Chinooks Over Afghanistan: The Unsung Workhorse Of America's Never Ending War

Big and fast, the helicopters have moved troops, heavy weapons, and cargo to the country's most remote areas.

Ed Darack

The CH-47 Chinook is not a particularly sleek or sexy looking helicopter and it's been a ubiquitous feature of most American military operations since the Vietnam War. Its age and shape give the overall appearance of a slow and lumbering aircraft. Ed Darack, a writer and photographer who has embedded with American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and is the author of the new book The Final Mission of Extortion 17, says that reputation is entirely undeserved and that the type has been the unsung workhorse of the war in Afghanistan in particular. 

Not only is the Chinook still an extremely capable design after decades of service, it is actually the fastest helicopter in U.S. military service at present, owing in no small part to its uncommon tandem rotor configuration. Darack has been kind enough to share his own experiences with the CH-47, as well as those of the aviators, crew members, maintenance crews, and other personnel who have flown, rode in, or otherwise seen the "Hooks" in combat. The pictures he took and video he obtained offer even more insight into how valuable the helicopter has been to Americans warfighters.

My introduction to the Chinook

“Remember to put your head down when they start shooting at you!” a grinning Sergeant First Class Rick Scavetta said in late September 2005. Rick, the media chief for Combined Joint Task Force 76 (CJTF-76), had just dropped me off on the southern end of Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield for the start of my first-ever combat embed. I lifted my photography gear and backpack out of his pickup truck and hiked across the concrete apron toward my journey’s next ride, a CH-47D Chinook helicopter. “Have a nice flight!” Rick yelled over the THWACK-THWACK-THWACK of spinning rotors and the screams of two turboshaft engines of the “bird” that idled just one hundred feet from his truck. 

Courtesy Ed Darack

A CH-47D Chinook makes a landing approach at a small airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

I momentarily lost my breath walking through the hot, pungent exhaust plume roiling out of the right-side engine before shuffling up the helicopter’s loading ramp. Dropping my gear at the aft end of the Chinook, call sign “Big Windy 21,” I sat down on the webbed bench seat as the aircraft’s flight engineer raised the ramp a couple feet off the ground with a stiff push of a handle. With word that I was seated, the pilot on the controls “pulled thrust” and the helicopter mildly vibrated side-to-side for a second and then a smiling Rick and his pickup grew small as the helicopter smoothly lifted into the sky.

Ed shared the video below, showing CH-47Ds from Extortion Company taking off for a mission as seen through night vision goggles.

Ker-chunk! The flight engineer armed the M240 7.62mm machine gun on the ramp as the Chinook nosed down and accelerated toward the southeast. The two other crew members on board armed their M240s as well, one on each side behind the cockpit bulkhead. As we passed over the perimeter of the base, two U.S. Army AH-64 Apache gunship helicopters joined our single-Chinook flight as escorts. The Apaches carved broad S-shaped patterns in the sky above and behind us, the pilots of each constantly scanning for threats and ready to unleash rockets or high explosive 30mm rounds on any attackers below.

Courtesy Ed Darack

The author.

Flying just a few hundred feet above ground level at around 190 miles per hour, the orderly mosaic of Bagram’s paved roads, stacks of shipping containers, and lines of aircraft shrank into the hazy distance. With the large base to our rear, I took in views far more representative of the character of landscapes throughout Afghanistan: raw to the brink of feral. 

We sped above sweeps of bare, wind-scoured desert, past swaths of labyrinthine badlands, and over knife-edged ridges and vertical rock walls. While we flew over a few tiny mud hut villages and some roughhewn agricultural patchworks during the 45 minute journey, I picked out only a few roads. They were all dirt, and most of these were just tracks barely scratched into the landscape. They looked passable only by dirt bikes, donkeys, or human footsteps—certainly not by any standard military vehicle. 

Courtesy Ed Darack

A flight engineer mans an M240 machine gun on the ramp of a CH-47D Chinook flying over Afghanistan.

A workhorse in Afghanistan

The helicopter, I quickly understood during that first flight in Afghanistan, wasn’t a luxury for the war, but an absolute necessity. I would further learn in the subsequent days and weeks that the type of helicopter in which I rode, the Chinook, had repeatedly proven itself to be the premier aviation logistical workhorse for the war effort. 

