USAF Pararescuemen Fawn Over The Army's Chinook Helicopters In This Video From Afghanistan

More than a decade after the service killed off plans for its own HH-47 rescue chopper, Air Force personnel talk up the CH-47's capabilities.

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The U.S. Air Force has released a new slickly produced video that gives an inside look into a unique combat search and rescue super team it operates jointly with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. With the Air Force in the process of replacing its older HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters with new HH-60W models, it’s particularly interesting to hear the service’s personnel spend much of their time talking about the benefits of the Army’s CH-47F Chinook in the combat search and rescue (CSAR) role.

In October 2017, the Air Force revealed that it would withdraw the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron’s HH-60Gs and their crews from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and replace them with Army CH-47Fs, a development that we at The War Zone were among the first to report. The squadron’s command element and pararescuemen, also referred to as P.J.s, would continue operations as before, but with those new aircraft.

At the time, this was the only remaining U.S. military search and rescue unit in the country. In January 2018, the Air Force did re-deploy some Pave Hawks to Kandahar Airfield in the country’s southeast region.

“At the tactical level, the P.J.s and the Army work seamlessly together,” U.S. Air Force Major Robert Wilson, the commander of the 83rd, says in the video. “It’s as we’ve been doing this for years.”

He’s not wrong. The squadron had conducted multiple joint training and other operations with active Army and National Guard personnel in Afghanistan prior to the decision to reorganize the unit. The Army also operates its own casualty evacuation helicopter elements in the country that likely coordinate at various levels with other services and foreign partners on a routine basis.

And given the increasing age of the HH-60G Pave Hawks and the growing strains on the Air Force’s combat rescue community in general, this more formalized partnership and division of labor made good sense for the tasks at hand in Afghanistan. But Wilson, as well as other members of the unit that the 1st Combat Camera Squadron interviewed for the production, also took the time to not only describe the Chinook as an adequate substitute, but praised it as a far more capable aircraft than their Pave Hawks.

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A US Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk.

“In this particular area of operations, in Bagram, … the Army Chinook is the best platform to conduct this mission,” Wilson says unequivocally. “We need that aircraft [the CH-47F] to get to places we couldn’t reach before.”

This is all particularly interesting to hear, especially from an official Air Force public relations video, given that the service had picked a variant of Boeing’s Chinook, the HH-47, as the replacement for its Pave Hawks back in 2006. Protests from Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky regarding the contracting process, combined with criticisms about the much greater operating costs of the larger aircraft combined to cancel that program.

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An artist's conception of the proposed HH-47 combat search and rescue helicopter.

There were also very real concerns about whether the Chinook could truly fulfill the mission, especially given its large footprint and the powerful downwash from its twin rotors. These features inherently limit where it can land and could pose a hazard to personnel in the landing zone, which is even more problematic for medics trying to provide immediate aid as the aircraft touches down.

The CH-47 does make up for some of the difficulties it might have fitting into confined landing zones by being able to balance itself on its rear two wheels while hovering to unload personnel and equipment in places where it cannot fully land. This maneuver, known as a pinnacle landing, has been particularly useful in Afghanistan's rugged terrain.

In Afghanistan, the CH-47 is apparently now getting a chance to shine in the role in spite of any of those limitations. One of the biggest issues for units operating out of Bagram is that it sits north of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, inside a valley surrounded by mountains thousands of feet of high. Any aircraft, fixed wing or helicopter, has to get through that obstacle even just to conduct relatively short range operations from the airfield.

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A US Army CH-47F Chinook attached to the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron flies over Afghanistan.

For helicopters, the problem is that high altitudes, as well as hot temperatures, can easily and dangerously degrade their performance. Depending on the weather, especially low cloud cover and fog, it can be equally risky to fly at lower levels through the mountains.

Even beyond Bagram’s immediate vicinity, much of Afghanistan is equally mountainous and can experience high temperatures in the summer months. It can be a foreboding region for helicopter operations, even though the lack of roads and canals down below often make it the most rapid and effective method of traversing the country.

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Members of the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron load onto a US Army CH-47F on top of a snow-covered mountain in Afghanistan during a training exercise.

“If somebody’s up in the mountains and they need to be hoisted out of the mountains because there isn’t a suitable landing zone, their [the Army’s CH-47F] aircraft actually has the power to hold a stable hover,” one of the 83rd’s pararescuemen, who the Air Force did not name for operational security reasons, explains.

“With the Chinook having as much power as it does, it allows us to reach very high altitudes without the degradation of the power margin that most other tail rotor aircraft experience as you go up in higher altitudes,” an unnamed Army CH-47F pilot attached to the squadron adds.

Those features have long made CH-47s a workhorse for both conventional and special operations in Afghanistan. In 2017, Ed Darack, photographer and author of The Final Mission of Extortion 17, shared his own experiences with the helicopters while he was embedded with American troops in Afghanistan with us at The War Zone, writing:

“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-canceling 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 CH-47’s carrying capacity and the large amount of physical space within its main cabin are also major benefits for the joint squadron, according to Wilson and the other interviewees. These features would translate more readily to combat search and rescue operations more generally, too.

“Mass casualty operations is [sic] an inherent risk that takes place within Afghanistan,” Wilson says. “What’s nice about the -47 is I can pick most of those folks up all in one trip.”

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Pararescuemen from the 83rd Expedtionary Rescue Squadron treat a mock patient inside a US Army CH-47 during a training mission.

The ability to carry larger numbers of patients reduces the total number of aircraft necessary for rescue and casualty evacuation missions. It also potentially speeds up how fast the unit can get those individuals back to Bagram for more intensive care, which in turn improves the likelihood that medical professionals will be able to save their lives or otherwise prevent lasting injuries.

In addition to potentially being able to rush wounded service members back to hospitals faster, the Chinook provides space for better in-flight treatment, as well. “The space that the -47 allows us gives the P.J. more room to operate around the patient to give care,” Wilson notes.

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A US Army soldier mans a machine gun on the tailgate of one of the CH-47Fs attached to the 83rd Rescue Squadron in Afghanistan.

Whether or not non-stealthy helicopters of any kind will be able to perform combat search and rescue missions at all in a future high-end conflict, where low-observable aircraft will be necessary to penetrate in areas full of integrated air defenses and advanced combat aircraft, is a growing question. There will still definitely be a need for these units in more permissive environments, though.

“As long as anybody’s on the ground and aircraft are flying overhead, rescue is needed within Afghanistan,” Major Wilson says. “Period.”

In 2014, the Air Force finally settled on the newer HH-60W variant from Sikorsky – now part of Lockheed Martin – as the Pave Hawk replacement. The first of those helicopters are supposed to begin flight testing later in 2018 and production aircraft will hopefully begin reaching units sometime in 2020.

Lockheed Martin

An artist's conception of the HH-60W.

Those aircraft can’t come fast enough, as the HH-60Gs are steadily showing worrisome signs of their age. The oldest of those helicopters that remain in service first rolled off the production line in the 1980s and are now suffering structural failures.

Though the exact cause of that incident remains under investigation, the Pave Hawk community did suffer a major loss in March 2018, with the crash of an HH-60G near the Syria-Iraq border that killed all seven individuals on board. The 1st Combat Camera Squadron dedicated the video on the 83rd to the crew of that aircraft, which was using the callsign Jolly 51 at the time.

But even when the HH-60Ws come online, if the comments from the 83rd in Afghanistan are any indication, there may be some in the Air Force’s combat search and rescue community who are still pining for the power and capacity an HH-47 could have offered, whether it would be overkill for typical missions or not.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com