Saturday, August 13, 2011

Zen and the Art of Helicopter Maintenance

       With a title like that, I must begin with Motorcycles.

       Specifically, the military motorcycles that I remember from seeing "Why We Fight" and other film documentaries that provided the visual history of World War II.  You may remember them:  the grainy black-and-white newsreel clips of German motorcycle units roaring down the dirt roads of Europe, spreading war wherever they would.

       It was probably a good recruiting tool, especially in Germany, for a certain kind of daring young man.  He could imagine himself a part of some kind of First Wehrmacht Motorcyle Division, dirt-biking at fifty miles an hour with a couple of buddies on those beautiful, powerful, top-of-the-line military-issue machines.  It was kind of sexy, really, in that grim, dusty, determined kind of sexy that some young men (and some young women, apparently) prefer.

       Plus, the volunteer for motorcycle-duty figured he could take care of that machine.  (He may have even worked on a lesser bike of his own.)  As long as his superiors would cooperate with a few spare parts, motorcycle maintenance was something he knew he could do.  This was doable!  Think of the frauleins!

       But, sexy or not, newsreels or not, it didn't work.  If it had, all our modern armies would have Motorcycle Brigades.  But they don't.  Why?

       For all its undeniable cachet as a symbol of freedom and virility, the motorcycle is not much good on a battlefield.  It can be easily and totally stopped with rather simple countermeasures:  explosive devices, piano wire stretched across the road, or simple ambush from concealment.  A man on a motorcycle is, really, a fragile machine.  Because that machine can be easily unbalanced.

       Like the pilot with his helicopter.

       I have been studying up on the Vietnam War lately, so I've been reading a lot about the helicopter, which was the front-and-center weapon of military operations and largely affected the strategy and tactics of that entire war.

       If there is one weapon that can be said to have lost that terrible war, it is the helicopter.  That's right, it was the helicopter that lost that war.

       How, you may ask.  Good question; here are some basic statistics that I have gleaned from my readings.  Yours may be more accurate.

       1. The typical Vietnam-era transport helicopters could deliver 10 ground-troops and their equipment.     A typical operation of placing 200 men at a target required the safe arrival of 20 helicopters.

       2.  They had a maximum effective fuel range of about 200 miles -- 100 miles out, and 100 miles back, straight line.  But if you flew in a straight line, you were telegraphing your line of flight to the enemy waiting up ahead to set up an ambush.  (Zigzagging was possible, but limited, especially if you were flying in formation with twenty or so helicopters and your destination was close to the limit of fuel range.)

       3.  Helicopters zipped along at about 55 miles per hour.  That's the speed of the slow cars you pass on the freeway every day.  Think about it.  Helicopters that flew high were visible targets for rifle and small-arms fire for  minutes.  Helicopters hugging the ground at treetop level could be -- and very often were -- taken down by special home-made cross-bows that fired ropes, wires, and vines a few feet into the air and tangled the rotors.  That disruption of the delicate balance of spinning rotors guaranteed an instant crash.  It was so easy to do this, in fact, that these cross-bow armed opponents once took down fifteen helicopters in a single event.

       4.  Helicopters are flying machines that must be kept as light as possible in order to deliver a maximum payload.  There was no way for them to be effectively armored, even against small-arms fire.

       5.  Helicopters are very high-tech equipment.  Read, fragile.  A lot could go wrong, and often did,  before they ever reached the combat zone.  Over 40 percent of helicopter loss (and loss of crew) was due to accidents and mechanical failure, not hostile enemy action.

       6.  Helicopters are very high-tech equipment.  Read, temperamental.  At any one time, over half the helicopters were always down for servicing and unavailable for action.  The army tried to maintain a 50% availability rate, and couldn't.  This meant that a 200-man deployment unit really had to have more than forty helicopters at the base.

       7.  Helicopters are very high-tech equipment.   They require a lot of servicing, with lots of spare parts and the skilled mechanics to replace them.  This requires a large, vulnerable base, which needs protection.  The base, loaded with row upon row of helicopters, most of them unserviceable, is a magnet for attack by a handful of enemy concealed in the jungle within mortar range.  Huge numbers of helicopters were destroyed in this way.

       On a more personal and less mechanical note, helicopters are lousy for soldiers who need to distinguish friend from foe.  Fifty-five miles an hour seems slow when you are dodging small-arms fire; but when seconds count during the process of target identification, you are overflying the "enemy" area at more than 80 feet per second.  So the "enemy" becomes:  "anyone that runs."  Very bad for winning hearts and minds in Vietnam.

       Here are the rough figures for helicopter-related losses in Vietnam, as reported by a retired Air Force colonel who was in a position to know:
       over 5000 helicopters lost;
       over 15,000 lives lost in crashes;
       the average helicopter, it is reported, lasted slightly fewer than eight sorties;
yet, risky and ineffective as they were, they were used heavily in the war from beginning to end.


