HOUSTON, TX, UNITED STATES
Story by 2nd Lt. Caitlin Rourk
Texas Military Department
After months of development, the Army’s Aviation and Missile Life Cycle Management Command has begun implementing the redesigned strap pack meganut on the Army’s full AH-64 Apache helicopter fleet. The Texas Army National Guard’s 1-149th Attack and Reconnaissance Battalion is the first unit in the Army to field the retrofit. Members of AMCOM and representatives from Boeing, which manufactures the Apache, visited Ellington Field, Houston, Texas, to brief the unit’s pilots, crew chiefs and mechanics, as well as Texas Army National Guard leaders Brig. Gen. Patrick Hamilton, Assistant Division Commander – Operations of the 36th Infantry Division, and Col. Ronald W. Burkett II, commander of the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, on the retrofit on June 12, 2018.
The region’s severe coastal climate, which can accelerate corrosion, made Houston a natural first stop for AMCOM. But a tragic accident solidified the decision to place the 1-149th at the top of the list to receive the new component. Two of the unit’s pilots, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dustin Mortenson and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lucas Lowe, died after their aircraft crashed into Galveston Bay, Texas, in December 2016. The accident investigation determined that a stress corrosion crack in the strap pack assembly that connects the main rotor blade to the rotor caused the crash.
“I know that crash in the Apache fleet was inevitable. It just so happened that it was in Texas and took the lives of two of our aviators,” said Burkett. “But that event triggered a sense of urgency and a series of events to make that component stronger and healthier and prevented the loss of lives elsewhere in the fleet.”
Following the crash, the Army instituted more stringent inspection standards throughout its Apache fleet. Maintenance crews use high-resolution bore scopes to inspect the strap pack any time an aircraft flies, a standard that applies to all Apaches, whether deployed overseas or training stateside. The added maintenance requirement not only places operational strain on the force, but it also hampers training and limits the speed with which Apaches can deploy. While the solution worked in the interim, the Army’s 24 attack and reconnaissance battalions were eager for a more permanent fix; a fix the new meganut addresses.
“Anytime an aircraft picks up off the ground, there is an inherent risk. We mitigate that risk by having really superbly trained aviators and crew members,” Burkett explained. “Mechanical failures, part failures, especially the strap pack is something that you really can’t anticipate. The rebuild of this strap pack assembly and that nut in particular is a very important step forward to restoring the confidence and faith in the aircraft and allows pilots and maintainers to focus on the things they can predict to try to mitigate and focus on their mission.”
The Army now designates the strap pack assembly as a critical safety item, meaning it faces increased production oversight and quality control. Engineers enhanced the meganut’s design to minimize stress corrosion cracking and increase its lifespan. The nut’s new geometry shifts pressure points, its thicker walls make it more durable and upgraded sealant improves corrosion resistance compared to earlier nut designs. Burkett lauded AMCOM for being “all in” the moment the crash happened and steadfastly seeking a solution to keep aviators safe.
“Looking at the changes in the part and how much more substantial the new part is, the new materials it’s being made of and the coatings they’re putting on it, much less susceptible to any kinds of issues they’ve had,” said Hamilton. “We’re continuing to test it and make sure that our pilots’ safety is our number one concern.”
Hamilton called the retrofit a “great readiness enhancer for us” and noted that the follow-up process will be highly collaborative, continuing long after AMCOM personnel depart Ellington Field. AMCOM and Boeing representatives will work hand-in-hand with attack and reconnaissance battalions across the force to track and audit the meganut’s performance. The 1-149th will ship the meganuts back to AMCOM after logging flight hours so engineers can continuously study and improve the new component. AMCOM officials complimented the unit for its participation and hospitality, noting that the 1-149th leaned forward and made implementation an easy and seamless process.
Both Hamilton and Burkett underscored the most significant takeaway from the retrofit: the need to reassure aviators and their families that the Apache is safe to fly. The retrofit initiative has been a high priority at every level of the Army, and its implementation marks an important step toward increased safety within the close-knit aviation community.
“Regardless of what your MOS is or where you work within the National Guard, our family members are so important to what we do. And having their support based on faith that their service members have great equipment, receive great training, have solid leadership is so important to them,” said Burkett. “I do hope the families see this as a very concerted effort by the senior leadership, from the top of the Army chief of staff down to the unit level, that we’re all committed to making a safer environment for their soldiers.”
AMCOM officials noted it will take time before the new meganut makes it out into the entire force. The team’s next stop is Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, then Fort Lewis in Washington, locations whose climates—like Houston’s—warrant swift implementation. For Texas, receiving the new component ahead of any other unit is an encouraging development in the wake of heartbreaking loss, providing aviators and families with peace of mind, while enabling the battalion to more effectively fulfill its demanding training requirements.
“The Army was very wise in making this the first battalion to field the new strap pack for this Apache helicopter in the entire Army,” said Hamilton. “That shows that we are dedicated to you and the families, showing that we’ve fixed this problem and we’re going to go forward from here.”