Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hunting for Bin Laden? Take a SOAR helicopter

News reports have it that Seal Team 6 and CIA operatives rode from Afghanistan to Abbottabad on helicopters of the Night Stalkers, aka 160th Special Operations Regiment, or SOAR. 

Those reports make no mention of using the MH-6 Little Bird, which is interesting because old hands at SOAR consider the single-engine, egg-shaped helicopter well-suited to putting operatives on urban rooftops. The other two machines that SOAR uses, variants of the Black Hawk and Chinook, have their good points if a large team is needed, but are extremely loud and offer bigger targets for ground fire. 

While researching The God Machine I visited the 160th SOAR headquarters at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, talked to pilots, trainers, and old hands, and hopped aboard an MH-60 for a night-time training flight. (Yes, it was a black helicopter ... or at least a very dark gray.) The following is adapted from my book.
The origins of SOAR can be found in the southwest corner of Fort Campbell. It's a tan, concrete-walled building and in 1981 housed the super-secret Task Force 160, the helicopter unit preparing for a second try at spiriting 53 American hostages from hostile Iran.

The reason for forming Task Force 160 was the humiliating failure of an earlier helicopter-dependent rescue attempt in 1980. It was code-named Operation Eagle Claw, and popularly known as the “Desert One” mission. The origin of Eagle Claw was a time of high tension between the United States and the new Islamic regime over the fate of Shah Reza Pahlevi, the deposed ruler. Less than two weeks after the United States allowed the shah to enter the country for surgery, armed revolutionaries broke into the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took dozens of prisoners.

A few Americans were released but that still left 53 hostages. President Jimmy Carter authorized an elaborate plan in April 1980 in which forces from all branches of the armed services would go deep into Iran to retrieve them. As part of this eight Navy RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, normally used for minesweeping, would depart from an aircraft carrier and fly 600 miles to a remote landing strip called Desert One. Forty-four aircraft would participate in six elaborate phases.

Things started going wrong early, when three of eight helicopters dropped out with real or suspected mechanical problems. That violated minimums and the rescue was scrubbed. Still the story was not over. While one helicopter was hovering in a dust cloud, its pilot struggling to maintain his visual fix on the ground, its rotor blades cut into a C-130 transport. The shrapnel ignited fuel and ammunition on both aircraft. At that point it was a scramble for survival. In the departure, the task force left eight bodies and much wreckage behind.

Eagle Claw generated many official recriminations and reports. it also led to a high-risk program, code-named Honey Badger, to go in one more time with more helicopters and commandos, but different tactics.

For Honey Badger the Army gathered new H-60 Black Hawks, Vietnam-era Loach OH-6 helicopters, and troops from the 101st Airborne. The task would be enormously difficult. The Iranians had dispersed the hostages across multiple locations and kept them moving.
The Loaches trained by night, and evaded notice during daylight hours by sliding into garage stalls in the back of the building each dawn.  “The Huey and OH-58 didn’t suit,” recalled Clif O’Brien, a retired command sergeant-major, and a participant in the preparations. “The MH-6 is easier to work on, rapidly deployable, and crash-worthy. The deployability is excellent. You can put six MH-6’s off a C-141 [transport], and in six or seven minutes you can have them running.” The troops of SOAR call the MH-6 and its armed cousin, the AH-6, the Little Bird.

Preparations for Honey Badger stood down after the release of all hostages in 1981, but the Army decided to retain a permanent, commando-style helicopter force. The existence of Task Force 160 (now the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment) remained secret until its cover was blown during Persian Gulf operations in 1987. By then Army helicopter pilots had come to regard it as the prime billet among combat units.

Night-time training accidents were the first obstacle. After four helicopters crashed during training in 1983, a regimen was set up to train pilots about navigating and approaching a target with the early model of night-vision goggles then available; these were originally intended for use by truck drivers and had a narrow field of view.

