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Farewell to Kiowa helicopters for Hawaii Army unit

OH-58 Kiowas are lined up and tied down in the wind tunnel on Wheeler Army Airfield in preparation for torrential storm conditions in this Aug. 2014 photo.

JESSICA DUVERNAY/U.S. ARMY

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 15, 2015

It's the end of the flightline for an Army scout helicopter that's flown out of Wheeler Army Airfield for at least 15 years.

The 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, flew its 25 OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam last week as the Army continues its divestiture of the armed reconnaissance choppers in a cost-cutting move, the service said.

"The OH-58 Kiowa Warrior is going to be taken out of the Army inventory," Maj. Anthony Freude, the divestment operation officer in charge, said in an Army-produced news story. "What we're doing here is getting these aircraft ready to get loaded into Air Force aircraft, and they are going to take them to their point of destination."

That destination is Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, an aircraft boneyard in Arizona. The future of the two-seat choppers may include availability for foreign military sales, the Army said.

The 25th Combat Aviation Brigade at Wheeler expects to get about 24 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters at some point as replacements that will be paired with unmanned aerial systems — the Army plans to utilize Gray Eagles and Shadows — for dual attack and scout roles.

"The plan and timeline are being worked at Department of the Army levels," said Lt. Col. Will Griffin, a 25th Infantry Division spokesman.

Griffin said he expects Shadows to be assigned to the combat aviation brigade, but their numbers and arrival are part of the bigger Army plan as well.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Clinton Hall, who has flown Kiowas since 2005, said he misses the scout helicopters already.

"Honestly, I was heartbroken during this last flight," he said of piloting the aircraft to Hickam last week. "You become emotionally attached to it, and a lot of that has to do with some of the combat time we've spent and working with the ground troops."

Hall, 38, from Mesa, Ariz., said he flew Kiowas in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He spent 2012 flying in Afghanistan, where the helicopters were outfitted with a .50-caliber machine gun and rockets or a Hellfire missile. The nimble choppers could support troops on the ground with fire or use a mast-mounted sight atop the aircraft to observe enemy fighters.

On one occasion, a rocket-propelled grenade fired at his helicopter exploded about 50 to 100 feet beneath him, but he luckily didn't take any shrapnel, he said.

"At that time, we were in the middle of trying to support a unit that was in heavy contact," Hall said. "That was the great thing about our aircraft — it was so durable and we relied on it so much and I could trust that aircraft to not fall out of the sky, that we would stay on station and support those guys until they said, ‘Hey, we're not taking fire anymore.'"

On Jan. 15, 18 of the Kiowas with the 2nd Squadron flew in formation off the coast of Oahu one final time. Most of the 400 squadron soldiers have since deployed to South Korea for nine months and will use helicopters there, the Army said.

After the deployment, pilots, crew chiefs and OH-58-specific mechanics will be transferred out and retrain with other airframes or go to another Kiowa unit, Griffin said. Other squadron members whose jobs are more general in nature will stay in the aviation brigade or be redistributed with the 25th Division, he said.

The divestiture of the squadron's Kiowas represents the third Army unit to go through the process, Griffin said. The other two were in Washington state and Alaska.

About 400 personnel are expected to be part of the new Apache unit when those helicopters arrive, Griffin said.

About 2,100 soldiers total are part of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade at Wheeler, which also has about a dozen CH-47F twin-rotor Chinooks and just over 50 UH-60 Black Hawks in various configurations, Griffin said.

A 1999 Army News Service story noted that Wheeler at that time was saying farewell to the AH-1F Cobra, the Army's first dedicated attack helicopter. The Cobras were to be replaced by 24 OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, the story said.

The Apache replacement is a component of the Army's "aviation restructure initiative" to take Apaches out of the National Guard for active-duty Army use while giving the Guard Black Hawks, retire OH-58s and replace them with the Apaches, and other steps.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that the changes, expected to result in $12 billion in savings, began with the divestiture of the Army's oldest helicopters, the fleet of OH-58A/C Kiowa Warriors and TH-67 training helicopters.

"We have not been successful in developing and fielding a new armed aerial scout aircraft for over two decades," Odierno said. "For more than two decades, our interim solution has been the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior."

The Kiowas served the Army well, he added, but to keep them flying would require an investment of billions of dollars, and "investing that sort of money in an aging platform simply does not make sense, if we have an option."

The AH-64E Apache will be teamed with drones primarily piloted by soldiers from ground stations, the Army said. But an Apache pilot could take temporary control of the unmanned system and launch missiles from the drones, the service said.

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