By Ann Roosevelt

MESA, Ariz.–More than 300 Army leaders, suppliers and company personnel turned out on the flight line July 9 to see Boeing‘s [BA] AH-64D Apache Block III on it’s first flight–with Apache Master Pilot Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody in the co-pilot gunner seat and Army experimental pilot Chief Warrant Officer 5 Rucie Moore.

"Just awesome," said Apache Master pilot Cody, who flew the Production Vehicle D-Model (PVD) 27 Block III as it went through several actions as part of its test program– ensuring positive control at the hover, while circling, moving laterally, and forward and backward.

PVD 27 had a special red strip on the side with four stars and "Commander Cody" printed on it.

During the ceremonies after the flight, Cody said he came to Mesa not to fly, but to "thank you in person for all you’ve done for Army aviation."

This was Cody’s penultimate flight. His final Apache flight came at the end of the week with his son Tyler, also an Apache pilot, at Ft. Rucker, Ala., the Army Aviation Center of Excellence. Both Cody’s sons are Apache pilots; one has completed six tours with the aircraft.

The Apache has compiled more than 500,000 combat flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Boeing received its first Apache Block III contract in June 2005. Low-rate initial production is slated to begin in April 2010, and to deliver the first production Block III aircraft in June 2011.

The Block III concept was approved by the Defense Department’s acquisition chief in October 2003 as part of the restructuring of funds after the cancellation of the Boeing- Sikorsky [UTX] RAH-66 Comanche helicopter (Defense Daily, Oct. 23, 2002).

Gary Bishop, Boeing director of U.S. Army Apache programs, said the program is on time and on schedule.

Almost a year ago, Al Winn, Boeing vice president of Apache Programs, said that the first Block III prototype aircraft to take to the skies would be the avionics aircraft in July 2008, as it did, ahead of the initial schedule plan (Defense Daily, Nov. 6).

At the ceremonies, Winn said the Apache Block III is the product of visionaries who thought for the future, from combat applications and tactics in Panama to the battle in the desert that keyed on night operations. The aircraft is "a testament to the tremendous team effort of Team Apache–the U.S. Army, our worldwide industry suppliers and Boeing. The technologies incorporated into the Block III helicopter come from a cross-section of the best of industry."

Designed by Hughes, a company later bought by Boeing, the first production Apache helicopters rolled off the Mesa line in 1984. Since the 1990s, the Army and Boeing have been working on advances for the Apache, and Block III will keep the multi-mission helicopter relevant for years.

"The Apache is a beautiful piece of hardware," Winn said. The AH-64D Apache Longbow is 28 times more effective than the initial AH-64 models, and the new Block III will improve on that. The Block III technologies will allow network-centric communications, extended ranges for sensors and weapons, unmanned aerial systems connections and control and improved aircraft performance–all to improve crew situational awareness and survivability.

On June 27 PVD 27 flew with experimental test pilots–one from the Army and one from Boeing to prepare for the ceremonies.

The Block III technologies have been successfully tested and matured through a planned process of continuous modernization. Ten nations now fly the Apache.

Army Apache Project Manager Col. Derek Paquette said the Apache is "feared by our enemies but more importantly revered" by soldiers and allies. "We feel we’ll be about 25 times better than the Apache Block II."

Built on a foundation of success the Block III will deliver mission-critical performance capabilities, he said.

Col. Mark Hayes, Army Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager, has seen Block III through from writing the requirements, the analysis of alternatives and into a program.

While "soldiers who pull the collective in, [or] pull the trigger" are confident in their equipment, soldiers don’t know the faces that put it all together. Thus the challenge to industry is to keep the momentum going, to deliver on time and on schedule, he said, and keep support behind the program, Hayes said.

Both Paquette and Hayes retire this summer.

Cody said Apache operational readiness is over 85 percent in combat, while each aircraft is flying some 75 hours per month, and more than 450 Apaches have been reset. While troops may come our of theater, "the last thing off that battlefield will be this helicopter."

Looking out at the audience, Cody said, "Soldiers don’t know you by name, but on any given day you may be the most important person in his life."

Block III will change the face of battle, he said. It will give you five ways to find the enemy and five ways to kill them. Apache Block III is going to do that."