WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 12, 2007) - As the Army investigates the recent spate of helicopter crashes in Iraq, it's working to get lessons being learned from them back to air crews in the field as quickly as possible.

The service also is stepping up efforts to identify and confront forces behind the attacks, Army officials said.

An Army "shootdown assessment team" from Fort Rucker, Ala., is in Iraq investigating the crashes of a UH-60 Black Hawk and two AH-64 Apaches between Jan. 20 and Feb. 2 that left 16 Soldiers dead, Col. Robert Quackenbush from the Army Aviation Directorate told American Forces Press Service.

"It's a real forensic-type investigation, so it's not something you can get the results of overnight," he said.

The tiniest fragments recovered from a crash site are analyzed to determine what type of enemy weapon system hit the aircraft. This information provides value clues into how the enemy is operating and what the Army needs to do about it, he said.

"So, it will take a little bit of time, but we are very confident that we will know when they are done exactly what shot those aircraft down," Quackenbush said.

That, he said, will reveal "what we need to do to improve our capabilities against whatever that threat was."

The Army has lost more than 120 helicopters in the war on terror, about 25 percent of them due to enemy engagements.

Determined to keep those numbers down, the Army already has made huge efforts to improve aviation safety. As a result, statistics show that aviation safety has improved steadily since 2003, both in terms of accidents and lives lost, said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Lee Tutin, an aviation survivability equipment action officer.

"Since 2003, the Army has invested more than $2 billion in aircraft survivability equipment," he said. "And that is part of the direct result of bringing the incident rate down."

All the Army's forward-deployed fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft are equipped with the Common Missile Warning System. In addition, the Army has improved the ballistic protection of its helicopters "so that if the aircraft does take some small-arms fire, it can still make it home," Quackenbush said.

For every aircraft lost in combat, many more have been engaged by the enemy but made it back to their bases safely thanks to these protections, he said. "And we are continually looking at how we can improve our equipment," he added.

But aviation protections go beyond equipment, to include tactics, techniques and procedures to foil the enemy, he said.

Much of it hinges on being unpredictable. "First of all, when we fly in and out of airfields, we vary when we come in and out, what routes we take in and out," Quackenbush said.

"We change our tactics and techniques for every mission," Tutin said. "For every mission, the commander and the crew assess what they should be using for that mission. They have a baseline they use, but they adjust them for every mission to prevent predictability."

At the Army's aviation center and school at Fort Rucker, Ala., a tactics branch regularly assesses lessons learned from the field and disseminates them through the schoolhouse and combat theater. "A good idea for one unit may be a good idea for all," Tutin said. "It's all a learning process."

Lessons also are shared between the services to ensure all aviators operating in the theater have the benefit of the latest safety information, he said.

Ensuring aviation safety is critical because helicopters are critical to the mission in Iraq, Quackenbush said. "The value added that the helicopters provide - the reconnaissance capability, being able to see, being able to provide suppressive fire to Soldiers on the ground, being able to move Soldiers and equipment through the air with our utility aircraft - ... prevents deaths and injuries to Soldiers on the ground," he said.

That's in addition to the tremendous medevac capability helicopters bring to the mission. Quackenbush credits medevac aircraft with saving "countless lives that we would have lost if we had not had their aircraft there."

"It is a dangerous environment over there, but we do whatever we can to minimize and mitigate that danger," he said. "The value added that the helicopter provides ... outweighs the risk."

The Army's aviation safety record has improved significantly since the beginning of the war on terror, Quackenbush said. Accident levels initially spiked because aircraft were operating in new environments with harsh conditions and, in the case of Afghanistan, high altitudes, he said.

"But we gained a tremendous amount of experience there," he said. "We learned some lessons about how to operate in those environments. So we trained our aircrews how to operate in those environments."

As a result, he said, accident rates as well as combat losses have declined yearly.

Quackenbush said he expects investigations of the latest crashes in Iraq to reveal details that ensure safety in the future. "Right now, we don't know the exact causes of the last three incidents that the Army has had," he said. "We don't know if that was just the law of averages catching up to us or if, in fact, the enemy is doing something different or has something different. We are going to find that out.

"But we still believe the Army helicopter is a tremendous value added, and it continues to save countless lives by preventing other deaths on the ground because they are out there operating."

(Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service.)