       Well, some old helicopter pilots will say that there was a rush of adrenalin like no other, flying into mortal danger, killing gooks, and coming back alive.  Get the juices going, and it might make for a good Saturday night seeking release at some brothel in Saigon.  So maybe helicopters are sexy, and the pilots don't want to give them up.

       But I think there is a better explanation for why the military kept using the helicopter.

       Helicopters are high-tech equipment.  Read, multi-million dollars apiece (a modern Apache, admittedly more sophisticated than its 60s brethren, was going for over 11 million dollars in 1995), and much, much more than that amount to service and replace.

       It is true that arms industries, especially aircraft industries, have enormous start-up and re-tooling costs.  They survive from contract to contract.  Sometimes, they even go broke.  So how do they get going and stay afloat?

       Loans.  Big, big loans.  From big investors, like very big banks.  In 1960, I have read, the First National Bank of Boston financed the purchase of Bell Helicopter Company -- but only after meeting in private in the Pentagon with representatives of the CIA to determine their future needs -- fully four years before the "Gulf of Tonkin Incident" was staged by the CIA/NSA to begin the military buildup in Vietnam.  How many billions did these guys make at a cost of 5,000 helicopters and 15,000 lives?  Every lost helicopter was worth millions of dollars to replace . . .

       And the army kept writing the big checks year after year, even though it was accepting less than 49% operability, and over 40% of losses were due to non-combat mechanical failures or accidents.  The army still buys the newest upgrades today.

       Do you happen to remember that during the decade of the 1980's, "our" Afghan "freedom fighters," armed with our Stinger missiles, stalled the entire Russian invasion of that country by shooting down a zillion of their helicopters?  They made a movie about it called Charlie Wilson's War.  It really happened.

       So we have ten years of experience in helicopter "insurgency-counter-insurgency" operations by the Russians in Afghistan.  An even longer period of time for the US in Vietnam.   And now, again in Afghanistan, NATO is wrapping up its own decade of helicopter supported war: How are those amazing high-tech vehicles working?

       I am told -- I have no way of knowing for sure -- that it takes about a million dollars to train and deploy a single Navy Seal.  Why in God's name did they load more than twenty of them into a single helicopter, along with ten others, and send that pelican across a danger zone to risk being shot down by a missile like the ones that we taught the Afghans to use thirty years ago?

       I grieve over the loss of the Navy Seals and the other passengers on the helicopter that just went down.  Some of them could have been former students of mine.  I also grieve over the CIA Drone Wars that slaughter the Pashtun people in twos and threes and dozens and hundreds.

       I hear young men coming away from the annual military air show who tell me of their plans to become Apache pilots.  Their parents enthuse and encourage them.  I listen.

       I am tired of this ghastly ten-year tragedy called the War in Afghanistan.  Thousands of people dead,  and the only winners are the arms manufacturers and the big banks who control them.  And we say, To hell with the budget, to hell with the debt, to hell with the Bill of Rights.  Let's have some more war so our kids can be Apache pilots and defend our freedoms.  We can already see how proud we'll be when they come back home and come to church in their snappy uniforms with that laconic, knowing smile that will make dad proud, and will make the silly girls (and their silly mothers) swoon, and guarantee our sons a few hot dates with the sexiest ones.  To hell with our kids' lives.

       Motorcycles and helicopters -- both wonderful machines, not well suited for surviving modern combat.

       There is a famous old Zen conundrum:  What is the sound of one hand clapping?  I think I know that sound.  It is the sound of all the applause that the Bush-Obama War deserves.

       Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.

*       *       *

       The above information is what I have gleaned from study.  I believe it to be truthful; don't count on it for statistical purposes, or cite it as gospel truth; I cannot claim that it is.  Correct me if I am wrong.

       Comments pro and con always welcome.


  1. Robert,

    You used the "Zen" technique in this article very well.

    The technique is the way of rationally thinking out problems: motorcycle maintenance requires this skill, so does surveying a tract of land or figuring out how to construct a building: it requires an art of rationality.

    You have very rationally laid out the situation we face vis a vis helicopters: they are expensive, ineffective, vulnerable, complicated, mechanical. The practical difficulties involved in waging a war with such equiprment far from our shores are brought to light in your piece very well.

    Rational analysis makes what seems like an impossibly tangled issue (issues of war and peace) more understandable and concrete. Helpful.

    Not a panacea of course. Rationality has its limits. But also its uses.

  2. I am glad that I didn't read this before I flew around Iraq in a handful of helicopters, or I may not have enjoyed the experience as much. The adrenalin rush and the blast of wind in the face, as well as the beautiful sights are what makes both helicopters and motorcycles so amazing. But with everything that is truly beautiful and exhilarating the danger element is high and should only be experience voluntarily. And when you add death and destruction to the mix its like pissing in a bowl of cheerios, the cheerios are still there but you have to be a little F'ed in the head to enjoy eating them. (this comment is for those who enjoy eating cheerios)