Working Paper high, hot and heavy: the ch-47 chinook in combat assault operations in afghanistan

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Working Paper



Peter W. Connors, PhD





Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction………

Chapter 2: A Brief History of US Army Air Assault Doctrine……..

Chapter 3: Operation ANACONDA Would Not Have Occurred Without the Chinook…….

Chapter 4: High/Hot/Heavy Combat Air Assaults in Afghanistan 2002-2006……..

Chapter 5: High/Hot/Heavy Combat Air Assaults in Afghanistan 2007-2011……..

Chapter 6: Conclusion……..


Suggested List of Photographs……….



Chapter 1


The Expanding Role of US Army CH-47 Chinook Helicopters

“There sits the workhorse of the United States Army,” said Major General William T. Crosby, pointing to a CH-47F Chinook helicopter on the ramp at the Boeing Rotorcraft Systems facility in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. “Everyone wants more,” Crosby – US Army Program Executive Officer, Aviation – noted during ceremonies celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Chinook’s first flight.1 Leanne Caret, Boeing Vice President of H-47 Programs, later remarked “Chinooks plays a non-stop critical role in delivering people, equipment, and supplies to difficult areas.”2 Because of their ability to function effectively in high density altitude environments and to carry up to 50 fully-equipped Soldiers, CH-47s were increasingly utilized for combat air assaults in both Operations ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) and IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF). For their size, Chinooks are fast and agile, have power to spare even when operating at maximum gross weight, and can “drop off a huge amount of fighting power in one swoop.”3

In Afghanistan, for example, inadequate roadways, mountainous terrain, and the threat of IED attacks and ambushes, dictate that a significant percentage of personnel and equipment be transported by air. In such an environment, Chinooks have become a critical asset in both logistical and tactical operations. Because of the CH-47’s exceptional performance characteristics in high altitude/high temperature conditions, its mission profile has expanded to include air assaults, troop insertions, medical evacuations, and search/rescue operations. As a result, the number of tactical missions undertaken by Chinook crews has increased steadily, since other helicopters are often unable to operate effectively in the high/hot conditions typically encountered in Afghanistan. “We have documented missions above 16,200 feet [and] any mission above 10,000 feet in Afghanistan is going to be operated almost exclusively by a Chinook because of the stability and the additional payload,” explained Mark Ballew, a 20-year veteran CH-47 pilot with combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq and Boeing’s current Director of Business Development for Chinook Programs.4 Chinook pilots flew some of the first OEF combat assault missions during Operation ANACONDA, as six CH-47s ferried 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division Soldiers to blocking positions in the Shahi Kowt Valley.5

Since the 1980s, the UH-60 “Blackhawk” has been the US Army’s designated combat assault mission helicopter. Chinooks were relegated to transporting supplies and equipment. In Afghanistan’s high altitude operating environment however, the CH-47, with its superior useful load, greater service ceiling, and higher shaft horsepower engines, became the most reliable means of reaching locations in mountainous terrain. For these same reasons, plus the fact that Chinooks carry more troops and fly farther faster, Army commanders in Afghanistan soon realized that CH-47s could also serve effectively as combat assault aircraft. Since a single CH-47 can carry 40-50 fully-equipped combat Soldiers, one Chinook can successfully perform air assault missions typically requiring four or five Blackhawks.6

This Long War Occasional Paper is a comprehensive review of the US Army’s use of CH-47 Chinook helicopters in OEF combat assault operations. The study will cover the period 2002-2011, focus on conventional forces only, and tell the story of how the CH-47 is tactically employed beyond the scope of its original role as a rear area transport aircraft. The rationale for this expanded role, the associated planning, and the preparations/training undertaken by US Army heavy helicopter units will be described in detail. Successes, failures and other pertinent observations will also be addressed and analyzed. To the extent possible, this paper will rely in first hand data obtained through interviews with heavy combat aviation brigade, battalion, and company commanders, staff planners at the US Army Infantry School, representatives from the CH-47 Program Office at the US Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), personnel from the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, and Boeing Rotorcraft Systems management team members; and from CH-47 unit After Action Reports available at AMCOM. As has been clearly demonstrated in Afghanistan, superior performance specifications make the CH-47 Chinook the aircraft of choice for combat assault operations in high altitude/high temperature environments.

