Kiowas are heading stateside
November 14, 2004
FORWARD OPERATING BASE MACKENZIE, Iraq — Europe is about to see the last of its workhorse air scouts, the OH-58 Kiowa Warriors.
As part of its 2002 aviation transformation plan, the Army is transferring the 1970s-vintage reconnaissance helicopters from cavalry units in heavy divisions such as the Germany-based 1st Infantry and 1st Armored divisions to beef up OH-58 squadrons elsewhere.
It’s a part of the larger plan to reorganize divisions into brigades-sized “units of action.”
This spring, the 1st AD’s 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment will pack up its Kiowas, based in Büdingen, Germany, and ship them back to the United States. The 1st ID’s 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment’s birds will be wrapped up and shipped to the States when the division’s yearlong deployment to Iraq ends late this winter.
“There are a lot of us that have kind of grown up in the cavalry units. We’re a family,” said Maj. Michael McCurry, 37, of Mountain Home, Idaho, the 1/4 Cavalry’s deputy squadron commander. “It’s a sad moment for those of us who have cut our teeth that way.
“It’s the end of an era.”
The job of the small, fast OH-58s is surveillance, using a mast-mounted “eye” above its main rotor. The system includes a heat-imaging sensor, television camera, laser range finder and optical boresight system, according to the private defense Web site globalsecurity.org.
But the Kiowas also can carry a .50-caliber machine gun, rockets or missiles. The 1/4 Cavalry has found them useful in combat to flush out hidden pockets of insurgents or chase and destroy enemy trucks.
The unit has awarded 15 combat Air Medals to Kiowa Warrior pilots, including five with valor, said Capt. Nathan Springer, the squadron’s personnel officer. One pilot — Chief Warrant Officer 3 Almous Irby, 36, of Neptune, N.J. — has earned two valor awards.
After they are shipped stateside, the helicopters will be reconditioned. Most will then beef up the Kiowa Warrior fleets of two light-infantry divisions: the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.
In late spring, Troops D, E and F of the two cavalry squadrons will case their colors for the last time and be deactivated. Almost all of their 400 personnel will scatter to stateside units.
That’s tough news for Chief Warrant Officer 2 W. Lance Johnson, 29, of Brookeville, Md., a pilot with 1/4 Cavalry’s Troop D, whose Germany tour started just a few weeks before the unit flew to Iraq. He’d been looking forward to sightseeing in Europe.
“It’s a little disappointing,” he said. “But I’m going to Hawaii afterward, so that made the pain a little more bearable.”
While most pilots have been given their next duty assignments, the enlisted personnel have no idea where they’ll be going. They are eager to find out.
“Usually in the military, everything’s planned out so far in advance,” said Sgt. Luis Scheker, 28, of Kissimmee, Fla., a Kiowa Warrior mechanic in the 601st Cavalry Support Battalion, which is also affected by the move.
“In the [OH-]58 community, it’s pretty much chaos — controlled chaos.”
For a time, the reorganization will leave division cavalry units without any eyes in the sky.
“It takes away a really good, integral capability that the squadron commander has now,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Michael Nelson, 46, of Columbus, Ohio, and the 1/4 Cavalry’s flight operations officer. “They lose their eyes out forward. That’s the premise of the mission.”
Later, though, the cavalry unit will add an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle platoon. The radio-controlled aircraft is equipped with a camera that can fly high and quietly, McCurry said, without putting pilots at risk, all advantages over the aging Kiowas.
But, he acknowledged, it is not a perfect replacement.
“When you’re looking through a UAV [camera] feed, it’s like looking through a straw,” he said. “The UAV is never going to be able to replace the living, thinking, breathing pilot who has 360-degree situational awareness.”
Pilots and soldiers in the 1/4 Cavalry’s air wing are philosophical about the loss of their unit.
“It’s a sign of things to come,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Greg Koch, 35, of Cheyenne Wells, Colo., a Troop D pilot. “I think it’ll be a more efficient use of helicopters in the Army, with the new unit structure.”
“I’ll just turn a wrench somewhere else,” Staff Sgt. Max Cerna, 25, of Elmward Park, N.J., a Troop F mechanic, said with a shrug.
Sgt. 1st Class Norris Wrenn of Troop E is a bit more nostalgic.
“The aircraft going away, it’s like breaking up a family,” said Wrenn, 38, of Hampton Va.
But Capt. Dale Bond of Troop D is glad the Kiowas’ last cavalry mission is a combat one.
“It’s sad to leave Germany, because it’s such a great duty station,” said Bond, 24, of Pensacola, Fla. “But it’s going to be more memorable, knowing that you ended it like this, doing what you were trained to do.”