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The United States Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) is the service’s helicopter special operations force. Only the best Army aviators are recruited to perform its challenging tasks. Called the “Night Stalkers,” these warriors of the sky have saved countless American lives, sometimes deep behind enemy lines.
How are these elite aircrew trained for such demanding missions? The task begins with the Special Operations Aviation Training Battalion (SOATB) at Fort Campbell, Ky. The unit’s cadre are seasoned former members of the 160th SOAR, with years of wisdom to impart to students. Just a few of them are active military personnel, with the majority serving as civilian instructors.
The SOATB is made up of two sub-units: A and B companies. B Company provides aviation-related training for pilots, crew chiefs, medics, and other personnel closely involved with helicopters. A Company is responsible for training in ground skills such as land navigation, and training medics in combat life-saving skills.
Tools of the trade
The largest helicopter used by the Army’s special operations units is the Boeing MH-47G Chinook, which replaced the MH-47E. It is armed with M134 miniguns (one on each side in the forward doors) and sometimes a pair of M240D machine guns on the ramp. The MH-47G is used to carry personnel and large internal and external loads. It is equipped with an air-to-air refueling probe.
The newest addition to the special operations community is the Sikorsky MH-60M Black Hawk, the first of which was delivered in 2011. It has better performance and enhanced systems compared to the MH-60K and L models it replaced. The MH-60M is the medium-lift helicopter of the 160th SOAR, often used for transporting troops. It can carry a pair of M134 miniguns in the doors.
Another version of the Black Hawk in use is the MH-60L Direct Action Penetrator (DAP) gunship, which has stub wings added to carry weapons. The stub wings can carry M134 miniguns, M230 30-mm chain guns, AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and 19-shot pods containing 2.75-in rockets. Generally, a gunship Black Hawk will not carry troops.
Although SOATB does not actually own any DAP aircraft, it still trains all of the pilots who will eventually go to the operational DAP unit. Before graduating, they will experience a flight as a passenger on a DAP helicopter and then receive their final checkride with a C Company, 1-160th SOAR instructor.
The 160th SOAR also operates the MD Helicopters A/MH-6M Little Bird, which is agile, relatively quiet, low-cost, and a perfect platform with which to discreetly get in and out of areas. It can be easily configured in the field within minutes for the MH assault or AH attack role. This gives the fleet excellent versatility. The M-model was formerly the successful J variant, with all examples modified under the Mission Enhanced Little Bird program. The Little Bird’s agility was enhanced by a new rotor system, which also reduced noise. It also has a new glass cockpit with contemporary display units and a new engine in the form of a Rolls-Royce 250-C30/R3 with full authority digital engine control (FADEC) that generates 650 shaft-horsepower. The helicopter has four multi-band radios with a variety of secure modes and an embedded GPS/INS navigation system.
On the chin of the A/MH-6M is an AN/ZSQ-3 electro-optical sensor system (EOSS) from FLIR Systems, including a laser designator and recording device, which can be added or removed, depending on the mission. The MH-6 is configured with a pair of pods attached to the fuselage, supporting up to six fully loaded special operations operators. There are fast rope bars on each side. Once the troops go down, the ropes are detached by the pilots via an internal release handle.The AH-6M is usually configured with M134 miniguns and 2.75-in rockets, mounted on a weapons pylon. It can also carry a pair of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and a GAU-19 .50-caliber machine gun. An armament control system is installed for the AH-6M mission (basically a switchbox with arm, standby, off, and jettison modes).
Training for the mission
According to one of SOATB’s seasoned MH-47G instructor pilots (IPs), “Pilots that come to us are often former OH-58D, AH-64D, or CH-47F pilots and have completed the basic skills portion already and basic aircraft qualification if needed. Their experience may range from just 300 or up to 5,000 flight hours.” Just a few exceptional applicants come straight out of flight school; the majority are seasoned U.S. Army aviators with extensive flight time. If an aircrew member is seen as a high achiever, a senior officer may suggest they apply, but all applicants are volunteers.
