Five Decades After Evacuating The Embassy In Saigon The CH-46 Phrog Did It Again In Kabul

Comparisons between the evacuations of the embassies in Saigon and Kabul are unavoidable and the CH-46 was there for both historic operations.

CH46 State Department
US Army

A striking photo of a CH-46E Sea Knight flying over the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul this week occasioned immediate visual and emotional parallels with the Fall of Saigon, nearly fifty years ago. It turns out that the images and helicopters are not only similar, but they possibly involve some of the same aircraft that flew in Operation Frequent Wind, the mission to evacuate Americans and others from Saigon at the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1975. Regardless of if this is the case, it is amazing that the CH-46 is still doing this type of mission nearly half a century after Saigon fell and years after the U.S. military officially retired the type from service.

Eagle-eyed observers on Twitter were quick to note that at least one of the helicopters seen flying over Kabul could match one seen in Vietnam-era photos from the deck of the USS Hancock during its mission to rescue as many people as possible from Saigon.

US Army

Department of State Air Wing CH-46 Phrogs approaching a landing zone in Afghanistan. 

The Bureau Number (BuNo), a serial number applied to all aircraft that the U.S. Navy purchases regardless of their ultimate recipient, on one of the helicopters in the photo could read 154038, matching a CH-46E that was indeed transferred to the State Department as N38TU in 2012. If accurate, at least one Sea Knight may have participated in both historic evacuations.

The Phrog's Past

Nicknamed the “Phrog”(or Battle Phrog) by a Marine Corps major due to its frog-like appearance from the front, the CH-46 Sea Knight was originally procured by the Marines in 1961. Exactly why Marines used the “ph” has apparently been lost to time. Whatever the origins of the spelling, the “Phrog” moniker is apt in more than one regard. 

Joop van Bilsen / Anefo -Wikicommons

V-107 prototype in 1961. The V-107 would become the H-46. 

The operational concept of the Phrog dates back to the post-World War II era when the advent of atomic weaponry led war planners to be wary of massing amphibious forces in one place. Instead, their strategy was to engage in “vertical envelopment,” using helicopters to leapfrog enemy defenses. Though the attacking force would be weaker in numbers, it would be highly mobile and avoid large concentrations of men and equipment that could be targeted with weapons of mass destruction. 

The Phrog went on to be a vital asset in various ensuing Cold War conflicts. The primary utility of the helicopter came from a new design that utilized turbine engines instead of a reciprocating power plant, and a tandem-rotor configuration that could handle heavy loads at appreciable speeds and altitudes. The CH-46 can accommodate three to five crew with seventeen additional passengers and has a maximum lift capacity of about 12,000 pounds. The top speed of the helicopter is 165 miles per hour.

By the late 1960s, the Marine Corps, through the Department of the Navy, had acquired over 400 of the CH-46 Sea Knights. The increased capacity, rear ramp configuration, and speed of the helicopter made it highly valuable as a utility-transport helicopter, but its size posed a significant vulnerability. Over a third of all Sea Knights were lost in Vietnam, with 109 brought down by hostile fire.

Still in widespread Marine Corps use at the time, the CH-46 played an important at the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1975. After fixed-wing evacuations were stymied by rocket and mortar fire, helicopters were used by Marines to evacuate American personnel and Vietnamese refugees to ships positioned in the South China Sea.

In the desperate closing days before the fall of Saigon, more than 50,000 people fled the city by air. As the North Vietnamese gained more territory, the conditions of the evacuation became more dire. A raid on a South Vietnamese airport led to helicopters needing to fly out to the waiting fleet to refuel. As logistics became more complicated, chaos and confusion grew. 

During Operation Frequent Wind, 71 helicopters flew over 650 sorties between Saigon and elements of the Seventh Fleet off shore. The high operational tempo led to some accidents, with a CH-46 flown by Captain William Nystul and First Lieutenant Michael Shea crashing into the sea after a night mission, killing both men. The enlisted crew survived the accident, but the bodies of the two pilots were never found.

Further complicating matters, South Vietnamese military pilots flew helicopters, as well as small aircraft out toward the American ships in hopes of reaching salvation. Famously, photographs captured chaotic moments aboard U.S. Navy carriers as sailors and Marines pushed Vietnamese helicopters overboard in frantic attempts to make room for incoming aircraft. Over 40 helicopters were pushed into the sea during the operation.  

U.S. Marines in Japan

Vietnamese UH-1 Pushed Overboard During Operation Frequent Wind

Ultimately, the CH-46 played a pivotal role in saving the lives of more than 7,800 people in the helicopter airlift portion of the closing chapter of the Vietnam War. 

The CH-46 Sea Knight continued to be a mainstay of American airpower long after Vietnam. Speaking to Marine Corps Times in 2012, Marine Corps Colonel David Walsh, previous manager of the Corps’ CH-46 program at Naval Air Systems Command explained, “the CH-46 has really been the backbone of the Marine Corps medium-lift, assault-support fleet. They have participated in every engagement the Marine Corps has since they were introduced back in Vietnam.” 

