Afghan tour tested mettle of helicopter units
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — There are some similarities between southern Afghanistan and the Nevada deserts.
“I think we were probably ready for it more than most units,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dan Manciu, a member of the Oregon National Guard CH-47 Chinook pilot, who was part of a task force that included Nevada Guardsmen during a yearlong deployment.
But there’s dust and then there’s dust.
Manciu, who flew Huey helicopters in Vietnam, said “there’s no comparison” between Afghanistan and Nevada. “It’s much more dangerous here environmentally.”
And the pilots and crews on the Chinooks, UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64 Apaches that made up Task Force Storm had more to worry about than the terrain and weather.
“We weren’t ready for the RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and bullets,” said Staff Sgt. Dean Penrod, a member of the Nevada National Guard and a Chinook flight engineer.
Task Force Storm has consisted of Black Hawk helicopters from the 3rd Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment from Giebelstadt, Germany; Apaches from the 2nd Squadron, 6th U.S. Cavalry Regiment from Illesheim, Germany; and Chinooks from the Oregon, Nevada and Washington National guards. Six Black Hawk helicopters from the 68th Medical Company, made up of guardsmen from Hawaii and Alaska, rounded out the task force.
Crews from 3-158 already have left the country, and Apache and Chinook crews are ready to hand over their missions to counterparts from the 10th Mountain Division in the next few days.
Task Force Storm was half of Task Force Griffin, the Army aviation task force in country. But like the units on the ground in southern Afghanistan, those in the air have seen more combat in the last year than their counterparts to the north.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Thomas Higgins, an Apache pilot, said there were several times that firefights ended only because his helicopter ran out of missiles and bullets to fire.
“I’ve been in four really bad ones,” he said. All of them were in support of coalition forces on the ground.
“They have the most difficult job out here,” Higgins said, referring to members of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment from Vicenza, Italy, and Special Forces units in the area. “I can’t tell you how much we respect them and what they do.”
Manciu, Penrod and other members of the Chinook crews worked with ground-based troops more than they expected. Both said they had some training on landing troops in the middle of a fight. But Chinooks carried out more than 150 such deliberate assaults during their stint in the country.
“In some cases, landing right on the enemy,” Penrod said.
One of those cases proved to be fatal for the crew. On Sept. 25, Mustang 2-2 had just finished dropping off 30 soldiers. It was shot down while trying to leave the battlefield. All five crewmembers died.
“The [only] good thing about it was that 35 weren’t killed,” said Maj. Roger Capps, commander of the Chinook unit — Company D, 113th Aviation Regiment. “Unfortunately, five were. And they were our five.”
Another Chinook was lost when it caught fire after landing under enemy fire. The crew escaped. An Apache went down while training up north. Very few helicopters of any make made it through the year without taking at least one hit. But most were soon out flying again after getting patched up. Mechanics had enough to do without the bullet damage.
“They’ve done an amazing job keeping the aircraft in the air,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Kane, an Apache pilot and platoon leader with 2-6. “Really, they’re the backbone for us.”
Spcs. Timothy Brown and Thomas Haun, crew chiefs for the Apaches, said the work was accomplished by all of those on the ground pitching in to help.
“We’re assigned to an aircraft, but we work on all of them,” Haun said.
Capt. Michael Stone said the medical unit flew 357 missions over the last year, bringing 544 patients to medical care. Many of those were local nationals needing urgent medical care. Stone said none of the medevac helicopters had been hit.
“We’ve been extremely lucky,” he said.