I would also learn of the importance and roles played by people of the Chinook world—the pilots, maintainers, and crew members—who hailed from the active Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard. Soldiers from all three worked side-by-side, day and night, on the ground and in the skies of Afghanistan, continuing the legacy of the storied aircraft in what has been perhaps the most difficult, most austere operating environment the modern U.S. military has faced.  

That first flight took me to Jalalabad Provincial Reconstruction Team base, or “J-Bad PRT,” a small outpost on the edge of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. After shuffling out of the helicopter onto the base’s gravel landing zone, I spotted a UH-60 Black Hawk approaching from the east. 

US Army

A UH-60 Black Hawk flies behind a CH-47 Chinook during a training exercise in Colorado.

The Black Hawk’s passage above the airstrip highlighted, through contrast, the key distinguishing characteristic of the CH-47: its rotor configuration. The Black Hawk is a “tail rotor” helicopter, relying on a tail rotor to counteract the torque effect of the main rotor system—and through “anti-torque” foot pedal control inputs, yaw the aircraft clockwise and counterclockwise. By far the most common form of rotary-wing aircraft throughout the world, the tail-rotor helicopter suffers a fundamental disadvantage: that tail rotor draws upwards of 15 percent of available power that would otherwise be used for thrust simply to keep the helicopter from spinning wildly out of control. 

The Chinook, on the other hand, uses a torque-cancelling configuration of two counter-rotating rotor systems, one three-bladed assembly at the front of the helicopter’s fuselage, and one at the rear. With this design, virtually 100% of available horsepower its two turboshaft engines produce is applied to thrust—a small amount is lost due to internal friction of the gears in the combiner box and transmissions. 

All of this thrust allows the Chinook to carry upwards of 50 troops and their gear in its spacious fuselage. The helicopter can also haul tens of thousands of pounds of cargo, loaded internally or slung beneath it. The ability for CH-47s to externally sling heavy military implements like howitzers quickly became so renowned that it inspired an enduring nickname for those in the Chinook world: “Hookers,” for the hooks found on the underside of the aircraft’s fuselage to which the slings attach. 

The Chinook also ranks as the fastest helicopter in the Department of Defense, contrary to an unfortunate stereotype frequently repeated in media reports characterizing it as “huge and slow.” All three primary iterations of the U.S. Military’s largest helicopter, the CH-53D, E, and now K, dwarf the Chinook in size, but not speed.

I watched and photographed all types of helicopters land, refuel, and then re-launch from the small airfield at the J-Bad PRT during my half-day stay at the base. Chinooks arrived and re-launched more than any other type of helicopter, an indicator of its broad utility and high demand in the war effort.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, CH-47s transported troops of all nations involved in the war and hauled all types of cargo, from mail, to spare rotor blades, to engines for other helicopters, and sometimes entire helicopters slung beneath the Chinook by cables. CH-47s participated in all types of combat operations of all sizes, both conventional and special operations, all throughout Afghanistan, from the beginning of the operation to its final days. 

Courtesy Ed Darack

A CH-47D Chinook makes a dusty approach to a landing at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, near Bridgeport, California.

The CH-47's storied history

Today, Chinooks continue to support combat operations in Afghanistan, furthering a long legacy that began decades ago.  The CH-47 evolved out of a lineage of tandem rotor helicopters first pioneered in the 1940s by an inventor named Frank Piasecki, through his firm, Piasecki Helicopter. The company changed hands, becoming known as Boeing-Vertol in 1960 before ending up as part of the consolidated Boeing Defense, Space & Security division today.

Over the years, these firms produced a number of high performance helicopters, such as the HRP Rescuer and the H-21 Shawnee, the latter setting a number of altitude and speed records for helicopters at the time. In 1960, the newly formed Boeing-Vertol released the tandem rotor CH-46 Sea Knight, relying on technology developed through Piasecki’s earlier models like the Shawnee. 

The CH-46, the only tandem rotor helicopter other than the Chinook employed by the U.S. military in recent decades, would serve as one of the longest-used aircraft in military aviation history, spanning over a half century of operation. Similar in appearance to the larger, more powerful Chinook, untrained eyes often confuse the CH-46 with the CH-47. The Chinook, however, is a far more powerful helicopter. The last of the U.S. military Sea Knights, flown by the Marine Corps—who called them “Phrogs”—retired in 2015, replaced by the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey.

In 1961, Boeing-Vertol introduced the world to the Chinook with the CH-47A, originally known by the Army-specific nomenclature of HC-1B. The aircraft would evolve through a number of improvements and iterations in the subsequent decades, but its basic configuration and physical dimensions endured.

