By Capt. Dustin Healey, 4/3 Avn., 3rd CAB, TF FalconAugust 26, 2010
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan - ...Under a blanket of darkness two Black Hawks maneuver low to the ground as they advance vigilantly toward an enemy safe haven, poised to insert lethal ground forces. The twin 1,800-horse power engines roar with power as the 'hawks begin their approach into what is expected to be an extremely dusty landing zone in a dry river bed. The pilot calls, "one minute" as the crew chief relays back to the team leader on board with hand signals and a shout.
...By the time a 30-second call is passed back over the intercom system, the Soldiers' shouts of excitement and enthusiasm become a roar that seems to overcome the noise from the engines and the rotor blades.
Based out of Forward Operating Base Salerno, these Black Hawks soaring through the air are not your ordinary helicopter unit. They are Company A, "SPIDERS" (4th Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment), 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment, Task Force Viper's lethal Black Hawk unit who is continuously entrusted by Soldiers with the mission of safe passage across the P2K region of the provinces Paktika, Paktiya and Khowst.
"Timely insertion of troops and equipment give ground force commanders the momentum they need to defeat the enemy," said Chief Warrant Officer Rich Satterfield, a pilot with A Co., 4/3 Avn., TF Viper, from Patterson, N.J.
Maintaining momentum is key to exploiting enemy weaknesses and capitalizing on friendly gains on the battlefield. One way to quickly move combat power on the battlefield in order to capitalize on enemy weaknesses is through the use of Viper's Black Hawks. The Spiders 24-hour coverage over the P2K region ensures ground force commanders have the flexibility to move combat power when needed.
A company with a call sign that dates back to Vietnam, the "Spiders," first made a name for themselves as the 188th Assault Helicopter Company. During the 1960s they made a name for itself as an armed UH-1 "Huey" gun platoon. As told by Dick "Cherry Boy" Detra, a former 188th AHC door gunner, the "Spiders" of Vietnam were known to the ground Soldiers and Green Berets as "The Spider People," and were characterized by their reputation for being the only helicopters brave enough to launch when ground units were under heavy enemy fire. Upon the completion of a successful engagement, the "Spiders" would always sign off with ground forces using their well earned motto, "Guns up!"
The responsibility of upholding the legacy of their Vietnam brethren is not lost on the current "Spiders" of Company A.
"Being in one of the most storied helicopter companies in the U.S. Army is an awesome feeling and a responsibility that I take seriously," said Chief Warrant Officer Jim Layne, tactical operations officer, A Co., 4/3 Avn., TF Viper, from Wheelersburg, Ohio.
Each of the A Co. aircraft are fittingly named after their Vietnam counterparts. Sudden Death, Satisfaction, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Cold Sweat, The O.D. Streak, Climax, and Seduction sit patiently on the flight line waiting for aviators like Chief Warrant Officer Nigel Huebscher, standardization officer, A Co., 4/3 Avn., TF Viper, from Abrams, Wis., and Sgt. Jason Struckman, flight instructor, A Co., 4/3 Avn., TF Viper, from San Diego, Calif., to launch them into the Afghanistan sky.
"I look forward to keeping up the proud lineage of the Spiders before us from the Vietnam era," said Chief Warrant Officer Huebscher. "Every day the "Spiders" of today work toward adding to the unit's long and growing legacy."
Although flying combat missions garner the most attention on a daily basis, maintenance operations on the hot Salerno flight line drive every day operations. "Spider" crew chiefs and maintenance test pilots work around the clock to support the large flying hour program. Even without receiving accolades or recognizable praise from higher commands, the "Spider" crew chiefs recognize the importance of their jobs.
"I feel very accomplished after fixing an aircraft and then getting in it to fly," said Sgt. Struckman.
...The last 50 feet of the approach stir the dust from the dry river bed as both Black Hawks are engulfed in heavy dust. The combination of low ambient light from the Afghanistan night and the use of night vision goggles allows the crews to land the aircraft on the ground in one of the most dangerous and unnerving maneuvers in aviation, the brownout landing.
...The crew chiefs shout "Go! Go! Go!" as the Soldiers rush from the aircraft into the dark night. Flying out of the landing zone in order, the pilots pull power as the aircraft literally jumps into the air in an attempt to climb out of the dust cloud. Once the aircraft is clear of the dust cloud, the crew chief shouts "Clear the dust" as the pilot on the controls noses the aircraft forward to gain airspeed.
Although air assault missions typically garner the most attention from a combat perspective, the Spiders became the workhorse of the P2K regions of Afghanistan through their ability to execute a diverse number of mission sets in support of ground force commanders. Resupply, reconnaissance, MEDEVAC escort, VIP transport, and air movements are just a few of the different mission sets executed daily by TF Viper's Black Hawks.
"I like my job because every day is something new; you never know what to expect," said Spc. Kurt Sanson, a crew chief, A Co., 4-3 Avn., TF Viper, from San Clemente, Calif.
...As the Black Hawks execute an in-flight link up for the 15 minute flight back to FOB Salerno, there is almost a deafening silence between the aircraft and the crews. Another successful troop insertion and brownout dust landing under night vision goggles is complete. Once everyone regroups and heart rates return to normal, the typical banter between the pilots and crew chiefs of any combat tested unit begins again.
When asked if he has anything left to say about the mission, Chief Warrant Officer Louis Baez, a pilot with A Co., 4-3 Avn., TF Viper, from Holyoke, Mass., responds for all the Spiders with the simplistic battle cry of their Vietnam brethren, "Guns up!"