Precise and deadly: A pilot's view of the Apache
- 24 June 2011
- From the section UK
The UK's Army Air Corps is currently using four Apache helicopters in the conflict in Libya. Ed Macy flew the aircraft for five years and won a Military Cross for his heroism - he describes what it's like to pilot the £42m machine.
Ed Macy's part in the rescue of an injured marine in Afghanistan in 2007 reads like the script from an action film.
There was a vicious firefight, a 2000lb bomb was dropped to disguise the helicopter's arrival and two marines were strapped to the side of the helicopter.
"It's like strapping yourself to the roof of a car at 100mph," says the 45-year-old former helicopter pilot.
He landed the helicopter in the middle of a Taliban camp and with the marines struggling to move their injured colleague, he left his cockpit and ran to help.
Despite being under fire they managed to escape, but the injured marine, Mathew Ford, didn't survive his injuries.
The pilot describes the mission as his "most dangerous" and his Military Cross was the first ever received by the Army Air Corps.
Mr Macy served in many dangerous missions, flying Gazelle and Apache helicopters as pilot, captain and flight commander.
When he finished his career in 2008 he had achieved the rank of Warrant Officer First Class and was an attack aviation specialist.
He describes the Apache as "the world's most sophisticated hunter-killer".
The Army Air Corps has 67 of the £42m machines and training each pilot costs around £3m.
Mr Macy explained what new recruits have to learn to fly the Apache.
"Everything is based around the pilot and the gunner's right eye," he explains. "You can just look, see and fire.
"You have to understand the information that is on a lens one inch from your eye - any time, day or night, flying low, while your other eye is looking to infinity.
"That's just the flying, then you've got the weapons systems."
The intensity of the 18-month Apache course has seen pilots and instructors with more than 5,000 flying hours drop out.
"They thought it would be just another tour," he says. "They never appreciated how complex the machine was."
In the early days of the Afghanistan campaign, with only one combat-ready squadron, pilots often had to fly for 16 to 18 hours.
"Just getting out for a quick leak and back in again - it was that manic in the early days."
Resources and manpower have improved greatly since then, says Mr Macy, who is also a strong supporter of the aircraft's use in Libya.
Its "pin-point precision accuracy" is ideal to reduce the civilian deaths that can sometimes occur with higher altitude bombing.
He says pilots will be able use the Apache's low-level flying capabilities and their own judgement to destroy any threats to civilians.
"That human in the loop [the pilot] can make calculated decisions in a fluid situation.
"He can look at it and say these men are committing an act which is wrong. I can see it, I'm now going to remove that threat."
Despite the Apache's accuracy, the pilot concedes that it's impossible to completely rule out the chance of innocent people being caught up in an attack.
In 2008, there was a so-called "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan when nine British soldiers were shot at and injured by an Army Air Corps Apache.
Mr Macy knows those involved and claims the media "overplayed" the story.
And he says the chances of injuring civilians is very low.
The arsenal of weapons available to Apache pilots currently flying in Libya is formidable.
A cannon mounted under the aircraft carries 1,200 30mm bullets that penetrate armour and fragment on impact for maximum damage.
"It will destroy an armoured personnel carrier and blast through any shield that Gaddafi's men have," says Mr Macy.
"It's got an incendiary in it which will then torch the vehicle. It's accurate - all you need to do is look with your eye."
The Apache's arsenal also includes rockets and 16 Hellfire missiles, designed to destroy tanks.
"You put a laser spot on the target, press a button and a missile will land wherever that spot is.
"It's pretty much like saying 'pick a window' - and it'll go through it. That's how accurate it is."