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Copter maker disputes bad report

The manufacturer of a helicopter that would be one of the United States' principal weapons against Iraqi tanks in Saudi Arabi says a new federal report critical of the helicopter's performance is out of date. Hal Klopper, a spokesman for McDonnell Douglas Helicopters of Mesa, Ariz., disputes findings by the General Accounting Office (GAO) that the AH-64 Apache helicopter would be unreliable for combat duty because maintenance crews can't keep them operational even in peacetime conditions.

"The GAO's information is old, and the report is based on old information," Klopper said. "The Apache's readiness record today is far better than it was when GAO looked at the program."

Klopper also disputed a St. Petersburg Times story Oct. 19 that the Army has restricted operations of the Apache and other helicopters in the harsh Saudi desert.

"There are no restrictions on the Apache," he said.

However, Maj. Nancy Burke, an Apache public affairs specialist with the Army at the Pentagon, said this week that all helicopters operating in the Saudi desert have been restricted to some degree, including the Apache.

"They've ordered that none of the helicopters be operated with night-vision goggles because they're difficult to use in that sort of terrain," Burke said. "The sand dunes keep changing in the wind, and it's hard to pick up with night-vision goggles. In addition, the Apache cannot be operated below 150 feet (of altitude)."

There have been reports that pilots have difficulty seeing at low altitudes because helicopter rotor blades blow up so much sand.

The Apache was designed for high-intensity battle, day or night, and in adverse weather conditions. Its mission is to find tanks and other targets and destroy them with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, 30mm guns or 2.75-inch rockets. It is supposed to be a low-altitude specialist with the capability to sneak under enemy radar.

The GAO study of the Apache ran from January 1989 to April 1990. It concluded, among other things, that the helicopter needed essential and complex maintenance every 2{ hours of flying time, that there was a shortage of spare parts and a high rate of turnover in maintenance crews.

The Army's peacetime goal is to maintain the Apache fleet at 70 percent readiness, but the GAO said the 11 battalions it studied had a 50 percent readiness at best.

In its Oct. 16 issue, Aerospace Daily quoted Army Secretary Michael P. W. Stone as saying the Apaches in Saudi Arabia had nearly 85 percent readiness.

The GAO has sent a team to the Middle East to study the helicopter again.