CH-47 Chinook – History, Development, Specifications, and Performance Characteristics

Early Experimentation with Rotary Wing Concepts

Mankind’s fascination with rotary wing flight dates back more than two centuries to the Chinese invention of light-weight flying devices that mimicked falling maple tree seeds.7 Not until 1483 did Leonardo da Vinci, inspired by Archimedes’ water-screw, design the first semblance of a helicopter-type flying device, referred to alternatively as a helical air screw, an aerial screw, or an air gyroscope.8 In the margin of da Vinci’s design drawing were instructions noting that the helical component of the craft be covered with linen “made air tight with starch [and] rotated with speed that said screw bores through the air and climbs high.”9 Due in all likelihood to the lack of an adequate contemporary power source, Da Vinci never built his flying machine.10

During the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists and inventors experimented with various methods for increasing the aerodynamic efficiency of rotor systems and with the development of light-weight, more powerful, engines. In the United Kingdom, for example, Sir George Cayley built flying models driven by rubber band-like devices and by clock-spring winding mechanisms. Horace Phillips successfully flew small-scale steam powered machines that vented the steam from the craft’s rotor blade tips. In 1861, Henry Bright patented a uniquely configured model that featured two contra-rotating, co-axial, rotors mounted on a single vertical drive shaft.11

In France, former secretary of the French Aeronautical Society, Emmanuel Dieuaide, built several steam-driven, twin rotor prototype systems; and Viscomte Gustave de Ponton d’Amecourt, who first coined the term ‘helicoptere,’ experimented with steam power engines and counter-rotating rotor blades. Meanwhile, German scientist Wilheim von Achenbach developed the tail rotor concept to counteract main rotor torque and Russian electrical engineer Alexander Lodygin conceived of the gyrocopter concept that utilized a rotating main rotor for lift and a standard airplane propeller for thrust. In 1878, Italian civil engineer Enrico Forlanini built a small steam-powered helicopter with dual counter-rotating rotors (similar to those of a CH-47) that flew to an altitude of 40 feet. Finally, Thomas Edison built model helicopters to test primitive internal combustion engines and electric motors as potential power sources in the United States.12

Twentieth Century Rotary Wing Developments

During the early 20th century, continuous improvements in the power-to-weight ratios of gasoline fueled, internal combustion, reciprocating, engines made the prospects of genuine rotary wing flight more practical and more promising. In 1921, the US Army awarded a classified contract to Dr. George de Bothezad to design and build an experimental helicopter. The ‘Flying Octopus,’ with four rotors and a single 180 horsepower engine, was first flown in December 1922 by Army Colonel Thurman Bane.13 Companies with familiar names in helicopter aviation – Sikorsky, Piasecki, Hiller, Kaman, and Bell – subsequently emerged and began developing a wide variety of rotary wing aircraft for testing and evaluation. Progress in helicopter design progressed in Europe as well. One notable example is the first effective twin tandem rotor machine built in 1933 by Nicolas Florine. Although both rotors on Florine’s helicopter turned counter-clockwise, they were tilted in opposite directions to help counteract torque effects.14 Success of the Florine tandem rotor concept eventually led to the Piasecki Helicopter Company’s design, development and production of the tandem H-21 ‘Flying Banana’ helicopter and ultimately to the Boeing Rotorcraft Systems’ CH-47 Chinook.

Piasecki and Tandem Rotor Systems

In 1940, Frank Nicholas Piasecki, an aeronautical engineering graduate of the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics at New York University, formed the PV Engineering Forum with his partner Howard Venzie. The Forum concentrated initially on single rotor/tail rotor helicopters, but in 1945, the company built the first US overlapping twin tandem rotor helicopter, called the PV-3 ‘Dogship’ and designated the XHRP-1. PV Engineering became the Piasecki Helicopter Company in 1946 and went on to build larger, more powerful, tandem rotor helicopters such as the H-21 and the HUP. Collectively by 1959, the US Air Force and US Army had purchased 535 H-21 A, B, and C models – the H-21Cs having been designated ‘Shawnee’ by the Army. Piasecki also built 339 HUP helicopters for the US Navy, US Army (H-25 ‘Mule’), and the French and Canadian navies. Success of the tandem rotor concept transformed the helicopter from a small aerial observation vehicle to an aircraft with a wide variety of military, commercial, and humanitarian applications. Piasecki Helicopter Company was renamed Vertol Aircraft Corporation in 1956, after Frank Piasecki resigned following a lengthy reorganization dispute.15

