World Wide Operations exhaust Chinook Fleet



          MH-47 Crews Detail Conflict's Exploits, Woes


          15 April 2002.



             U.S. Army special operations forces believe that Afghanistan's high mountains and rough terrain could have thwarted several missions without the small force of MH-47Es to call on. But now senior Army officials have to wrestle with how to replenish and upgrade the special purpose helicopters that have come under heavy enemy fire in recent months.

             Pilots and other crew from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment recounted their war experiences here last week and laid out the complexity and high operational pace they have faced since October. Despite the severity of the environment, in terms of weather, topography and resistance, they noted mission rates were extremely high. However, material losses have occurred that now strain the small force of MH-47Es.

             Crews operating the Boeing twin rotor have flown well over 200 combat missions and 2,000 flight hours, according to a battalion operations officer. Initially, the Army had only four of the helicopters in Uzbekistan, and even now only about half the existing MH-47Es are deployed. Operations at first were delayed two weeks while the U.S. worked with Uzbekistan on the diplomatic agreements to base the aircraft in the former Soviet republic.

             Missions have lasted up to 15 hours and been conducted at altitudes above 16,000 feet, forcing crews, on occasion, to use supplemental oxygen. During the first three months of operations, which began 19 October for the Army's specially configured Chinooks, the unit flew 72 missions to infiltrate special operations forces and conducted 18 extractions. Mission readiness rate was at 99% during those months.

             The missions originated in Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, about 100 miles from the Afghanistan border. They could not have been flown by any other helicopter, crews insisted. One obstacle was the Hindu Kush mountains. While other helicopters could traverse the range, they could not also carry an operationally useful load. The landscape represents "the most challenging terrain in the world," said one pilot. The special ops Chinooks succeeded because their extended fuel tanks allowed more than 4 hours of flying, enabling them to get across the mountain range before they needed to refuel.

             Another MH-47E unit, this one permanently based in South Korea, supports U.S. operations in the Philippines.

             The Army plans to repair as many MH-47Es as it can, but that alone won't solve the airframe problem. The special operations force still hasn't been able to replace losses dating back several years, and now it confronts the additional burden of aircraft destroyed in the war on terrorism. The Army has dropped well below its original inventory of 26 MH-47Es.

             Pentagon officials are trying to determine if they can take regular Army CH-47s and convert them to the special operations configuration, which features external fuel tanks for longer range, a terrain-following/terrain-avoidance radar, integrated avionics and other enhancements. Additionally, the service may buy CH-47s from foreign users and convert them. One of the difficulties the Army faces is that the MH-47s have a longer nose where additional avionics are stored, but not all standard Chinooks have that feature. The service wants to avoid having to make that additional adjustment.

             One aircraft that was significantly damaged and had to be abandoned during Operation Anaconda may be returned to service. The aircraft suffered severe damage from multiple rocket-propelled grenades, resulting in a hard landing. However, the aircraft was recovered using a Soviet-era Mi-26 and was slated to return to Fort Campbell late last week for repair, said unit representatives who asked not to be fully identified. Other helicopters that were hit and couldn't be fixed in theater have already been returned. The Army is running two shifts, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., to repair the helicopters as quickly as possible. However, repairs can take months or longer.

             The aircraft that was to return last week was one of two that sustained severe combat damage on 4 March. It was flying at about 10,2000 feet and weighed 41,000 pounds. Al Qaeda and Taliban opposition aimed for the pilots, engines and gunners, said the helicopter's pilot. The attack damaged the avionics and hydraulics. However, by adding more hydraulic fluid, the crew bought the pilot about 3 minutes to fly about 7 kilometers (4 miles) and descend to 8,000 feet. The crew was recovered 45 minutes later by a second MH-47E that served as its wingman but had briefly been separated. The third MH-47E in the operation was destroyed and several special forces troops died.

             The Army wants to quickly replenish key components for the force, ranging from 7.62 millimeter ammunition to rocket flares, 2.75 inch flechettes, and chaff and flares. Crewmembers of the damaged aircraft said they were able to use countermeasures to defeat the multiple missiles fired at them. Moreover, the Army wants to buy the GAU-19 gun already in use on the AH-6 Little Bird for the MH-47 and the MH-60. The weapon has greater range and is seen as more reliable than the existing weapon. The Army also has bought 24 Common Missile Warning Systems, reviving the ultraviolet sensor that had been canceled as part of the service's decision to abandon the laser-based Atircm infrared countermeasures system. Service officials are considering resuscitating Atircm as well. Moreover, the Army plans to integrate the missile and radar warning systems more closely with the moving map display to provide pilots with a better understanding of their environment.

             But the biggest jump for the MH-47 community would come with the introduction of the "G" model aircraft, which would take all MH-47Ds and Es and put them through the CH-47F remanufacture line. The Army is still defining the MH-47G's configuration. It will feature an upgraded cockpit with five multifunction displays - one in the center console - and new computers. Crewmembers said they are looking forward to a new, low-maintenance rotorhead. The new configuration also should make the aircraft easier to disassemble for transport and then reassemble.

             However, the upgrade won't come without an operational cost. At its most intensive, six MH-47s would be out of service at one time for overhaul. "That is always a challenge," said the regiment's executive officer.

             Another problem the special operations community constantly faces is living within the helicopter's weight budget. For instance, crews indicated additional armor plating would be useful, particularly for the sides of the aircraft. However, they readily acknowledged the weight penalty would probably be too great. In some instances, MH-47s in Afghanistan have flown without their ballistic protection plating to reduce weight and to be able to fly at even higher altitudes.

             One of the big improvements special operations aviators have seen in recent years is in the timeliness of intelligence. "Four, five years ago that was a huge struggle," said one officer. However, this time any database information or other intelligence asked for has been provided, he noted.

             Besides Operation Anaconda, troops also detailed other significant operations. For instance, MH-47Es were used to rescue the crew from an Air Force MC-130P special operations refueling aircraft that flew into a mountain on 13 February. The MC-130P pilot was able to pull the nose of the aircraft up before impact, allowing all on board to survive, said the pilot of the rescue helicopter. The rescue took place in extremely low visibility and on a steep slope. The MC-130Ps refuel MH-47Es generally at 400 feet or lower in an all blacked-out configuration.

             In another incident, on 20 January, the unit rescued crew from a Marine Corps CH-53. A companion CH-53 was unable to land and left the area assuming all persons on the ground had perished. But the MH-47 was able to circle, land and find surviving crewmembers, said a member of the rescue party.

             During the Afghanistan missions, pilots also for the first time flew in clouds, relying only on the terrain-following/terrain-avoidance radar. While the technique had been practiced, pilots had not been forced to use it before.

             To help prepare for a sortie, the Army is using the Topscene system pioneered by the Navy. It allows crews to virtually fly a mission profile and see the landscape. The Army has developed a small, deployable system and is remotely providing database updates as they become available. Moreover, service officials are working on a slightly more sophisticated system that projects a scene onto a parabolic dish to make it more realistic for pilots. Topscene was used a lot early on, said a pilot.



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