Applicants must undergo a one-week assessment process with SOATB in which they are interviewed by numerous people from within the special forces community. Candidates perform two flights to test their flying and navigation skills. Their past records are reviewed, character and demeanor assessed, and they are evaluated psychologically. Everything is taken into account. At the end of the week-long process, candidates will be told whether or not they have been accepted and, if so, what type of aircraft they will fly.
The first phase of training covers ground-based combat skills; it lasts three weeks for officers, and five to six weeks for enlisted personnel. Trainees receive instruction on basic combat tasks, first aid, and weapons, among other training. Then they must qualify in the helicopter “dunker” and do water survival training.
Next comes pilot training, which comes in two stages. First is a basic navigation course that lasts a month. It is conducted in the Little Bird because it is inexpensive to operate, compared to the larger aircraft. After this, pilots are streamed for the type they will fly. They then begin the four-month advanced skills courses. Depending on the students’ backgrounds, they may first have to undergo an aircraft qualification course. These courses vary for each helicopter type, but they all cover the “going to war” missions, followed by flying in the desert, mountains, and over water; shipboard deck landing qualifications; and urban warfare tasks.
The AH-6M and MH-60 DAP pilots mainly focus on gaining proficiency in using the weapons so they can provide close air support. The MH-6M pilot training spends a lot of time on airborne assault carrying up to four troops. A Little Bird IP told Vertical 911, “We have 16 instructors in our company [the whole of SOATB]. We process around 80 students per year. About 12 to 16 students are Little Bird pilots, while the other 65 or so go to other platforms. The washout rate is very low, being a testament to the assessment process.” The IP noted, “We have our own in-house instructor pilot course and we are the only airframe in the Army that does that. Our staff officers fly the Little Birds as well.
“We operate the only single-pilot rated aircraft in the Army, but we typically fly with two [pilots] regardless. Being a small assault asset, we are extremely weight-conscientious, so saving just a few pounds can give us extra range, or may allow us to let our customers carry more for the mission. We also have no aircraft survivability defensive equipment, no early warning systems, and minimal armor.”Students learn how to land and take off in various formations in austere environments, and how to settle on rooftops to drop off troops. Although it carries fewer troops, one advantage of the Little Bird is that due to its small size and relatively light weight, it can drop troops in locations the other types cannot, such as on balconies, bridges, and rooftops.
The MH-60M is also used to move troops, but being a larger medium-class-sized helicopter, it can carry more passengers (around 12 to 15) with greater speed and range.
According to an MH-60M senior IP, incoming pilots start with series 1,000 (basic) training related to the aircraft survivability equipment and start-up and run-up procedures, and spend a lot of time in the simulator. Students then proceed to night vision goggle (NVG) and readiness level 2/series 2,000 training. Explained the IP, “That includes environmental training such as working in the desert, high-altitude mountains, urban training, urban academics, then over water, and on to ship qualifications. The students get about 100 hours of actual flight time, 300 hours of academic time, and 75 hours of time in a full-motion dynamic MH-60M simulator.”
The IP continued, “The MH-60K, a 1980s aircraft, was one of the first glass-cockpit aircraft that we had and it too, like the MH-60M, had a multi-mode radar. The Mike model is like a Kilo on steroids; it has larger engines and the superior EOSS AN/ZSQ-2 that has a lasing capability, which is actually the same EOSS that the MH-60L DAP now has. Now that we have the same engines as the [Sikorsky] S-92, we actually have plenty of power — that is the one new item in the Mike we all love. The tail rotor is not designed for maximum torque output, so that is what we currently have to watch as the limiting factor. The rotor blades are a lot wider and have a taller chord, providing more lift. It is especially noticeable when working at higher altitudes.
“The M-model is a lot more complex than earlier versions, but today’s generation of students learn quickly because they grew up around software and computers. They do have to be careful about getting sucked into looking down all the time. There is a lot of information and situational awareness data being presented, so a good pilot needs to prioritize how long and where they look. They can become overwhelmed trying to absorb too much, but once with their operational unit they learn quickly since it is quite fast and furious action. Whether a student goes to DAPs or assault is predetermined by the initial assessment. Probably only about one out of every six students goes to DAPs.”
