COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Army's newest helicopter is quiet, fast and has no trouble flying and fighting in the mountains.
And the AH-64E is getting rave reviews from Fort Carson soldiers who are among the first troops to fly the latest version of the Apache attack helicopter.
"It even has that new aircraft smell," said Capt. Chris Curran with the post's 1st Battalion of the 25th Aviation Regiment — the second unit in the Army to get the aircraft.
Curran's battalion is flying the first of 24 of the helicopters it expects to receive in the coming months. The helicopter is a new version of the venerable Apache that first saw combat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and has proven to be a flexible fighting tool for tracking and killing insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the older Apaches are loud, don't fly in foul weather and have trouble, as most helicopters do, flying in the thin air of high altitudes.
The new "E" model, built at a Boeing plant in Arizona, has a whisper-quiet rotor, upgraded electronics and flight instruments and a powertrain that "'lets you use all of the engine's power," said Chief Warrant Officer Micah Howell, who's flown the new helicopters.
That extra power comes in handy in Colorado, where older Apaches had trouble dealing with the thin air, seldom taking off with full payloads of fuel and munitions. In testing, the newest Apache became the first military helicopter to hover at 6,000 feet with a full load of gear.
New aircraft are rare in the military these days, as the Pentagon works to cut spending by nearly $1 trillion over 10 years. But getting top-notch helicopters was identified as a top priority, and the $2 billion AH-64E program is proceeding as planned.
The Apache has a well-earned reputation on the battlefield. A single helicopter can pack 16 tank-killing Hellfire missiles. The helicopter also is equipped with a full suite of cameras and sensors to spot enemy movement.
The newest Apache is designed to control drones, vastly increasing the amount of territory one helicopter can cover, earning it the nickname "Apache Guardian."
The new helicopters went into full production in October 2012, and hit the training ranges at Fort Carson in earnest Oct. 22.
The helicopters blasted targets with 30 mm cannons and fired rockets.
Curran said the simulated attacks help pilots learn how their new craft behaves in combat conditions.
Clearly evident on the training range was the quieter nature of the helicopter, which couldn't be heard from more than a couple of hundred yards away.
Helicopters are traditionally loud, because rotor blades break the speed of sound as they whip through the sky.
Howell said the new helicopter's relative quiet comes with a composite rotor that more efficiently slices through the air when compared with its metal predecessor.
It's also quick, with a top speed approaching 200 mph.
Curran said pilots in the brigade are still learning its systems.
The cockpit is virtually unchanged, but it now has the capability for instrument-only flight, allowing the new helicopters to navigate through clouds and guide pilots to a safe landing using electronic tools.
The helicopter, though, keeps the classic lines of the old Apache, with its angry bug look. The cockpit is also familiar to pilots and about 70 percent of the new bird's parts are the same as the older model, making it cheaper to maintain.
"It's basically an improvement on an old platform," Curran said.