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160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment

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Force F " Zorros "

160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment


By Sean D. Naylor

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- Aviators in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) not only get to fly more hours than their colleagues in the ``regular'' Army, they also get to fly them in aircraft that no other Army unit possesses.

This is particularly evident in the case of the regiment's ``Little Bird'' aircraft. Other helicopters in the regiment's inventory are modified variants of the standard UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook airframes. But the Little Bird is an adaptation of the Vietnam-era OH-6 Cayuse observation helicopter, which was replaced by the OH-58 Kiowa, and phased out of service after the war.

The Little Birds come in two varieties: A transport/utility model designated the MH-6; and an attack version called the AH-6. Both are two-pilot aircraft.

The MH-6's principal role is to ferry commandos into tight situations. The troops ride on two benches that can be attached to the aircraft's sides, enabling them to dismount immediately upon reaching their destination.

An extraction feature

The MH-6 can also perform extraction missions -- pulling commandos or downed aircrew out of danger -- using a caving ladder, a rope ladder made out of metal and wire with a five-inch span.

The helicopter's pilots have a choice of five secure radio networks on which to communicate, including one satellite communications network, according to CW2 Dana Jones, an MH-6 pilot with A Company, 1st Battalion.

However, if taken under fire, the MH-6 gives a pilot nothing with which to retaliate other than his personal weapon, which can be a Beretta 9mm pistol, a Heckler and Koch MP-5 submachine gun or a CAR-15 carbine version of the M16. (1st Battalion commander Lt. Col. Tom Matthews said the unit was transitioning to the more modern M4 carbine.)

The AH-6 pilots, by contrast, have a veritable Pandora's Box of systems with which to engage the enemy. The helicopter can fire 66 rounds a second from a 7.62mm minigun, salvos of 2.75 inch rockets in flare, flechette or high explosive variants, a .50 caliber machine gun, a 30mm cannon and Hellfire anti-armor missiles.

Of course, not all these systems can be mounted on the tiny aircraft at the same time. The regiment is experimenting with mounting the Mark 19 grenade launcher on the helicopter, according to CW2 Rob Rainier, a 1st Battalion AH-6 pilot.

Diving-fire technique

Either pilot can engage targets with the weapons, which, with the exception of the long-range Hellfire, are usually fired as the helicopter is diving out of the sky.

Safety regulations require pilots to break 200 meters from the target when using diving fire in training, Matthews said. ``If it's for real, he'll get in as close as he has to and fire as close as he has to [in order] to hit what he's shooting at,'' he said.

Most of the regiment's AH-6 pilots have attack helicopter experience as either AH-1 Cobra or AH-64 Apache pilots, said Rainier, himself a former Cobra driver. ``This is a lot different from the Cobra,'' he said. ``The firing technique [especially] -- there's no heads-up display, and you engage targets much closer.''

Pilots boresight the weapons by drawing on the windshield with a grease pencil, Rainier said. And like the MH6, the AH-6 is usually flown without doors on the cockpit (meaning the pilots get very wet in a rainstorm).

Despite such rudimentary touches, Rainier said he preferred flying the Army's smallest attack helicopter. ``I like the aircraft a lot better than the Cobra,'' he said. ``It's more maneuverable.''

Nap-of-the-earth flying

This maneuverability can be quite a shock to passengers not used to the aircraft. The regiment's pilots often take up members of the ground crews and support staff to show them what the aircraft and the men they are supporting can actually do.

SSgt. Ricky Garvin, a supply sergeant in the forward support section of the regiment's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, recalled his initiation:
``The first time I flew on a Little Bird, we flew straight up toward the sky then fell straight down toward the ground,'' he said. ``I was screaming.''

``Flying nap of the earth at maximum speed will get your heart going, too,'' said SSgt. Kenneth Anhalt, a shop supervisor in the same company. ``Nap-of-the-earth'' flying involves skimming the ground at treetop altitude.

