened at Israeli Air Force Central Maintenance Unit 22 in Tel Nof in order to convert the US-standard Peten II to the Israeli-standard Peten I, including communication systems, fire-control software, radar warning receivers, laser detection systems and new flare dispensers.
The next step in the evolution of the fleet took place in December 2000 with the procurement contract for nine AH-64D helicopters, eight of them newly built and one converted from the existing AH-64A Peten 950, shipped to the US. With the success of the conversion process proven, two additional conversion contracts were signed, one for the conversion of three helicopters signed in April 2003, and a second signed in August 2004 for the conversion of another six helicopters. The new AH-64D Saraf helicopters entered service with the ‘Hornet’ Squadron, and its older Petens were transferred to the ‘Magic Touch’ Squadron, dividing the fleet between a large Peten squadron and a smaller Saraf squadron.
The ‘Hornet’ Squadron was re-formed on 10 April 2005. The Peten/Saraf fleet has played a major role in all of the regional conflicts between 1990 and the present, including Operations Accountability in 1993, and Grapes of Wrath in 1996, top cover for the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Operation Cast Lead in late 2008, and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. During thousands of operational missions, at least four helicopters have been lost, one in June 1999 (AH-64A serial 944) and three during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 (AH-64A serial 818 and 825 in a mid-air collision and AH-64D serial 723 due to one of its main rotor blades breaking in flight).
The last step in the evolution of the AH-64 fleet took place in early 2010 with the signing of another conversion contract for three helicopters, aimed at replacing the helicopters lost in 2006. AH-64A serial 822, 929 and 953 were shipped to Boeing and the converted AH-64Ds (serials 787, 113 and 789) arrived in Israel in October 2012.