US Army

An HC-1B Chinook.

In conflicts throughout the world, notably the Vietnam War and later the Gulf War, the Chinook proved itself to be a legendary mainstay of U.S. combat prowess due to its speed, reliability, and cargo and troop carrying capacity. The Army even converted four into heavily armed “ACH-47” gunships for use in the Vietnam war. 

The legendary 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Night Stalkers,” created a number of modified versions throughout the decades. The 160th’s MH-47D, E, and G “Special Operations Aircraft,” or “SOA,” each have in-flight refueling capability, enhanced defensive weapons, expanded fuel capacity, specialized navigation and avionics systems, and a number of other additions for the Night Stalkers’ specialized nighttime operations.

Between 1982 and 1994, the U.S. Army converted all A, B, and C models of the Chinook to the D model, which had flown in Afghanistan from nearly day one of Operation Enduring Freedom. The 160th's Chinooks, most all of which evolved from one of the conventional A through D model CH-47s, also flew in Afghanistan from the very start of the war. 

US Army

Some of the 160th's specialized MH-47s.

In 2006, Boeing began production of the latest version of the Chinook, the F model. While some F models have re-used engines, rotors, and transmissions from D models, most of them are completely brand new. By contrast, all D models were upgrades from earlier versions. First test flown in 2001, the CH-47F began arriving in Afghanistan in November and December of 2008, with “Varsity,” B Company, 7th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, which is part of the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, a unit of the storied 101st Airborne Division.

These weren’t the first F model CH-47s to deploy to combat, however. That distinction went to CH-47Fs from the 4th Infantry Division, who took them to Iraq a few months prior to the Afghan deployment. The F model, while incorporating a number of improvements over the “legacy” A through D models, nevertheless retained the overall character of the original CH-47. Only those with a keen eye for Chinook detail can distinguish the F model from versions. With the debut of the F model, the Chinook may very well be the first military helicopter to reach the century mark of operational use.

Courtesy Ed Darack

A CH-47D Chinook lands at a small landing zone at Firebase Blessing in Kunar Province.

Into Kunar province

After my brief stay at the J-Bad PRT, I hauled my gear aboard another CH-47D, taking to the skies headed northeast, toward the restive Kunar Province, a hotbed of the war. The air crew first dropped supplies at a tiny Special Forces outpost on the Pakistan border and then unloaded me at Forward Operating Base Wright (FOB Wright), just outside of the city of Asadabad, the capital of the Kunar Province. That’s where the luxury of smooth, fast travel in the back of a Chinook ended, and my visceral appreciation for the CH-47 really began, courtesy of a ground convoy.

I squeezed into the back of a Humvee a few hours after nightfall with Marines bound for Camp Blessing, deep in the Pech River Valley near the small village of Nangalam. Cold rain poured on us during most of the five hour journey and the Humvee slammed through potholes and ruts, knocking us off the steel bench seats a few times every minute. 

Despite the worsening condition of the road, the convoy accelerated when we passed by the opening of the Korangal Valley. We needed to move quickly as we’d entered “IED Alley,” where improvised explosive devices, buried under the dirt road and remotely detonated by insurgents and terrorists hiding in the Korangal, had destroyed a number of Humvees and other vehicles in the past months and years. These explosions had also killed and maimed American and Afghan military personnel, as well as Afghan civilians. 

Courtesy Ed Darack

Marines in back of a Humvee returning from a combat operation near the village of Wanat, in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province.

As the speed combined with the road conditions pounded us in the back, and as the thought of an IED detonating beneath our Humvee pounded in my head, I dreamed of the comfort, speed, and safety of the Chinook. Then a Marine in the back of the Humvee reminded me that deadly threats exist for CH-47s and other helicopters too. He pointed to the south, toward a mountain cloaked at that moment by darkness: Sawtalo Sar. 

Just three months earlier, during Operation Red Wings, an insurgent fired a rocket propelled grenade at a 160th MH-47D helicopter, “Turbine 33,” as it prepared to deploy a fast rope for the insertion of a quick reaction force of Navy SEALs high on the mountain’s slopes. The explosive round slammed into the rear transmission of the helicopter, sending Turbine 33 crashing onto the steep slopes of the upper peak, killing all sixteen on board: eight Night Stalkers and eight Navy SEALs. At that point, it was the greatest single-incident loss of life of American life in the war in Afghanistan.

