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Crew members from a Black Hawk helicopter, left, hook up to a Chinook during a fat-cow refueling exercise in the Kuwaiti desert.
Crew members from a Black Hawk helicopter, left, hook up to a Chinook during a fat-cow refueling exercise in the Kuwaiti desert. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait — Two Black Hawk and three Apache helicopters swoop down out of the darkness at a barren spot in the desert, their running lights out so the enemy can’t see them.

Waiting silently are two ungainly CH-47 Chinooks, their cargo holds each loaded with two spare 200-gallon fuel tanks. A thick hose runs from the fuel tanks, then splits into a Y.

The Black Hawks and Apaches hop into place like birds at a feeder, as soldiers swarm around to refuel them, relying on radar and pilots’ night-vision goggles to avoid each other.

Each sips just enough fuel to complete its mission and get home safely. Minutes later, all the helicopters lift off, leaving the desert once again silent.

This is the Army’s answer to aerial refueling.

It’s called a “Fat Cow” because that’s what the big Chinook looks like as it sits in the sand. Pilots from several Germany-based units practiced the skill in Kuwait over the weekend.

“You can put a gas station in enemy territory,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Sam DeNardi, a Black Hawk pilot with the Giebelstadt-based 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment. “For a short period of time, it’s relatively safe.”

Fat-Cow refueling is essential for the deep-strike missions V Corps attack squadrons will carry out if they go to war with Iraq.

AH-64A Apaches from the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment and AH-64D Longbows from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment will be hitting targets far outside of their normal cruising range. They’ll be accompanied by Black Hawks from the 5th Battalion.

Back in Germany, the skill is practiced only occasionally. Even deep-strike training missions usually are flown relatively close to home. The German countryside, with sleeping villages close together, doesn’t offer many locations for the demanding nighttime drill.

Fat-Cow work in the daytime isn’t especially difficult, pilots say, but at night it’s another story.

Night-vision goggles, which greatly magnify existing light, don’t work especially well in the desert because there are so few light sources. At night, the job puts helicopters, fuel and soldiers with limited vision all in close quarters in the dark.

“It’s much more difficult in this environment than in Germany or Poland,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shawn Holmes, 29, of Lynchburg, Va., a 5-158 Aviation Black Hawk pilot. “Any time you’re flying under goggles, it’s graduate work.”

Refuelers such as Staff Sgt. Curtis Johnson, 30, of Crossett, Ark., say they practice Fat-Cow drills frequently, so even night work doesn’t bother them much.

“We know where the hoses are, and we can link them up,” said Johnson, the noncommissioned officer in charge from Company F of the 159th Aviation Regiment in Giebelstadt. “It’s like second nature to us, because we do it so much.”

Johnson said his 20-soldier unit — currently at the 35th Kuwaiti Air Force Brigade base west of Kuwait City — is ready to gas up a Chinook and go anywhere, anytime.

“Fat Cow is an on-call thing,” he said. “My team can be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”


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