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No timeframe set for Apaches to fly again: official

TAIPEI -- Taiwan's military has not decided on a timetable to put its fleet of AH-64E Apache attack helicopters back into operation, Deputy Defense Minister Andrew Hsia said Monday, days after one of the aircraft crashed into a residential building during a training mission.

The Army grounded its 17 other Apaches shortly after the crash on Friday, April 25, in which the Army pilots onboard were unhurt.

Once it has been determined that the helicopters are safe for flight, they would be put back into service before long, Hsia told the local media ahead of a hearing in the Legislature's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee.

During the hearing, Lieutenant General Hao Yii-jy, chief of staff of the Army, told lawmakers that the military has assembled a task force to investigate the accident and identify the cause of the crash.

A report will be available within 45 days, Hao said in response to questions on the issue.

The aircraft, one of 18 attack helicopters delivered to Taiwan by the United States just months earlier, was on a training flight April 25 when it crashed into the top of a three-story building in Longtan Township in Taoyuan County, damaging several homes.

The Army said the helicopter had climbed to an altitude of 350 feet and entered a cloud bank then it dropped suddenly to 200 feet and crashed.

Flight instructor Major Chen Lung-chien, one of the two people onboard the aircraft, said that changes in humidity and temperature fogged up the cockpit windshield, forcing him to try to climb above the cloud ceiling, but even the helicopter's night-vision features proved useless.

With no reference points in the clouds, Chen said he tried as best he could to keep the helicopter horizontal, but because of the lack of visibility and low altitude the aircraft crashed onto the building.

It is a common occurrence for a helicopter's cockpit windshield to fog up due to changes in temperatures and humidity and that scenario is included in the Army's simulated flight training, Hao said in response to a lawmaker's question of whether the pilot was unfamiliar with Taiwan's weather and terrain.

“The main focus of our investigation” is why the accident occurred in spite of this, Hao said.

The helicopter's black box has been retrieved and a defense ministry investigation team is working with U.S. technicians to determine whether the crash was caused by mechanical failure or human error.

Chen has logged a total of 1,247 flight hours, 350 of which are in Apache helicopters, while the other pilot Lieutenant Colonel Liu Ming-hui has a total of 1,034 flight hours but none in an Apache. Except for some scratches on Liu's face, both pilots were unscathed in the crash.

Chen was trained on the Apache in the U.S. and is a test flight instructor for the aircraft, according to the Army.

Between November 2013 and March this year, Taiwan took delivery of 18 of the newest Apache models.

They arrived in three shipments that were part of an order for 30 helicopters, purchased at a cost of NT$59.31 billion (US$2.01 billion) in a deal that was decided in 2008 under the U.S. administration of then President George W. Bush.

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