Special operations aviation regiment draws up plans for MH-47G upgrade as details of activities begin to emerge

By its very nature, the US Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) does not solicit publicity, and, until recently, little was known about its activities.

This all began to change, however, with the release of the book and film Black Hawk Down, depicting the events of 3 October, 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, when two of the regiment's Sikorsky MH-60Ls were shot down and several others were damaged. The conflict in Afghanistan has further highlighted the regiment's unique capabilities.

The 160th SOAR traces its origins back to the failed 1980 Desert One rescue mission in Iran, after which the army formed a dedicated aviation unit for special operations. Initially designated Task Force 160, the unit has played a role in virtually every US military action since, including Grenada in 1983, the Persian Gulf in 1987, Panama in 1989, Operation Desert Storm the following year and Somalia. Other recently declassified operations include the 1988 retrieval of a Mil Mi-24 gunship from the disputed Libyan/Chad border - a feat that entailed two Boeing CH-47s flying 925km (500nm) with underslung loads in a sandstorm.

Today the regiment comprises three battalions, the largest of which - the 1/160th - operates McDonnell Douglas MH-6J and armed AH-6J Little Birds and MH-60L and newer MH-60K Black Hawks. Co-located at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is the 2/160th, equipped with the army's entire fleet of 24 MH-47Es. Eleven slightly less capable MH-47Ds are concentrated with the 3/160th at Hunter Field, Georgia.

Crews are selected from the regular US Army pool of aviators and once in the regiment they tend to stay there, with 70 officer and warrant officer pilots averaging more than 20 years of service.

Much of the recent media coverage of Afghanistan has focused on the role of the US Marine Corps' Sikorsky CH-53E helicopters, which have been labelled the workhorse of the campaign. The army would contend, however, that the heaviest burden has fallen on the MH-47E, the activities of which are only just beginning to surface.

Operating from the former Soviet airbase at Karshi-Khanabad in neighbouring Uzbekistan, the 2/160th helicopters performed three basic missions in Afghanistan, infiltrating and extracting special forces, providing a quick reaction force (QRF), and personnel recovery.

Between 19 October, when the first US special forces A Team was airlifted into northern Afghanistan, and December, when US military shifted its base of operations to inside the country, the MH-47Es performed 90 infiltration and extraction sorties.

QRF missions included emergency extraction of special forces from Mazar-e-Sharif and Pol-e-Komri. The 2/160th was called on to rescue the crew of a CH-53E, when other US Marine Corps machines were unable to land at the high-altitude crash site, and recover the crew of a US Air Force Lockheed Martin MC-130P tanker that survived a crash into a 3,050m (10,000ft) high mountain.

The MH-47E in many instances was the only helicopter able to operate in Afghanistan, relying on its Raytheon APG-174 terrain avoidance/terrain following radar to fly 300ft above ground in zero visibility 75% of the time, through desert sandstorms and mountain ranges between 3,000m and 5,000m high.

Missions were typically in excess of 10h and, in the case of the 14 November rescue of US missionaries, 15h, requiring multiple inflight refuellings. When this was not possible over high terrain, the MH-47E relied on extended range 7,845 litre (2,070USgal) fuel tanks providing a 4h endurance, or twice that of a conventional Chinook.

Afghanistan has taken its toll on the 160th SOAR, with one MH-47E shot down during the recent Operation Anaconda in the Shahi Khot Valley. A second machine narrowly missed destruction, with the crew hand-pumping hydraulic fluid to escape the battlefield after being hit by up to four rocket-propelled grenades. The badly-damaged machine was airlifted off the mountain by a Mil Mi-26 helicopter.

At least another three MH-47Es have been so badly damaged they will require depot-level repairs, while a second 2/160th machine was lost during anti-terrorist action in the Philippines.

The 160th SOAR is now looking at lessons learned from Afghanistan to draw up the specifications for the planned MH-47G upgrade of the Chinook fleet. Among the items crews are asking for are: larger multifunction displays and the addition of a fifth screen as part of a planned new glass cockpit; an integrated terrain avoidance display and moving map; an improved forward looking infrared sensor to replace the current Raytheon AAQ-16; a possible onboard oxygen generator system; redundant cabin intercoms; and faster dismantling of the Chinook for airlifting.

The regiment plans further improvements to its unique Topscene mission planning system, which uses MH-47 and MH-60 simulators at Fort Campbell and draws on the Pentagon's extensive radar mapping library and FLIR database to provide crews with a visual mission rehearsal.

There is also a deployable version of Topscene, which can be updated from the home base via a datalink. The 160th SOAR is now looking at adding a portable three-dimensional screen for crews to practise missions while in the field.

Source: Flight International