The MH-47G can transport about 30 troops and its pilots must be proficient in carrying specialized internal loads in the assault role. Initial tasks for Chinook training include contact maneuvers (in which the helicopter comes into contact with the ground), basic visual approaches and circuits, and slope work; once students have completed this training, they are considered qualified to fly the basic aircraft. Next comes NVG training, and a minimum of 4.5 flight hours on goggles is required.
The Chinook IP explained, “The basic mission training advanced tasks teaches them fast roping, hoisting, confined area landings, amphibs [carrying small watercraft], firing guns, aerial refueling and more. Next is the environmental phase, where we take the students to the desert where they experience brownouts [landings when sand or dust obscures the ground] and working in dusty environments. Later we work in the mountains and they experience wind dynamics and operating at high altitudes, including pinnacles and ridgeline areas. Next we schedule a ship to work from. We do a deck landing qualification with each student.
“From start to completion, it takes about 85 training days or about four months to complete. They get an end-of-course checkride to be signed off [by an instructor from their operational unit] and then they move on to their final unit. The checkride instructor is ensuring they know how to run up the aircraft, the emergency procedures, can fly to targets within plus or minus 30 seconds, and it is about a five-hour long flight.”According to the IP, SOATB currently trains 28 pilots per year on the MH-47G, and training an additional 10 per year is being explored. The unit also trains 56 enlisted personnel (flight engineers/loadmasters and gunners) each year. Some of these enlisted personnel have never flown before, so they may have to start with very basic instruction, such as how to use a flight helmet and talk on the intercom system.
“We can land most places that a MH-60M can, fly faster, and with a lot more troops on board,” the Chinook IP noted. “We bring a significant range to the table and can fly over seven hours for a mission; with aerial refueling it is unlimited. Internally we can carry mortars, 120mm cannons and vehicles. We also train for carrying external loads and we do move Humvees [HMMWVs] in theater a fair amount.”
The IP observed, “Probably the most challenging events for all students is the aerial refueling portion and the terrain following with nap-of-the-earth flight,” which is performed lower to the ground than in regular Army operations. All MH-47 and MH-60 pilots must become proficient in aerial refueling.
After the pilots have completed the advanced skills course in their aircraft type, they are given a checkride. If they pass, they become basic mission qualified (BMQ) and go to their assigned company within the 160th. The entire process, from start to completion, takes about six months. After the pilot has been with an operational unit for two years, they can upgrade to fully mission qualified (FMQ), though to achieve this they need to prove they can command an aircraft in a combat situation. Once FMQ they are allowed to work with units outside the 160th SOAR. Later comes flight lead qualified (FLQ), usually after an additional three to four years.
Caring for the crew
An aspect of 160th operations that is often overlooked is that each Night Stalker company has a medic dedicated to taking care of the aircrew. They are usually embedded on missions. As a result, there are medic instructors in B Company, SOATB. A senior medic instructor explained, “We put the students through six weeks of training, including ‘hands on’ tactical combat casualty care, and in an MH-60M simulator trailer, where they are dealt stressful situations during training. We usually have between two to four students for every six-week course. Then they start flying and go along with a SOATB unit for desert and mountain training, fast roping, hoisting, casualty extraction training, plus high-altitude tactical exercises where they are dragging casualties in a thin air environment to feel the effects of hypoxia.
“Next comes a non-drama module which includes working in an operating room with a surgeon, a doctor on sick call, and lastly they handle sick call patients themselves. After six weeks, they move on to the operational unit. During the next two years with the unit they must complete a variety of other civilian certifications and additional training. After that, they are fully mission qualified. We train about 15 to 20 individuals per year and currently it is more MH-47G-centric, since most medics spend the majority of their time on the Chinooks. We are looking at going to a 10-week course to allow for the instruction to be even more in-depth, and give us additional time covering MH-60Ms. Our primary responsibility is that we are there to support our aircrew members and 99 percent of the time we remain with the aircraft. The casualty evacuation support is an additional task we can do if asked.”