- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Army Chinook helicopter, like the one shot down Aug. 6 in Afghanistan killing all 38 onboard, is the U.S. chopper most susceptible to Taliban ground fire, according to statistics compiled by a former aviator.

Experts say the crash rate shows two principal facts: The lumbering CH-47 Chinook is not designed to fly into the teeth of a firefight to deliver troops and supplies, and the Taliban is somewhat skilled in using crude weapons to hit a big target like the 50,000-pound chopper.

People associated with special operations and Army aviation are making those points as the U.S. command in Kabul begins an investigation into the mission that killed 30 Americans, 17 of them elite Navy SEALs, when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) hit the CH-47 in Warnak province.

“It’s a big aircraft,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Sam Cockerham, who flew helicopters in Vietnam. “It’s a cargo aircraft. It’s not an attack aircraft. It’s not a scout aircraft. It’s a cargo aircraft, so that means when it goes into a risky area, it’s got to have some protection with it. It’s got to have scouts on the ground and also something in the air flying along with it.”

The U.S. command in Kabul has yet to release full mission details. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, declined at a recent press conference to discuss the air assets at his disposal. He has ordered an investigation that will officially determine the crash’s cause, as well at look at the mission itself.

An Army pilot told The Washington Times: “Escorts are always preferred for lift aircraft. Sometimes they go in pairs, sometimes with other utility aircraft, sometimes with attack or recon aircraft. There are hundreds of specific missions a day, and only so many aircraft to cover them. When it is possible, yes, they get an escort.”

Military officials first said the hastily dispatched Chinook was sent to rescue pinned down Army Rangers in a firefight with a dozen or so Taliban militants. But Gen. Allen later provided a different reason, saying the Rangers requested more forces to kill or capture fleeing Taliban.

“One thing that has been lost in all the stories I have read is that CH-47s were designed only for noncombat support missions,” said a special operations soldier who has served in Afghanistan. “Even the MH-47s rely on stealth to survive.”

The MH model is a specialized CH-47 flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, based at Fort Campbell, Ky. For the doomed SEAL mission, commanders chose the conventional CH-47 with a regular crew, not a special operations pilots and crew.

The special operations source said the twin-engine Chinook’s ability to fly at relatively high altitudes “has caused planners to use them in ways for which they were not designed, landing in or near hot landing zones. It is an amazing aircraft but has very poor survivability when under fire — This disaster was of our own making and completely avoidable. It was simply uncalled for unless Rangers were being overrun and the ground situation required this much operational risk.”

Statistics compiled by the website ArmyAirCrews.com underscore that point.

The site, run by Kevin Allen, a former crew chief on Army helicopters, reports that there have been 11 fatal Chinook crashes in Afghanistan since 2001. Of the seven brought down by enemy ground fire, six were by the relatively crude RPG.

In contrast, the Army’s other workhorse, troop-carrying chopper — the 20,000-pound UH-60 Black Hawk — has suffered only four fatal crashes in Afghanistan. None involved RPGs.

“The Black Hawk has had some advances as far as crash worthiness, as compared to the Chinook,” Mr. Allen said. “Obviously, the Chinook is a lot older aircraft than the Black Hawk. I just think it’s the advances in safety that Black Hawk has because it is more modern than the Chinook is a main factor in that.”

Of course, the Black Hawk is not immune to the RPG. In one of the most famous post-Cold War battles, known as “Black Hawk Down,” two special operations versions were felled by Somali fighters in Mogadishu in 1993.

“No one in their right mind sends a Chinook, or any other helicopter, into a place where they know they’re going to get shot at,” the Army pilot said. “Everywhere is a potential danger area. You could get shot at any time. An AK-47 and a RPG are basically in the same category. On the fly, pull up and take a shot, duck out of sight, hide the weapon, blend in. It’s a difficult formula to defend against. There isn’t a helicopter out there that can withstand ground fire. There are well-placed armor panels, but if we fortified them to withstand ground fire, they would never get off the ground.”

Boeing is still producing new Chinooks nearly 50 years after it first entered the Army inventory.

“The Chinook is a true multirole, vertical-lift platform,” Boeing says. “The primary Chinook mission is transport of artillery, troops, ammunition, fuel and supplies within military theaters of operation.”

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