“Welcome to the edge of the empire,” Marine 1st Lieutenant Matt Bartels, the 25 year-old commander of Camp Blessing said when I arrived at three in the morning, drenched. Named after Jay Blessing, a Green Beret killed by an IED a couple years earlier, Camp Blessing held the distinction of being one of the most insular combat outposts in the War on Terror—and one of the most frequently attacked. 

Just a couple days before my arrival, a mortar had landed near the base’s command post, killing 20 year-old Marine Lance Corporal Steven Valdez. Matt told me that I’d arrived just in time, as the Marines were planning a raid to locate the mortar used to kill Valdez, and to seek out those who used it to kill him.

Courtesy Ed Darack

Marines in the back of a Humvee on a narrow, winding, dirt road in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province,

An airmobile raid with the Marines

The following morning started with a number of very loud bangs. The Marines pounded a ridge a few thousand feet above and a few miles to the northeast of the base with 120mm mortars borrowed from the Army. As dust and smoke rose from the ridge, two CH-47D Chinooks sped into view and then landed side-by-side just outside the base’s perimeter next to a corn field. As two AH-64 Apache gunships orbited overhead, a platoon of Marines, about 30 “Afghan Security Forces” personnel, and I loaded onto the two idling Chinooks with all our gear. The Chinooks additionally carried enough MREs—meals, ready to eat—and bottled water to sustain us for a week. The Afghans also brought some of their own food: bags of rice, fresh vegetables, two live goats, and some live chickens.

With our backpacks on the floor, M16s, AK-47s, rocket propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, grenades, and boxes of high explosives resting throughout the interior, the fully-loaded CH-47s lifted into the sky. As we passed the ridge that just minutes prior exploded under the mortar barrage, the pilots banked us hard toward it. 

Courtesy Ed Darack

An AH-64 Apache gunship at an airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

If there were any enemy on the ridge, and if they survived the mortar attack, the pilots wanted to give them as little chance to shoot us down as possible. The site of Turbine 33’s shoot down, just across the Pech Valley, was plainly in sight of the ridge, and as such, the memory of that recent tragedy. According to the Marines, this was the first combat insert by Chinooks in the area since the Red Wings MH-47 shoot down.  

Just minutes after launching, the two Chinooks smoothly landed side-by-side on the grassy ridge. The Marines and Afghan fighters sped down the ramp and formed a ring of security around the two idling CH-47s as others offloaded the cargo and I ran around shooting photographs. The Marines had trained with Chinooks before, months earlier at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, California, where I met their battalion prior to their deployment to Afghanistan. While there I watched them conduct training for the type of real world raid I experienced first hand, courtesy of CH-47D Chinooks from the Nevada Army National Guard.

Courtesy Ed Darack

A Marine machine gunner and Navy Hospital Corpsman man the perimeter while the two Chinooks unload.

With all personnel and gear offloaded, and with an A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” and the two Apache gunships flying high and low overhead, the Chinooks lifted off and disappeared down valley. Despite the heavy loads, the high altitude and difficult terrain of the location in the Hindu Kush Mountains, and the warm air of late summer, which degrades a helicopter’s performance similar to high altitude’s effect, the insertion proceeded flawlessly. 

The insertion was a demonstration not only of the power and agility of the Chinook, but of the pilots, crew members, and maintainers of the aircraft. Shortly after the insertion, Lieutenant Bartels told me of another operation they had planned, this one in the Korangal Valley, just a mile from the shoot down location of Turbine 33, which we eyed from the ridge from which the Chinooks just departed. First, however, we needed to locate the mortar, and possibly those responsible for Steven Valdez’s death.

Courtesy Ed Darack

A Marine speaks into a radio and troops unload a CH-47D Chinook after a combat insertion in Kunar Province.

Chinooks rush to help in Pakistan

While the Marines discovered the small cave where the mortar system was hidden—and promptly destroyed it with 75 pounds of C-4 high explosive, the helicopter raid into the Korangal Valley never happened. A few seconds after the Marines blasted the cave, we felt the ground shake slowly side-to-side. 150 miles away, near Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, a 7.6 magnitude quake had struck.

The “Kashmir Earthquake” had killed 100,000 people and left three million without homes. As a key component of America’s humanitarian assistance in response to the devastation, all available CH-47 Chinooks were dispatched to Pakistan. Chinooks proved so critical to combat operations in many of the most austere parts of Afghanistan that many missions simply could not be undertaken without them. No other helicopter can replicate its unique capabilities—not even close.  

