Where Eagles Dare: Chinook Crew Supports Nightime Raid
June 2, 2008
TIKRIT, Iraq (Army News Service, June 2, 2008) - After months of training, American and Iraqi Special Forces, and American CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache crews all participated in a recent mission here to capture high-value targets in northern Iraq as part of Operation Santa Monica.
The Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division's air assault went off seamlessly, according to pilots, who say that any mission involving a Chinook is especially risky given the number of people on the aircraft.
The air assault began at 5 p.m, April 6. The Chinook pilots, after leaving their final brief, turned around and updated their crew chiefs, who were busy preflighting the bird.
Less than 10 percent of the brigade's aircraft are Chinooks, which is the only helicopter trhat can provide massive combat power. It has 30 troops to a Black Hawk's 10. So with few birds and a lot of requests, air assaults are pretty routine for the pilots of the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Locke, one of the CH-47 pilots who participated in the mission.
At 7:30 p.m., pilots received the word and lifted into the air, test-firing their weapons at a nearby range before heading to Forward Operating Base Warrior to refuel with the aid of fuelers equipped with night-vision goggles.
Night is a Chinook's best friend, according to pilots.
If insurgents hit a Chinook it would be catastrophic, so to minimize the risk to pilots and passengers alike, "we use every available asset. Number one, we use the cloak of darkness. Number two, we do extensive route planning to ensure we avoid any areas where (the enemy) may have an advantage," said Locke. "We also use escorts to defend us from attacks. We have the Longbows who stay with us for these deep infiltrations, or any scout-weapons teams that might be there. So we have quite a few factors working in our favor."
Flying in darkness requires the use of NVGs, which in turn requires a highly trained and skilled pilot. According to Locke, pilots' depth perceptions are off with the goggles, and they have no peripheral vision so their apparent rate of closure and ground speed are in error.
Just before 11 p.m., the Chinooks arrived at remote FOB Gabe to find U.S. Special Forces Soldiers and Iraqi Special Operation Forces soldiers waiting in the darkness.
The Americans spent months training with the Iraqi SFO. First, the troops practice rushing on and off the aircraft, first with lights, then without. The American SF were equipped with NVGs, the Iraqis only with head-mounted flashlights, which left them dependent on illumination rounds from the Apaches overhead.
As the Chinooks approached the landing zone in an Iraqi village, the tension in the air was palpable among Americans and Iraqis alike. The ramp at the rear closed partway to minimize the dust the rotors kick up. The Chinook touched the ground lightly, the ramp fell and the SF Soldiers rushed out. Within 30 seconds, the aircraft was airborne again, returning to FOB Warrior until they were needed for extraction.
Long before the infantry-laden Chinooks arrived with their gun-toting payloads, Apaches, 2-man attack and reconnaissance helicopters with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, were hovering above the village, so high the Iraqis couldn't see or hear them at all. They provided real-time data to mission control in the rear, who fed information to the Chinook pilots as they approached.
The Apaches also remained overhead for the rest of the mission, providing a feed for the CABs tactical operations center, and standing by in case the ground forces needed direct air support.
Downtime at FOB Warrior was cut short when the Chinook pilots received the call from the ground commander: The SF finished early, the mission was complete, and they were ready for extraction. Ten minutes later, the rotors were turning and the lights were off as the crew lifted off the helipad and sped toward the extraction point.
When the Chinook arrived, the Apaches fired the illumination rockets and the it touched down, a little harder this time. The SF rushed aboard the Chinook, their high-value targets alive and in-hand.
"I think it went very smoothly," said Spc. Jonathan M. Gieser, a CH-47 crew chief who participated in the mission. "We had a perfect takeoff, perfect landing, we made it to the pickup zone, we rehearsed the infiltration and exfiltration. We were able to take off from there, make it to the landing zone without incident. Everything went smoothly, no problems with the aircraft, no problems with people getting off. I understand that they moved through the town ahead of schedule, captured their targets, and reboarded the aircraft without incident. It was a perfect night."
(Spc. Michael Howard serves with the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs Office.)