Task Force 160 did battle for the first time in the island nation of Grenada, supporting an American action to oppose a Marxist movement that was receiving Cuban support and to evacuate American citizens. Instead of its preferred night approach, however, the helicopters had to come in during the day. They took heavy anti-aircraft fire on approaching one target, a prison. One helicopter crashed, for the unit’s first combat fatality. Later the unit shot up Iranian gunboats and a minelayer in the Persian Gulf, used two of its MH-47 Chinooks to haul back a Soviet Mi-24 helicopter gunship abandoned in Chad, and fought troops loyal to Gen. Manuel Noriega in Panama.

The latter action led to SOAR’s second and third combat fatalities, when an armed Little Bird was shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade at the Colon harbor. The helicopter had been covering the exit of SEALs following a commando raid on “high value targets” at a beach house.

Little publicity arose from that, but the reclusive regiment became headline news on October 3, 1993, because of a battle in the narrow streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. That afternoon a U.S. special forces raid arrived via SOAR helicopters at a building across from the Olympic Hotel. The action initially captured two dozen of Mohammad Farah Aidid's assistants but went bad after a rocket-propelled grenade hit the tail of one orbiting Black Hawk, which spun out of control and crashed a few hundred yards away. A second Black Hawk caught an RPG round in the cockpit and crashed a mile further off. The battle to recover bodies and wounded men lasted well into dark, then resumed before dawn. In one of the most dramatic moments, an MH-6 "Little Bird" helicopter with the codename of Star 41 made a high-risk landing in a narrow street in the midst of the gun battle, gathered up Sergeants Daniel Busch and Jim Smith from the crashed Super 61 Black Hawk, and launched safely. The toll for SOAR aviators was five killed and one captured.

The copilot on Star 41, the Little Bird that touched down in the Mogadishu alleyway, was Chief Warrant Officer 3 Karl Maier. At the time I interviewed him, Maier’s job at Fort Campbell was operations officer for the training arm of the SOAR unit, known as the Green Platoon. In warrior style, Maier made no claim to heroism that day: “We were unarmed and afraid,” he said, noting that the combined action of all the gunfire from armed Little Birds overhead was so fearsome that the Somali fighters stayed back and made the rescue possible.

The process to prepare Army helicopter pilots for SOAR work takes three months, followed by two years of additional preparation for those who want the authority to plan and lead a mission. Trainees in Green Platoon stay very busy. After two weeks of individual combat training, pilots spend three weeks planning and flying low-level night missions to unmarked landing zones at least 60 miles from the base. All navigation must be done with map, clock, and compass; no other gadgets are permitted.

The MH-6 and AH-6 helicopters now used in battle by SOAR pilots are modified MD530F models. The MH-6 helicopter weighs 2,100 pounds empty; fully loaded and fueled it weighs more than twice as much. Four fully armed soldiers can ride on the outside of a Little Bird, seated on fold-down planks attached to the landing-skid struts.

The guys in the MH-6 work close in, up to the front doors and to the top of the building,” said Maier. “It’s very good at urban warfare. Compare that to regular army aviation – their urban guys get you to the outside of town. They’re not dropping you off downtown.” The Little Bird is preferred for dropping off troops because it small and nimble, which makes it hard to hit from the ground. “They [the enemy fighters] don’t know where we’re going to land, and at night we’re all blacked out,” Maier said. “They’re shooting at the noise and that’s behind us.”

After graduating from the Green Platoon, pilots selected for the AH-6 gunship learn to use the trusty, 2.75-inch folding-fin rocket. “This is direct fire on a target, not standoff like the Apache [helicopter],” Maier said. “The good guys identify themselves and you shoot around ‘em.” At a distance of 200 yards Little Bird pilots can put a full load of rockets into an standard garage door.

By the time an AH-6 Little Bird pilot is ready to graduate from Fort Campbell he has fired a small mountain of rockets, and a truckload of machine-gun rounds. Most of all, he's had the benefit of learning from the world’s best assault-helicopter instructors.

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