A Fight in Afghanistan



          Chinooks: Workhorses of Afghan flying fleet



             BAGRAM, Afghanistan, Saturday, 13 July 2002, 9:15 AM ET - Children and burqa-clad women wave as Chief Warrant Officer Rodney Swanson maneuvers his CH-47 Chinook helicopter low to the ground at the edge of Afghanistan's fertile Panjshir Valley.

             There, beneath the towering Hindu Kush mountains, Swanson spots four Soviet-era helicopters parked next to a cluster of mud homes in the valley, the stronghold of the former northern alliance whose members control the Afghan defense ministry.

             "Wow, those weren't there last week," Swanson, of Corpus Christi, Texas, says. "We'll report that to the intel guys."

             Small helicopters are usually used for scouting missions, but in Afghanistan's brutal summer heat and rugged terrain, the Chinook is the workhorse of the flying fleet gathering intelligence while doing its primary task of moving troops and supplies.

             "Some intelligence guy will want to see something on the ground. And if he can't get a satellite or he can't get a Predator (pilotless plane), they send in one of our helicopters," said Swanson, whose grandparents, parents, wife and brother are all pilots.

             The Chinook which can carry more weight than any other U.S. Army helicopter has shown its versatility in the war in Afghanistan. It can withstand the desert heat, which averages about 40 to 42 degrees Celsius (104 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day.

             Chinooks have flown thousands of troops into combat missions in Afghanistan though not all efforts ended in success.

             On March 4, a Navy SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, fell from a Chinook and was captured and killed by al-Qaeda. Later, a second helicopter returned under fire and dropped troops near where Roberts fell. Six more Americans died in the fighting.

             The Chinook is capable of transporting up to 22,600 kilos (50,000 pounds), although the helicopter carries much less in Afghanistan because its capability drops in extreme heat and at high altitudes.

             The Chinooks can provide limited air support for ground combat troops by its M-60 light machine guns. In threatening situations, however, they fly with Apache attack helicopter escorts. U.S. forces have 15 Chinooks at Bagram air base, the headquarters of the war in Afghanistan.

             "The Apaches have become like our little brother," said Chinook pilot Maj. Christopher Kenney from Dallas, Texas.

             British marines also used Chinooks to drop into towns in southern Afghanistan and search vehicles for weapons and al-Qaeda fighters. After spotting a large truck heading for the border with Pakistan, two Chinooks swooped down and in seconds almost thirty elite British fighters were on the road searching cars.

             The Chinook swooped back up to provide air cover, leaving the ground forces dodging dust and flying rocks from the "rotor backwash," which stings skin not protected by body armor. Several mortar rounds were seized.

             Swanson said Afghans sometimes shoot at the helicopters with AK-47 assault rifles.

             "Maybe they were mad that we scared their goats," he said. "We were flying low. But that's the same in the States. I've been shot at in every country I've flown in."

             [Editors Note: The Chinook can actually weigh up to 50,000 pounds (D model) or 54,000 pounds plus in some cases (E model) at Sea Level (SL). The standard "useful load" (how much it can haul) for planning purposes generally does not exceed 25,000 pounds. The useful load capability diminishes as altitude and temperature increases. The helicopter technical manual is consulted for performance planning calculations prior to each flight to determine how much cargo the aircraft can transport for the given conditions.]



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