Why Are So Many Choppers Crashing?

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Mark Drobnjakovic / AP

A U.S. Army CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, similar to the one that crashed on Wednesday, February 7, flies over Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Bumblebees defy the physics of flight, helicopter pilots like to say — and so it seems do the whirlybirds flying, and too often crashing, in Iraq recently. The crash of a Marine Sea Knight chopper northwest of Baghdad on Wednesday — killing all seven aboard — marks the fourth time a U.S. military helicopter has gone down in Iraq in just more than two weeks (an additional downing was of a U.S. contractor's chopper). Like clockwork, al-Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgents quickly claimed responsibility for Wednesday's downing, which brought to 28 the number of helicopter fatalities in the five crashes.

The sudden spurt of helicopters going down comes just as the U.S. military is embarking on the Bush Administration's much-debated surge of soldiers into Baghdad, and it brings up the question: why are so many aircraft suddenly crashing, and what, if anything, does it say about the capabilities of the insurgents who are claiming to shoot them down?

As someone who has zipped over Afghan mountains and along Iraqi river valleys in U.S. military choppers — usually clutching my stomach to avoid losing my MRE — I know there are no helicopter pilots better than those trained by the U.S. military. Nor are there any better flying machines (the White House's recent ordering of a fleet of Anglo-Italian helicopters for the President's use notwithstanding).

But a funny thing happens in wartime: The U.S. military, which likes to describe peacetime helicopter accidents as "hard landings" or with other euphemisms, is often quick to suggest that a helicopter downing in a war zone "does not seem due to hostile fire." An accident, in other words. So that means, rather amazingly, that while they don't know what caused it, they claim to know what didn't cause it. And too often it's wishful thinking: In the wake of initial findings, the chance that the enemy actually did bring down the helicopter is acknowledged. (Following Wednesday's crash, the U.S. military said hostile fire did not appear to be the cause, although an Iraqi military officer did tell the Associated Press that an anti-aircraft missile was to blame. Iraqi witnesses made similar claims.)

It's a sad fact of military aviation that helicopters flying in combat are accidents waiting to happen. Unlike their fixed-wing brethren, helicopters tend to be slow, which on the battlefield is another word for vulnerable. Beyond that, they tend to fly low, hugging the contours of the terrain in what pilots called nap-of-the-earth flight (that's what upsets unpracticed bellies). The tactic certainly reduces the helicopter's exposure to enemy fire from below, but it doesn't eliminate it. Helicopter pilots speak warily of "golden BBs" that can bring down their bird. There are a fair number of bull's-eyes on those spindly mechanical beasts — rotor blades, fuel systems, driveshafts, hydraulic lines — that, if hit, can doom a helicopter. Many of them don't exist on fixed-wing aircraft, or are better protected on the faster machines.

"To my knowledge, each of those was shot down by small arms, not by missiles," Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told a Senate panel Tuesday before the latest loss. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of AK-47s in greater Baghdad. Other Pentagon officials wonder if the insurgents have gotten hold of a fresh batch of SA-7 Grail shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. While a primitive heat-seeker, its range of more than three miles is bound to find its target occasionally. Pace didn't have a quick solution.

"I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us, or [has] there been a change tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy," he said. Whether it's guns or missiles, Pace added, U.S. helicopter crews are being briefed on the threat "so that the pilots that continue to fly those aircraft have the latest information we have."

That grim assessment, made only hours before yet another downing, suggests problems ahead if the U.S. decides to fill the skies above Baghdad with helicopters as part of its surge strategy. It's a safe bet, given the flurry of downings, that U.S. military helicopters will be flying less frequently in the days to come — and more frequently in the nights to come.