Indeed, the CH-46 played a role in Grenada, Beirut, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq again, and, of course, Afghanistan. Over their service lives, most of the helicopters were upgraded from earlier variants into CH-46E models, which included the use of fiberglass rotor blades and reinforced airframes, among other improvements.

USMC

Phrogs refueling at a FARP during the war in Iraq.

It is also important to note that the CH-46 was not exclusively a Marine Corps platform. H-46 variants were also flown by the Navy for utility-transport and search and rescue roles. Versions of the Sea Knight, and its commercial analog, the Boeing Vertol Model 107, were also flown by the nations of Japan, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. 

A New Chapter In Afghanistan With The Department Of State

Dan Stern

An Air Wing CH-46E in Afghanistan

The Marine Corps ultimately scheduled the final sundown of the CH-46 fleet for 2016, as the service transitioned to the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor. However, 17 of its CH-46E helicopters got a new lease on life when they were transferred to the Department of State in 2012. 

The helicopters were assigned to the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL. Despite the Bureau’s primary focus on counter-narcotics operations, its Office of Aviation, or INL/A, better known as the Air Wing, is responsible for conducting a wide array of missions in support of American diplomats and U.S. allies and partners around the world. The State Department maintains a significant inventory of aircraft, including fixed-wing planes, helicopters, and small drones, which are all contractor-operated and that you can read about here.

In Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, the Air Wing has operated formalized charters services, collectively called Embassy Air. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft tasked to support the Embassy Air mission in both countries have ferried personnel between the U.S. Embassies in Baghdad and Kabul and various other sites for years, among other duties, which you can read more about here. In Afghanistan, the CH-46Es became the primary Embassy Air platform, taking over for various models of Sikorsky S-61 and supplanting plans to acquire a fleet of modernized S-61T helicopters, a program that encountered significant difficulties

Since then, the Phrogs have proven themselves to be effective and reliable in State Department service. As part of the transfer of the helicopters from the Marines in the first place, the Sea Knights had undergone extensive overhauls. Colonel Walsh explained to Marine Corps Times at the time that “all the wires get taken out. They are really broken down to bare metal and components, and it is really reworked to almost new condition.” 

USN

The DOS Phrogs were deeply reworked with their cabins looking almost brand new once they were delivered for operations in Afghanistan.

The restoration of the helicopters presaged an extremely busy operational life in Afghanistan. For example, in Fiscal Year 2017 alone, the helicopters flew a total of 32,000 scheduled flights and 3,500 unspecified “special missions.” In recent years, the CH-46 has been the default way for the State Department to transport personnel between the U.S. Embassy and the airport, chiefly due to security concerns. The use of the expensive helicopters to transit a distance of a few miles has attracted controversy, particularly as the State Department relies on private contractors to operate the helicopters. 

One particularly high-profile mission was transporting former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a visit to Afghanistan. You can see a brief clip of his ride here, with a 7.62mm M240D machine gun prominently in view:

While State Department Sea Knights sometimes fly without weaponry, all of them retain their ability to be armed with M240D machine guns for self-defense. Additionally, all of them have missile approach warning sensors and flare dispensers to mitigate the risk of heat-seeking man-portable shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

US Army

Another one of Embassy Air's CH-46s, with the decoy flare dispensers visible under the forward fuselage and above the rear sponsons.

In recent months, the State Department has also begun operating ex-U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in Afghanistan in addition to the CH-46s.

Rapidly Evolving Circumstances

As the world watches the rapidly unfolding events in Afghanistan, difficult questions swirl around the evacuation of both US personnel and civilians from the war-torn country. Though the circumstances today in Kabul are markedly different from Saigon in 1975, there is an undeniable deja-vu like quality to the operation, which marked a low-point in American foreign policy nearly half a century ago. Vietnam too was a war that was not won, with the U.S. leaving in distress after the sacrifice of much blood and treasure.

Regardless, not only was the CH-46 once again involved in the evacuation operations, the last departure from the embassy in Kabul is believed to have been a CH-46:

Nearly 50 years after Saigon fell to the advancing North Vietnamese military, the aging Phrog is still providing support for the same vital mission: close out one of America’s long misadventures in a foreign land and convey as many Americans and allies to safety as possible. Remarkably, the same type of helicopter, and perhaps even some of the same aircraft, are creating new iconic images of an American retreat. 

Public Domain

A CH-46 evacuates personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Given the geography of Afghanistan and the very precarious security situation in Kabul, it remains unclear how the helicopters themselves will ultimately depart the country, or if they will at all. Unlike in Vietnam, there is no nearby fleet within close range waiting to receive them. As such, there will need to be enough spare airlift capacity and time to remove them, or they will need to be flown out of the country by making dangerous fuel stops on the ground. The alternative would be that they would be demolished in place. 

Like so many Americans and friends who helped the U.S. during the two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, hopefully, the Phrogs will make it out alive. At this point, some of them could be remarkable artifacts of two historic wars, albeit both of which are ones that Americans would like to forget.

Contact the author: Adam@thewarzone.com