MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft (SOA)
The MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft (SOA) are long-distance, heavy-lift helicopters, which are equipped with aerial refueling capability, a fast-rope rappelling system, and other upgrades or operations-specific equipment. The aircraft are unique to the US Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).
The MH-47 aircraft conduct overt and covert infiltrations, exfiltrations, air assault, resupply, and sling operations over a wide range of environmental conditions. The aircraft can perform a variety of other missions including shipboard operations, platform operations, urban operations, water operations, parachute operations, forward aerial refueling point (FARP) operations, mass casualty, and combat search and rescue operations. With the use of special mission equipment and night vision devices, the air crew can operate in hostile mission environments over all types of terrain at low altitudes during periods of low visibility and low ambient lighting conditions with pinpoint navigation accuracy.
US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) aircraft contribute to the Joint Vision 2010 concept of dominant maneuver by helping to create asymmetric advantages for combined application of land, air, and sea power against enemy defenses within the joint environment. They are eminently capable, as modernized, multi-mission platforms operating within tailor-to-task organizations, of supporting precise, agile, fast-moving joint operations.
Prior to the introduction of the MH-47D and MH-47E, US Army special operations aviation units had used 12 CH-47Cs modified to allow for the use of night vision goggles (NVGs). These aircraft, assigned to Task Force 158, the predecessor to the 160th Aviation Battalion (which subsequently evolved into the 160th Aviation Regiment), came from the 101st Airborne Division in 1980 and entered active service in 1981. Their primary mission was to provide forward-area refueling operations in austere environments. Upon assignment to TF 158, the 12 aircraft received modifications that included radar altimeters (specifically added for safety during night-vision-goggle flights); long-range navigation and communication equipment; and 4 metal internal auxiliary fuel tanks (taken from M49C 2 1/2-ton fuel trucks).
An additional 16 CH-47D aircraft, equipped with improved navigation, satellite communication, and electronic warfare systems, came to Task Force 158 in 1983 and entered service beginning in 1984. These aircraft remained in use by reserve forces after the introduction of the purpose built MH-47 types. The MH-47D and MH-47E, along with the standard CH-47D aircraft, made up the US Army's active H-47 fleet in the 1990s.
In the late 1990s, development began on a successor MH-47. By the early 2000s, plans to convert existing MH-47 types and acquire new aircraft, all to be designated MH-47G, had been formalized.
Following the events of 11 September 2001, the United States and an allied coalition began operations in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Among US and allied military helicopters, the Chinook was the only one that could fly with the full loads of troops and equipment needed for combat assaults over Afghanistan's high mountains and rugged terrain. The MH-47Es, with long-range fuel tanks, an aerial refueling probe, multimode radar and forward-looking infrared sensors, provided an extra edge for these missions. They could fly nearly 150 miles per hour just a few feet off the ground, at night and in bad weather.
In the first 6 months of what was then called the Global War on Terrorism (subsequently referred to as Overseas Contingency Operations), MH-47 Chinooks from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment flew more than 200 combat missions totaling about 2,000 flight hours. The Chinooks flew as high as 16,000 feet (which forced crews to use oxygen systems) for as long as 15 hours. More than 70 of these missions, flown in the war's first 3 months, involved infiltration or removal of special operations troops behind enemy lines. Throughout, the Chinooks maintained a 99-percent mission readiness rate.
In July 2002, the Army announced plans to expand the special operaitons aviation arm to meet a growing demand for special operations forces. The plan was to add one battalion to the 3 existing battalions in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The expansion would add 12 MH-47 type helicopters, which were the only ones in the Army that can refuel in flight.
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