During routine flights, pilots keep the aircraft at least 300 feet above the ground, but over water this can drop to between 20 and 30 feet. ``It's actually easier to fly at night closer to the water because of the night-vision goggles,'' Rainier said.

Nap-of-the-earth privileges are also extended to the regiment's larger aircraft, which have more sophisticated electronics to help them follow the terrain's contours. In the case of the MH-60K variant of the Black Hawk -- which is joining the older L models as the standard special operations version of the Army's utility helicopter -- this is accomplished using multimode terrain-following radar.

The K model's avionics package represents its greatest advance over the earlier L version. The Kilo sports a ``very clean'' cockpit, noted CW2 Gregory Fellows, a 1st Battalion MH-60K pilot.

Four screens take the place of the array of dials that most helicopter dashboards feature. There are two for each pilot, and they're known as multifunctional displays. One is the aircraft's attitude indicator, the other is a compass indicator overlaid with a moving map of the ground over which he is flying.

Backups available

A set of dials in the middle of the dashboard include redundant systems in case the computerized avionics package crashes. The helicopter also has a stormscope, which by measuring the electrical discharges in the atmosphere can track storms up to 200 nautical miles away.

All the new electronics mean that, when compared to a regular Black Hawk, ``situational awareness is probably tenfold,'' Matthews said. But the added equipment does not make the helicopter any easier to fly, he said. ``It's extremely technologically advanced,'' he said, and the pilot therefore requires more flying time to stay proficient.

The Kilo's other major advantage over its predecessor is that it can be refueled in midair, via a telescopic probe that extends from its nose. This feature means the helicopter can self-deploy anywhere in the world.

The helicopter can also carry external fuel tanks (mounted higher than on the L model to allow gunners greater leeway) and internal Robertson fuel tanks, which are self-sealing if pierced by a projectile up to 60mm in caliber.

The helicopter's purpose is to insert and extract special operations troops, and its ability to perform these missions has been enhanced by an extra 1,000 pounds of lift capacity over the L model, Fellows said.

``The average Black Hawk carries 20,000 pounds, the K model carries between 24,000 and 25,000 pounds,'' Matthews said.

The 1st Battalion -- whose mission is to support 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta, or Delta Force -- also can transform some of its L-model Black Hawks into attack helicopters, sometimes referred to as the AH-60 variant, by attaching weapons pylons to either side of the fuselage.

These can then be fitted with Hellfire missiles or other weapons systems. Although the regiment has had this capability for several years, it was only made public earlier this year.

The big-job aircraft

The other recent arrival in the regiment's hangars here is the CH-47E, which boasts the same advanced avionics package, miniguns and self-sealing internal fuel tanks as the MH-60K.

With a maximum gross weight of 54,000 pounds, it is used for the most strenuous missions the regiment is required to perform. It also has an air-to-air refueling probe, as do the regiment's 11 D model Chinooks, the only Chinooks in the Army to have that capability.

The CH-47E pilots have an advantage over their counterparts flying MH-60Ks in that the aircraft actually will fly itself if its computer is fed the correct instructions ahead of time, according to CW3 Jeff Elmore, an Echo pilot in 2d Battalion's B Company.

By the end of fiscal 1996, when the new aircraft's fielding is complete, the regiment's inventory will have: 20 MH-6s, 20 AH-6s, 23 MH-60Ks, 37 MH-60Ls, 26 MH47Es and 11 MH-47Ds, said Thorwald Eide, the 160th's deputy systems integration and maintenance officer.

The regiment's Systems Integration and Maintenance Office is responsible for developing, testing and integrating new aircraft into the 160th's fleet, as well as providing maintenance support.

The office is headed by a lieutenant colonel, but his deputy is a civilian who provides it with some institutional memory. (Like many of the civilians who work with the regiment as contractors or civil servants, Eide is a former 160th pilot.)

The organization runs 150 projects, but no additional piece of equipment can be approved unless it meets at least one of several criteria that ensure it fills an operational requirement, Eide said.