One of the CH-47 pilots who journeyed to Pakistan for the earthquake relief mission was a young Army reserve lieutenant named Justin “Buddy” Lee. Buddy, who may have piloted a Chinook carrying myself and the Marines with whom I was embedded into the Korangal had the earthquake not occurred, had just recently been “winged” at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where all Army aviators receive their flight training. The months-long humanitarian mission brought Buddy a tremendous amount of Chinook piloting experience, which he then continued to build in the final months of his deployment where he supported combat operations in southern Afghanistan, including many special operations missions.

Years later, Buddy would deploy to Afghanistan again, as a Captain, where he commanded “Extortion Company” out of Forward Operating Base Shank, south of Kabul in eastern Afghanistan. Almost a decade to the day after the earthquake that altered both our courses in each of our first journeys to Afghanistan, I met Buddy in person.

Out of the military and working as a newly minted attorney, Buddy provided me incredible insight into the untold story of Extortion Company and Extortion 17, the CH-47D Chinook helicopter downed in the Tangi Valley by a rocket propelled grenade round in the dark early morning hours of Aug. 6, 2011. The tragedy marked the greatest single incident loss of life in America’s war in Afghanistan, with 30 American and eight Afghan personnel, and one American military working dog killed. The incident also marked the greatest single incident loss of life in the history of SEAL Team Six, the Navy SEALs overall, and in the history of U.S. Special Operations Command.

Courtesy Ed Darack

One of two CH-47D Chinooks lifts off from a ridge in the Pech River Valley region while a US Navy Corpsman mans the perimeter. 

Learning the story of Extortion 17

Through Buddy, and those to whom Buddy introduced me who were close to the people of Extortion 17 and the world of the Chinook, I was able to learn the full, in-depth story of Extortion 17 for my book on the topic. I learned about the machine itself, and its unique capabilities that allowed it to carry the Marines and myself onto that ridge above Camp Blessing and so many other operations in Afghanistan. I learned about the training that pilots undertake to fly such missions, including basic flight training, and then advanced mountain and high altitude training at a small facility in Colorado called HAATS, the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site. 

Courtesy Ed Darack

A CH-47D Chinook speeds through the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, near Bridgeport, California.

I learned about the camaraderie of those throughout the world of Army Aviation and the reverence that pilots, crew, and maintainers of Chinooks and other Army helicopters have for ground units like the Marines with whom I was embedded. I learned about the people of Extortion 17 themselves – about Bryan Nichols, a close personal friend of Buddy’s and one of the Extortion 17 pilots killed. In late June 2011, Buddy and Bryan piloted a CH-47D Chinook that was downed just a few miles from the location of the downing of Turbine 33—all survived. 

I learned about Dave Carter, co-pilot of Extortion 17, with whom Buddy flew a mission the night before Extortion 17’s shoot down. I learned the stories of the helicopter’s crew: Spencer Duncan, Pat Hamburger, and Alex Bennett; all hailed from different backgrounds, but all were bound by their common love of the Chinook and dedication to national service, the Army, and Army Aviation. I also learned of the passengers on board Extortion that dark early morning, and the close relationship and deep trust that Extortion Company shared with the special operations personnel they flew night after night—members of SEAL Team Six, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and Air Force Special Operations personnel.

I learned of the details of the mission itself, and how the operation was developed. I learned the second-by-second details of the downing, and then the tragic aftermath experienced by those near and far to those lost. I also learned of the story how American forces identified, tracked, and then struck back at those responsible for the downing—an incredibly gripping, seldom-discussed, aspect of the Extortion 17 story.

Most importantly, I learned that far more than just a terrible tragedy noted in history, and far more than just a vital chapter in the enduring legacy of the Chinook and those who fly, crew, and maintain these incredible aircraft in the skies over Afghanistan and beyond, the Extortion 17 story opens a door of full-spectrum understanding of a world of human experience at its most extreme, war, like few stories ever have before.

Courtesy Ed Darack

One of the first CH-47F Chinooks to fly in Afghanistan at FOB Wright in May of 2009. 

A big thanks to Ed for sharing some of his experiences and thoughts on the Chinook in Afghanistan with us. Make sure to pick up a copy of Ed Darack book The Final Mission Of Extortion 17: Special Ops, Helicopter Support, SEAL Team Six, and The Deadliest Day of the U.S. War in Afghanistan. Available now on Amazon.com.

Contact the editor: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com