BOISE, Idaho (AP) — At Boise's Gowen Field, six lonely Apache helicopters sit on a mostly-empty tarmac.
At one point, as many as 18 of the aircraft flew training missions from the base.
For decades, the Apache was the workhorse of Army attack helicopters. But in a world where technology equals dominance, that model is quickly becoming a relic.
Next year, the Idaho Army National Guard's 1-183rd Aviation Battalion will be sitting pretty in the newest, most advanced version of the aircraft; 24 AH-64D Longbows.
The new "Longbows" help solidify the long-range mission for the base and make the 1-183rd "relevant," said Lt. Col. Douglas Smith, the battalion's commander.
"We are going to be aligned with our active-duty component," Smith said. "We are not just fading out to the past."
During a round of base closures and mission consolidation in 2005, Gowen Field lost C-130 transport aircrafts and their crews. The base was left with fewer aircraft with limited shelf life, such as the 1970s-era A-10 Warthog ground-attack jets.
Meanwhile, the 1-183rd has been flying 1980s-era Apache attack helicopters and Blackhawk utility helicopters.
The Gowen-based battalion is one of just two National Guard units in the country without the newest version of the Apache, Smith said.
The 1-183rd deployed to Bosnia in 2003-2004 and again to Afghanistan in 2006-2007. The unit hasn't been deployed again because of its old-school aircraft, Smith said.
Units that don't stay relevant don't get used, Smith said.
"We are way overdue in terms of getting into the fight," he said.
The newer aircraft also means a steep learning curve for 70 pilots and 120 maintenance staff.
They must learn the "switchology" of the new aircraft — quite literally, how all those cockpit switches work.
The old Apache helicopters are completely analog, with banks of buttons and toggles.
The Longbow has a multi-purpose display that is digitized. Newfangled buttons for new systems surround the display.
"All this new gee-whiz stuff are advances in terms of technology and what it can do for us as pilots," Smith said.
Even though the Longbow is the same "style" of aircraft as the older Apache, all pilots must attend a minimum two-month-long training course, "just to learn how to fly this version," Smith said.
"Everything is buttons, buttons, buttons," he said.
For example, the new helicopter has a much more advanced version of FLIR technology — "forward-looking infrared radar," which helps the pilots and gunners see at night and in dust storms and detect heat signatures.
"It is so good, it is changing the tactics we will employ in the battlefield," Smith said.
The Longbow also comes with an optional radar on top to scan a battlefield and find targets. That radar information can be shared with other nearby aircraft.
But all that technology comes with a price — it is heavier. The pilots are trading enhanced features for power.
To get the pilots ready for the new aircraft, Gowen Field has installed a high-tech trainer; a cockpit that mirrors the Longbow with real-time computer feeds and digital maps.
On Thursday, Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Jacobs of Kuna stepped into the trainer and donned a special "monocle," which projects a heads-up display of the Longbow controls.
"It looks the same and flies the same but the interface is much bigger," Jacobs said. "It is like a typewriter versus a modern computer. The end result is just the same."
Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.