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U.S. Pilots, High-Tech Aircraft Triumph Over Afghan Weather, Terrain

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 17, 2002 -- "The Taliban was our greatest threat, but the weather was our greatest challenge and hazard," an Army helicopter pilot told reporters at the Pentagon today.

Horrible sandstorms and dense fog plagued elite Army elite special operations MH-47E Chinook helicopter crews in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, said Capt. Kevin Cochie of Ashland, Ohio. But U.S. pilots took advantage of Chinook's high-tech radar and other features to break through the weather and put special operations forces on the ground, he said.

Cochie is with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Ky. Last October, he was with the first wave of U.S. soldiers to go to Afghanistan. Planning and coordinating air missions involving Green Berets, Navy SEALS and other ground forces was his order of the day.

Accompanied by two soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group, Cochie met reporters today to describe some of the equipment they used in Afghanistan and to talk about some of their personal experiences. The briefing marked the 50th anniversary of Army Special Forces and the 20th anniversary of the aviation regiment.

Prior to operations in Afghanistan, Cochie said, the 160th's Chinook pilots had never penetrated zero visibility weather at training flight altitudes. "When we started trying to get teams on the ground, we ran into close to zero visibility weather every single night and we ended up turning the aircraft back."

In the training environment, the pilots observed ceiling and visibility safety minimums. "To go into combat is one thing," he said. "To penetrate weather that's almost down to zero visibility without ever having done it in training was a pretty steep learning curve for all of our crews."

U.S. pilots finally penetrated the weather, he said, using the CH-47E's terrain-following, terrain-avoidance multimode radar, a relatively new piece of equipment. The first night the helicopters got teams on the ground was a tremendous success, he recalled.

"It was euphoria really, because we were there and we were doing what needed to be done," Cochie said. "Once we did it the first time, we did it night after night." Getting Special Forces teams on the ground so they could direct the bombs where they needed to go, he added, was a turning point in the war.

Special operations helicopters generally fly at night about 200 to 300 feet off the ground, maneuvering around towers, over power wires and through mountain ranges, he noted. When they first started flying into Afghan airspace, Taliban fighters were everywhere. "When we fly around at 200, 300 feet, you can hit us with a shotgun," he said.

Despite the poor weather, harsh terrain and danger of ground fire, the 160th aircraft crews pushed on. "Our motto is 'On target, plus or minus 30 seconds,' and we live and die by that motto even in the harshest weather and the harshest terrain," Cochie said. "The Echo model Chinook has so many systems that allow the pilots to live by that motto."

The Army has 21 MH-47Es, he said, and the lesson learned in Afghanistan is that more are needed. "We're stretched very thin," Cochie said.

Because of its unique capabilities, the MH-47E has been incredibly successful in the Afghanistan theater, he stressed. "The return on investment . for what it can do for us, the special operations ground force, is so incredible," he said.

The aircraft has a digital cockpit with redundant navigational systems. Flight routes are planned on a laptop computer at the tactical operations center, put on a card and uploaded into the aircraft. A moving digital map display supplements standard maps.

"It's a great process and a great airframe to maintain situational awareness," Cochie said.

The special operations chopper looks a little bit fatter than conventional CH-47s the Army uses because it has bigger fuel tanks on both sides and an aerial refueling probe extends from the front. The 160th is the only unit in the Army that refuels its helicopters in the air, Cochie asserted.

"It basically gives us an indefinite range on the aircraft," he said. The aerial refueling capability, he added, also cuts out the risk of trying to refuel on the ground in hostile environments.

"We were conducting missions that exceeded 600 to 800 miles," he said. "The tanker support was incredible. These guys were flexible. They were always there with the gas -- very dependable.

In Afghanistan, the Chinooks often flew at the maximum gross weight of 54,000 pounds at extreme altitudes. "We were cresting 16,000- and 17,000-foot ridge lines in Afghanistan, while sacrificing very little gross weight," Cochie recalled.

The 200-plus members of the 160th's maintenance company had their work cut out for them because of the harsh, dusty Afghan environment and crews routinely having to fly at high altitudes and with maximum loads.

"It was very hard on the airframes, but the maintenance guys have done an impeccable job at keeping them flying," he said. "We've never dropped a mission in Afghanistan due to a maintenance problem. That's such a testament to our youngest soldiers -- 19-to-25-year-old soldiers, working and turning wrenches on these aircraft."

Overall, he said, the Afghanistan missions validated the training special operations pilots and crews receive.

"It's neat to talk about how awesome this aircraft is all day long," the pilot said. "This is such a special piece of equipment. But what's truly special about the 160th and the 'Nightstalkers' is the training that we give our soldiers."

The Army uses a "deliberate assessment" process to bring the right soldiers into the organization and the training they receive is superb, he added. There's not a lot of simulated training, compared to realistic training in the actual environments they may have to operate in, he said.

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