Approximately 30 minutes before H-Hour, an aviation task force of UH-1Hs and CH-47Bs lifted off from Ft. Sherman with a reinforced company from the 3-504th PIR. The UH-1s were carrying 10 combat-loaded personnel each and the CH-47s were carrying 50. The mission was to clear and secure the Madden Dam to prevent damage to the water control system for the Panama Canal. Flying the mixed aircraft formation took expert training and split-second timing. At 0045, the lead helicopter touched down at the dam with the CH-47s landing nearby in a clearing. A large volume of ground fire erupted, but darkness and speedy unloading resulted in no aircraft being hit. The entire flight was conducted under blackout conditions with all aviators using night vision goggles (NVGs). The surprise gave the infantry a significant tactical advantage during the ground action which followed.
Aviation assets were used extensively during the entire operation. Almost every unit involved in JUST CAUSE utilized aviation assets for air assaults, fire support, surveillance and resupply. Multiple air assaults were conducted on D-Day to include three battalion air assaults after a brigade parachute assault. Air-space management was critical. During D-Day operations, there were 185 fixed-wing and 173 rotary-wing aircraft operating under NVGs in an area of 140 x 45 km.
- Night air assaults save lives and aircraft. Even in an unsophisticated air defense artillery (ADA) environment, daylight air assaults are costly.
- Extensive and repetitive night flight training with NVGs paves the way for successful night combat operations and, in turn, reduces battlefield casualties.
- Practice/rehearse air assaults with seats out periodically. Static training can also fulfill this need.
- Bag parachutes when the drop zone (DZ) will also be used as an air-assault pickup zone (PZ).
- Establish a central tactical flight-following element to assist in airspace management.
- Use tactical nondirectional beacons for navigation aids.
- Document all flight safety waivers and place them in the operations order (OPORD).
- Use dedicated unit logistics birds versus mission tasking. Contingency operations on a nonlinear battlefield often require flexibility not associated with mission tasking.
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