Apache Attack Helicopter

U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters
U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter in flight over an Alaskan mountain range. (U.S. Army photo by CW2 Cameron Roxberry)

The Boeing AH-64 Apache is an attack helicopter capable of destroying armor, personnel, and materiel targets out in the open or in obscured positions. It’s the primary attack helicopter of the U.S. Army as well as the armies of multiple other nations, including Israel, Japan, Greece, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. There’s also a license-built version for the British Army called the AgustaWestland Apache.

The twin-engine, four-blade Apache can equip 30mm cannons, 2.75-inch rockets, and Hellfire missiles (laser-guided or radio frequency). It also packs sophisticated communications, navigation, and sensor systems for spotting targets. There are more than 1,200 Apaches currently in service worldwide.

The AH-64E (pictured here) is the latest variant of the Apache helicopter.

The Apache sprung to life as the Model 77 designed and built by Hughes Helicopters, a major manufacturer of military helicopters between the 1950s and 1980s. In 1984, Hughes sold to McDonnell Douglas, and in 1997, McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing.

In 1972, the U.S. Army sought a new aircraft for anti-armor attacks following the cancellation of the Lockheed AH056 Cheyenne in favor of projects like the A-10 Warthog. It issued a formal Request For Proposals (RFP) for the Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) program in November of that year, and proposals were submitted by Sikorsky, Lockheed, Hughes, Boeing, and Bell. To illustrate the extensive consolidation that took place in the American military manufacturing industry, Boeing and Hughes are now one company, and Lockheed purchased Sikorsky in 2015.

After evaluating test results from various prototypes, the U.S. Army selected Hughes’ Model 77/YAH-64A prototype in 1976 for reasons including its four-blade main rotor being more tolerant to damage. In 1981, the U.S. Army named its new attack helicopter Apache after a Native American tribe, and it took delivery of the first production model in 1983.

AH-64A, the first version of the Apache helicopter. (Credit: An aptly named fellow named Jerry Gunner)

The first production model of the Apache was the AH-64A and the latest one is the AH-64E, so you’ll be forgiven to think are other ones designated B, C, and D. But, no, there are only three variants in service; A, D, and E. In the 1980s, McDonnell Douglas (after acquiring Hughes) studied an AH-64B with an updated cockpit and new fire control system among other upgrades but the program was canceled. In the 1990s, it worked on the AH-64C and the radar-equipped AH-64D simultaneously but dropped the C designation in favor of D for both models due to minor differences in function (The only difference was the presence of the radar in D, which could be moved from one aircraft to another anyways).

Deliveries of the AH-64E began in 2011 (when it was still designated as AH-64D Block III before the naming update in 2012). It had a better radar system, improved landing gear, and greater cruise speed, climb range, and payload capacity among other upgrades. In 2016, the U.S. Army said it won’t pursue another Apache upgrade when it receives the last of them expectedly by 2026, after which Boeing will end its production line.

An Apache armed with 38 rockets and 8 hellfire missiles plus its M230 chain gun mounted underneath.

At full load, the Apache carries 1,200 rounds of 30mm bullets and 76 rockets or 16 Hellfire missiles, or a mix of both. The gun has a fire rate of 600-650 rounds per minute. A major advantage of the Apache is that it’s able to take significant damage in combat missions yet complete its objectives and return safely. Because of its extensive combat experience, a significant number have also been lost to hostile fire, e.g., 15 U.S.-owned Apaches in the Iraq War. But, overall, it’s a reliable weapon of destruction for its operators.

30mm ammunition for the Apache.
The M230 chain gun fitted underneath the Apache.

Fast Facts about the Apache

  • Crew – Two (pilot and copilot gunner)
  • Max speed – 164 knots (304km/h) for the AH-64E, and 145 knots (269km/h) for the AH-64D
  • Maximum gross weight – 20,260lb (9,190kg)
  • Combat endurance – 2.5 hours
  • Ceiling – 20,000ft