C-23 Sherpa: 'The aircraft that can' in Iraq
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq — Fourteen hours before takeoff, the operations center of the 171st Aviation Regiment, owner of the C-23 Sherpa, gets a call that absentee ballots must absolutely, positively get to an airfield southwest of Mosul.
Can it do it? Of course.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Jackson, operations officer, adds an extra stop on a planned flight to Mosul.
Throughout the evening, he’ll continue to change the cargo list: adding a needed box of blood for one stop and a crew of F-16 mechanics to another. Each time the phone rings, the mission can change.
“The Sherpa is the aircraft that can,” said Lt. Col. Steven Campfield, commander of the 6th Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, which includes the Sherpa company. “I would say the Sherpa has been the workhorse in this theater.”
It moves critical supplies such as blood, repair parts and ammunition to anywhere with an airstrip.
For safety, pilots fly low and fast, racing along at 200 miles per hour, 100 feet above ground or occasionally lower.
“We dodge power lines,” said pilot Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dave Smith. “We’re down there with the helicopters for the most part.”
Danger in a tin can
Back in the States, Sherpas have the same mission, moving small groups of people and medium-size cargo loads.
“All we really did was lift up, change the scenery and add the threat,” said Maj. John D. Boyer, company commander.
The threats, surface-to-air missiles, small-arms and indirect fire, force pilots to fly in a safety zone barely off the ground, a place many pilots have flown before.
“A lot of [flying] tactics are determined from reaching back in our brains to our helicopter days. Although you’re moving a lot faster than a helicopter, it’s not very different,” Boyer said.
At a low altitude, pilots use vision, not instruments, to navigate. Pilots and crew stand constant watch for wires, towers, hapless birds and anything suspicious on the ground.
“When we first got here, everything was out of the ordinary,” said Sgt. Eric Muse, flight engineer. “That was kind of unnerving.”
Very few Sherpas have been attacked and none have been hit. The speed and low flights mean that by the time the enemy sees the plane, it’s gone.
“You always worry about it, but you get used to it,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Ken Long.
It’s often the more banal obstacles that are a concern.
“When you’re going 200 miles an hour, a 3-pound bird can have a huge impact,” Smith said.
“All of us have hit birds,” Jackson added. “I’ve seen some birds do some really bad things. Large flocks of small birds, they look just like a big cloud in front of you.”
It’s low enough to see rocks and shrubs, and smiles —or not — on people’s faces.
“You can see their expressions, it’s great,” Muse said.
Pilots say flying low isn’t necessarily difficult but requires intense concentration and can tire out a crew quickly.
“It’s demanding at low altitude,” Smith said. “It’s physically demanding.”
And unlike during higher-elevation flights, crews can never take a breather and rely on autopilot.
On hot days, the cockpit can reach 130 degrees and the heat causes greater turbulence.
Out of the sky
Sherpas belong to the Army National Guard. They’ve been in use in the States for more than a decade but are now proving their mettle.
The aircraft came to the Army unexpectedly, said Dale Chrisenberry, company maintenance officer.
In the 1980s, Congress bought 12 from a company in Northern Ireland. The Army tried using them, then handed them to the National Guard. Congress bought a total of 44 for the Guard after they proved effective in moving people and cargo in the United States.
They served a limited role in the Persian Gulf War, moving cargo in the rear. For Operation Iraqi Freedom, they were brought in to Kuwait to take some burden off other means of transportation, Chrisenberry said.
To cut flying time and distance, the unit moved this year to Balad, a more central city in the country. From the hub there, pilots circle out to local airstrips, from Mosul in the north to Kuwait in the south.
The C-23 can move quickly around the theater and provide similar supply capabilities as the CH-47 Chinook.
“They needed something in the theater that could do what the Chinook does but with less down time for maintenance,” Chrisenberry said. “There’s nothing in the middle but the C-23.”
Sherpas move about a half million tons of cargo a month and have ferried 9,000 people in six months, Campbell said.
“We can move 200 pounds of blood to Mosul in two hours,” he said.
In July, with a day’s notice, the company raced blood and ammunition to Fallujah to replenish Marines fighting there.
Not built for looks
Most people are surprised when they see the boxy prop.
“That’s one thing we’re actually kidded about,” Chrisenberry said. “It looks like an antique.”
The planes, all about 20 years old, are made of aluminum boxes welded together. Inside, the ceiling is 6 feet high. They’re made cheap and are perfect for cargo.
“It’s a very durable aircraft. It’s not built for looks,” Chrisenberry said.
For passengers, the ride can be uncomfortable, particularly in summer when turbulent air builds at low levels, giving it more of a roller coaster ride than a cruising plane.
“It’s a trickledown effect,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jerry Baker. “Once one person goes, several go.”
The ride might be exhilarating or dreadful, depending on your constitution, but the aircraft is certainly memorable. So, too, is its function.
And it’s likely to play a role in the Army’s future inner-theater, midsize transportation plan.
“What we’re doing here is proof of concept,” said Boyer. “This is definitely going to change Army aviation indefinitely.”