Funding Troubles Worry "Darkhorse" Aviators



MH-47E Chinook 92-00468, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, date unknown.


             Fort Campbell, June 2002: It rips through the air, shaving off treetops, at a dizzying angle. For the Darkhorse crews, flying the Chinook in broad daylight is a breeze above the familiar grounds of Fort Campbell, Kentucky - their home base. In Afghanistan, however, these aviators found themselves in unfamiliar terrain, often with zero visibility and at high altitudes.
MH-47E Cockpit, June 2002.


             The pilots are quick to say that the MH-47E Chinook was the ideal aircraft for operations over the Hindu Kush mountains. The helicopter can fly as high as 16,000 feet and can operate without refueling for about four hours.


The Chinook is uniquely suited to climb the tall mountains in Afghanistan in search of the bad guys.


             The Darkhorse is the 2nd battalion of the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), called the Night Stalkers. They are known for their low-key demeanor and dislike for publicity. But after their return to Fort Campbell, they decided to share with a handful of reporters some of their experiences in Afghanistan and their predicament as a result of the losses in the MH-47E fleet.

             The MH-47E is the latest special-operations variant of the Vietnam-era Chinook. The conventional Army currently operates the CH-47D model. The Darkhorse is the only military unit in the world that flies the MH-47E, officials said.

             Out of 26 helicopters in the battalion, one was lost in training back in 1996, one recently crashed in the Philippines, and one was completely destroyed in Afghanistan. Another three are badly damaged and will be out of commission for a long time. Five are deployed at the regiment’s forward-based company in South Korea.

             The remaining 15 are all that’s left for both operations and training, said Lt. Col. Emmett Shaffer, the battalion’s deputy commander. "We just don’t have enough aircraft," he said. "The attrition issue is affecting us."

             Aircraft maintainers and civilian contractors at Fort Campbell work 14-hour days (two shifts), to keep the aircraft flying. "As soon as they land and come to the hangar, our maintainers get on those aircraft and turn the wrenches," he said.

             Plans are underway to upgrade the conventional D model to an F model and the special ops MH-47 D and E variants to a much more capable MH-47G. However, the estimated cost of the upgrades has more than doubled, according to a Pentagon report on weapons costs. The Chinook upgrade program will cost $6.7 billion, instead of the $3 billion previously estimated.

             Although the program exceeded 25 percent cost growth and was in breach of the 1982 Nunn-McCurdy Act, in early May, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, Pete Aldridge, notified lawmakers that the Chinook program must go forward, because there are no viable alternatives. The contractor, Boeing, was directed to reduce the costs for the upgrade of 317 CH-47s.

             The company already is working to get the costs down, said John Satterfield, a Boeing spokesman. In addition to higher labor costs, overhead and inflation, he said the price hike also is attributed to the additional requirements the Army added to the program, such as avionics and communications systems that would connect the Chinook with other aircraft in the battlefield.

             The G model will be made on the same production line as the F model, but the special-operations unique upgrades are funded by the U.S. Operations Command (SOCOM).

             Rusty Weiger, deputy program manager for cargo helicopters at Fort Rucker, Ala., said that, without the regular Army program, "the [SOCOM] aircraft would be very expensive."

             Based on the current plan, Boeing will produce six aircraft a year starting in 2004 or 2005.

             Meanwhile, the SOAR battalion is left with a diminishing roster of E models—the most advanced helicopter of its kind available to the special operations units, according to officials. Among the helicopter’s most significant capabilities are the communications systems, said John, a SOAR lieutenant colonel. The SOAR requested that only the first names of the officers be printed. "We can talk throughout the mission and we can pass any information we need to in an enemy situation, friendly situation or mission change." The mission computer uses GPS/INS/Doppler navigation.

MH-47E mini-gun installed on 92-00468.
   The MH-47E has three weapons stations. The two forward stations have a M134 7.62mm mini-gun, and the ramp station has an M60D 7.62mm machine-gun. A crewmember at each station manually operates the weapons.

             The fast-rope can insert up to nine people and extract up to six at the same time. The internal rescue hoist, at the center cargo hook, or rescue hatch, has a 600-pound capacity and approximately 150 feet of usable cable. The external rescue hoist is only in the E model. It has a 6,000 pound capacity with 245 feet of usable cable. The chopper also has an external cargo-hook system and can carry loads up to 26,000 pounds.

             The MH-47E Chinook is able to carry more troops and equipment than any other aircraft at high altitudes, in zero illumination and adverse weather conditions, said Capt. John, the assistant for plans and operations. "A fundamental characteristic of the helicopter dynamics cause the maximum payload of the helicopter to be reduced as the altitude is increased," he said. Nevertheless, the capabilities of the aircraft are severely reduced at altitudes of 10,000 feet.

             "For sustained flights and landings at altitudes exceeding 10,000 feet with poor visibility, which is the norm in the mountains of Afghanistan, it proved the only helicopter capable of such missions," the captain said. The crews required extra oxygen when flying above 10,000 feet. Some missions were performed at these altitudes for as long as three hours.

