February 13th, 2007 04:18 EST
Despite Risks, Air Still Safest Travel in Iraq, General Says
Air travel is still the safest way to transport troops and supplies in Iraq, despite the recent rash of downed helicopter incidents, a top official there said yesterday.
Six helicopters have either been shot down or crashed since Jan. 20, Army Maj. Gen. James E. Simmons, deputy commanding general for support for Multinational Corps Iraq, said.
In the past three weeks, two Army UH-60 Black Hawks and two AH-64 Apaches have been shot down, killing 16 soldiers, he said. A Marine CH-46 Sea Knight went down outside Baghdad on Feb. 7, killing all seven Marines onboard, but early reports indicate mechanical failure caused that crash, Simmons said.
Also, two civilian helicopters have crashed in eastern Baghdad, one killing five private security company employees, according to reports. No casualties were reported in the second crash.
Officials believe two of the Army incidents were linked, the general said. Both times, insurgents set up explosive devices along the routes most likely to be used by the deploying coalition quick-reaction force, he explained.
Simmons discounted reports, though, that advanced missile systems are being used to shoot down helicopters in Iraq. There is no evidence supporting that, Simmons said. He also said there is no evidence that a specific group has been targeting the aircraft.
But, he said, insurgents are adapting, their tactics have evolved, and Army air missions have increased.
“We are engaged with a thinking enemy. This enemy understands … that we are in the process of executing the prime minister’s new plan for the security of Baghdad. And they understand the strategic implications of shooting down an aircraft. It is in their interests, from a strategic perspective, to attempt to engage and shoot down our aircraft,” Simmons said.
Army helicopters average 100 enemy firefights monthly and are hit about 17 times a month. Most times the helicopters are able to fly back to base. Simmons said that is a testament to the quality of pilots, crews and equipment.
The number of flight hours for the Army has nearly doubled in the past two years. In 2005, pilots logged about 240,000 hours. This year, Simmons said, he expects that number to reach nearly 400,000 hours. In 2006, pilots and crews flew 334,000 hours.
The Army has lost 29 helicopters to enemy fire since March 2003, Simmons said. The majority of the firefights involve machine-gun and heavy-machine-gun fire, categorized as up to 23 mm, Simmons said. But, he added, some surface-to-air missiles, such as SA-7s, SA-14s and SA-16s, have been used to shoot down Army helicopters.
Investigations are ongoing in the incidents, but meanwhile it is business as usual for Army aviators in Iraq, Simmons said. Some procedures have been modified, but the Army has not slowed down its flying time and it has not cancelled any missions.
“We have not cancelled one mission, and there has been absolutely no reduction in rotary-wing aircraft flight -- nor will there be,” Simmons said. “We have reviewed our procedures, and we have made modifications as to how and where and when we’re flying, and we will do that periodically.”
Simmons, who is an Army master aviator, said he is a passenger on an Army helicopter almost daily.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the young men and women who are operating these machines. They’re incredible talented. They’re incredibly bright. They’re incredibly courageous,” he said.
“We will continue to fly. It is the safest way that I know of to get around here in Iraq. And we will continue to do it and I will continue to be proud to fly with them.”
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service