For once, the deadliest helicopter in the world was tapped to save a life.

The U.S. Apaches (background) fly without their Longbow Radars in Afghanistan and Iraq, swapping their weight for more weapons. (Boeing)
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After 22 years in the British army, which included a tour in Afghanistan, Ed Macy was eager to begin civilian life, but because of a shortage of experienced weapons officers on the Apache AH Mk.1, he was recalled. In 2007, as part of an effort to contain a resurgent Taliban, Macy was sent on a raid on Taliban headquarters in the Helmand province, farther south than any British troops had ever been.

From This Story

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Magowan’s battle group mapped the Taliban main supply route from Pakistan, locating five staging areas where fighters and supplies were concentrated. These became the primary targets for the Army Air Corps’ Operation Glacier. Macy’s company, the 656 Squadron, Apache helicopter company—call sign “Ugly”—was tasked with destroying the route, beginning with a site near the village of Koshtay and moving steadily north. The success of the first raid paved the way for the second part of Operation Glacier.

The following excerpt is from Apache, by Ed Macy (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009). In a few instances, names of individuals have been changed to protect their safety.

For the first time the taliban were on the defensive. The brigadier wanted to keep it that way. The Royal Marines had taken a pasting from the Taliban in the three months since they’d arrived in September 2006. Now we’d given a bit of the pasting back. The order came down to launch Operation Glacier 2 as soon as possible.

The mission was to destroy the Taliban’s main forward operating base in southern Helmand. It was a giant, high-walled rectangular compound, 200 meters long by 100 wide [220 by 110 yards], on the banks of the Helmand River where the Green Zone borders the Desert of Death in the west. It was extremely well fortified, with stone and adobe walls 10 feet high and three feet thick, and guard towers at each of its four corners. It was known locally as the Jugroom Fort.

The assault would be done by the 120 Royal Marines of Zulu Company, 45 Commando, with supporting fire from 105-mm light guns and the Scimitar armored vehicles of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons.

Colonel Magowan, commander of an intelligence unit, planned the operation, and it was an excellent one.
First, the place would be pummeled relentlessly with a massive bombardment from fast air and artillery. It would begin at midnight and last for four hours. An incredible total of 100,000 pounds of bombs dropped by B-1s would test the Taliban’s resolve. If they still wanted to stay around and defend it after that, the fort would be every bit as significant as the colonel thought.

Then, at 4 a.m., he would launch a ground assault, move into the fort, and effectively plant an International Security Assistance Force flag on its ramparts—a red flag to the Taliban’s raging bull. They would counter-attack with all available manpower—probably with their trademark encirclement maneuver. Zulu Company would then withdraw swiftly just before dawn—leaving the Taliban fully exposed. Magowan’s pièce de résistance would be to send in the Apaches (call signs Ugly Five Two and Ugly Five Three) to pick them off and identify any hidden bunkers they attempted to escape into, so fast air could close them down—forever. 

We were flying the Westland WAH-64 Apache, a British modification of the Boeing Apache Longbow equipped with two 2,100-shaft-horsepower Rolls-Royce engines. Most impressive of all the Apache’s cutting-edge technology was how it found its prey. Its Target Acquisition and Designation Sight system (TADS) was made up of an array of cameras housed in a double-headed nose cone that looked like a pair of giant insect eyes. At night, the thermal camera was so powerful it could identify a human form from a distance of four kilometers [2.5 miles], and spots of blood on the ground from a kilometer up.

The TADS monocle sat permanently over a pilot’s right iris, and a dozen different instrument readings from around the cockpit were projected into it. At the flick of a button, a range of other images could also be superimposed underneath the green glow of the instrument symbology, replicating the TADS’ camera images and the Longbow Radars’ targets.

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