Heavy use of the Army's new AH-64 "Apache" attack helicopter in the air-to-ground battle against Iraq may actually be keeping Utah-based Apaches out of battle and in their hangars.

Before Operation Desert Storm, pilots and crews with the Utah Army National Guard's 211th Aviation Group in West Jordan spent 200 to 300 hours each month training in the 18 Apaches that belong to the unit. "We're operating on fewer flying hours now because of the diversion of spare parts to Saudi Arabia," said Gen. John L. Matthews, Utah adjutant general. He described the parts diversion as standard wartime procedure, but the effect is a delay in the combat readiness of the Utah Apaches.The Utah helicopters are still flying, but the pilots are not able to train together as a unit, which is delaying the unit from becoming combat ready, Matthews said. And if the unit did get called to active duty, it would likely spend months undergoing further training before seeing combat duty, said Col. Robert Mabey, 211th group commander.

Of the states whose National Guard units have Apaches, Utah ranks fourth in readiness behind North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. In addition to the diversion of maintenance parts, combat-ready units in the Carolinas are being given preference with training time "to keep them as sharp as possible," said Mabey.

He added that many of the Army trainers who usually work with the Utah pilots are now in Saudi Arabia, further delaying the 211th's readiness status.

McDonnell Douglas has a $13 billion order from the Pentagon to build more than 800 of the Apaches for the Army. The helicopter is equipped with a chin-mounted 30mm chain gun, Hellfire laser-guided missiles and 70mm rockets. Night targeting devices are designed to enable the helicopter to fight under cover of darkness. And the company boasts the Apache's weapons systems can spot and destroy a target the size of a front door from a distance of four miles.

McDonnell Douglas promotional videos show the Apache zipping close to the ground forward and backward and even flying upside down - something not authorized in the military's official "flight envelope."

Mechanical problems have resulted in the grounding of the entire fleet on several occasions, and a General Accounting Office report said the Apache performed poorly in the invasion of Panama. But Mabey said he hasn't seen any of the problems reported by the GAO in the Utah aircraft.

Over the past few days, Apache crews are credited with destroying a number of Iraqi tanks and bunkers and flushing out hundreds of Iraqi soldiers. But several "friendly fire" deaths of American soldiers have also been blamed on Apache attacks in close combat.

Pilots with the 211th have kept a close eye on news coverage of the battle for glimpses of the Apaches in action and information about the helicopter's battle performance. "Most of what we get is back channel stuff from the trade journals," Mabey said. Crews have also been interested in CNN broadcasts of on-board videotapes that record Apache rocket strikes on ground targets, he said.

Most official reports "have to do with operational suggestions to avoid problems that can develop," Matthews said, adding that he hasn't seen an increase in correspondence from the Pentagon about the Apache since it began taking an active role in Operation Desert Storm.

A trade journal report of the Apache's performance that is tacked on a bulletin board in the 211th's armory implies the Pentagon has kept quiet about the attack helicopter's success because it has performed too well for the Iraqis to believe such offensive strikes came from a helicopter. The same report, however, is accompanied by a picture of a Vietnam War-vintage AH-1 "Cobra" attack helicopter, identified as an Apache, leaving readers to wonder how much the so-called expert military hardware watchers know about the Apache's level of success.

"I don't think there's any question they're doing well, nor do I think that's a secret," Matthews said.