             The E model has a multi-mode radar system that was used heavily to fly through mountainous terrain, using terrain-following/terrain-avoidance functions. "It is more advanced than the radar in many helicopters, because of its ability to look left and right on the helicopter’s path," John said. "The radar allows us to fly in zero-visibility conditions in an altitude of 300 feet above the ground regardless of the terrain, which limits our exposure to enemy radar."

             The radar tells him when to climb, descend, turn left or turn right, John explained, but that is not enough to land in a zone completely obscured by cloud cover. "It was not uncommon [in Afghanistan] for missions to have to be aborted, because of zero visibility conditions at the objective."

             Although the MH47E functioned well in Afghanistan, the crews noted that there were some performance limitations, such as engine power and the durability of the transmissions. "Any of those could be increased, let’s say, with more durable metals or just a better performing engine," John said. Many of the issues will be addressed in the G model, the crews said.

             Survivability equipment could always use improvements, said Lt. Col. John. The Chinook almost always flies at night and at low altitudes to avoid enemy radar and ground fire. The helicopter has armor plates on the bottom floor, but is vulnerable on the sides. However, more armor would add too much weight.

             "We fly low level, dark—we are pretty survivable," he said. "If the moon starts coming out, or if the enemy has night-vision devices, it makes us more vulnerable, especially if we come in a landing zone," he said. "We come in slow and land, and that is where most of our losses were in Afghanistan. There is no defense against an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) or small arms, if they are in the right place or you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing can defeat that."

             The SOAR colonel noted that anti-missile defenses "can never be good enough, because there’s always a battle going on between anti-aircraft missiles and counter-counter measures. ... They always develop better missiles to defeat our countermeasures so we’ve always got to stay ahead of the enemy."

             Chief Warrant Officer 3 Al, a 12-year Chinook pilot, said he has never felt vulnerable flying the helicopter in a combat situation. In Afghanistan, he said, his chopper was hit in several places during operation Anaconda, but he was able to get away from the enemy fire on time to save the crew.

Grueling Training

             To hone their skills, the pilots use the Chinook flight simulator, built by Link. The simulator is helpful, Al said. "You can set conditions and get wrapped up in a scenario." However, there are other times when the simulator is no more challenging than a video game, the flight lead noted.

             Some of the databases still look "cartoonish," Al said. The simulator, like the real aircraft, has terrain following/terrain avoidance and ground mapping radar. And when the system simulates hard landing, Al said, "this thing can hurt you."

             When they prepared for their sorties in Afghanistan, the pilots used the Topscene system to plan their missions. Topscene takes real-world photo imagery and overlays it over a matrix of digital terrain elevation data, creating a three-dimensional image of any part of the world for which photos and digital terrain elevation data are available.

             The Army has also developed a smaller deployable system for use in the field, so soldiers can rehearse ground missions. It has the same terrain database that pilots use in the simulator. The deployable Topscene is slightly larger than a laptop PC.

             "It is a useful tool, but it is still not at the level we want it," said Chuck, a former Night Stalker who now runs the Topscene development. "The whole world hasn’t been mapped yet and you can only use what is available," he said. The system can simulate sand or snow storms. "They [the aviators] are not worried about learning to fly for flight maneuvers," he said. "We want to provide them with the opportunity to preview terrain and have the flight data in a terrain they have never been in before."

             Al stressed that training consumes a lot of the unit’s time. "I am gone six months out of the year, or more, just going to the different environments. I go out to the Rocky Mountains, I fly in the snow, I fly in the desert."

             "Our aircraft never stop," said Shaffer. "Out of 365 days in a year they are probably hot 340. ... If one of our pilots has not fired within 60 days, we consider him not qualified to go out and support operators on the ground, so he has to shoot those weapons systems that often, in order to stay current."

             To be considered as a Night Stalker candidate, pilots need to already have platoon-leader and company command-experience, along many flight hours. "They have to be in excellent physical condition, very stable under stress," Shaffer said.

             The aviators undergo hand-to-hand combat training and extensive small-arms training. Also, "they go through a combat life-savers course where they learn how to start IVs in individuals," he said. "In Somalia, we had a lot of people given IVs, because we were out of docs and we were out of medics. That training paid off tremendously."

             After becoming a basic mission-qualified aviator, pilots with one or two years of experience in that status can become fully mission qualified. After that, they can move up to "flight leads," when they must plan missions and lead the entire team. It takes three to five years to reach that status.

             Because it takes so long to get aviators qualified for the SOAR, pilots are very difficult to replace, Shaffer said.

             Civilian combat-mission instructors do most of the aviator training. They tend to be former Night Stalkers. Reliance on civilian instructors also cuts down on the number of active-duty pilots needed to do the training. "I can’t stay around and teach the pilots to fly," said Al.

             The SOAR is also a test bed for the latest products on the market. "This is what we give back to the Army: we test and try a lot of systems in our aircraft," said Al.



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          E Model History



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