Emergence of Boeing-Vertol

Throughout the remainder of the 1950s, Vertol Aircraft continued developing tandem rotor helicopters. Following acquisition in 1960, Vertol became a division of the Boeing Company. Subsequently, the Boeing-Vertol Model 107, with two powerful gas-turbine (turboshaft) engines, was purchased by the US Navy/Marine Corps and designated the CH-46 Sea Knight. By 1990, 601 Sea Knights had been produced and delivered to the Marines. In roughly the same timeframe, the US Air Force, on behalf of the US Army, issued a contract to Boeing-Vertol for the development of a prototype medium lift transport helicopter, described interchangeably as Model 114 and/or the YHC-1B. Before test and evaluation was completed, Boeing-Vertol began receiving orders for production versions of the Model 114, designated initially the HC-1B, and by 1962, the CH-47A ‘Chinook.’ The maximum gross weight of the new Chinook was an impressive 33,000 pounds, and later versions of the CH-47A were configured with dual Lycoming T55-L-7 turbine engines rated at 2,650 shaft horsepower (shp) each. The first CH-47A was delivered to Fort Rucker, Alabama in 1962, and by the following year, the Chinook was declared the Army’s official medium transport helicopter. A total of 354 CH-47A helicopters had been built by Boeing-Vertol as of May 1967, when the upgraded CH-47B model entered service.16

Chinook B and C Models

Boeing only produced 108 B model Chinooks before shifting production to the CH-47C at the end of 1967. The CH-47B provided better performance, increased payload, and improved stability over and above the original A models. The more powerful 2,850 shp T55-L-7C turboshaft engines, for example, raised the aircraft’s maximum gross weight to 40,000 pounds and increased cruise speed from 110 to 140 knots. Deliveries of the CH-47C began in 1968 and once again this model offered improved performance characteristics beyond those of previous models. Chinook C models were designed to meet a newly established Army requirement for transporting a 15,000 lb. payload, over a distance of 30 miles, in temperature conditions up to 95° F, and at an altitude of 4,000 feet. Upgraded Textron Lycoming T55-L-11C engines, rated at 3,750 shp, increased the C model’s maximum gross weight to 46,000 lbs. and extended the cruise speed to 150 knots. Eventually, Boeing-Vertol manufactured 270 CH-47Cs between 1968 and 1980. 17

Chinooks in the Vietnam War

All three versions of the Chinook – A, B, and C models – performed admirably during the Vietnam conflict. CH-47s participated in night combat assaults, conducted countless resupply missions, sling-loaded artillery pieces, and became indispensable in the establishment and maintenance of dozens of fire support bases. Chinooks crews sprayed Agent Orange and dropped napalm and tear gas on enemy facilities and troop concentrations. During the course of the war, Chinooks also recovered more 10,000 downed fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. In 1966, four Chinooks were converted to ACH-47As gunships that were configured with armor protection and a formidable assortment of weapons systems, including M-75 40mm grenade launchers, M-24 A1 20mm cannons, XM-159 2.75 in. forward firing rocket pods, M-18E1 7.62mm Miniguns, and M2 50 cal. or M-60D 7.62mm machine guns. In support of combat operations during 1967, ACH-47s delivered devastating fire power on enemy targets. However by 1968, three of the four gunships had been lost in accidents or to enemy action. With only one ACH-47 remaining, the large armed helicopter gunship program was discontinued in favor of the less expensive AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter initiative.18

Modernized D Model Chinooks

Following the Vietnam War, production of Chinooks decreased significantly. In 1976, Boeing-Vertol began modifying and upgrading CH-47 A, B, and C models under an Army contract designed to increase the aircraft’s reliability and maintainability, while reducing overall operating and support costs. Modernized Chinooks, with 3,750 shp Textron Lycoming T55-L-712 engines and a maximum gross weight of 50,000 lbs., were designated CH-47Ds and began entering the Army inventory in 1982. During Gulf War I, D model Chinooks participated in the largest aerial combat assault in history as US and Allied forces outflanked and cutoff Iraqi soldiers retreating from Kuwait. CH-47Ds were also utilized extensively in Operations JOINT ENDEAVOR, PROVIDE COMFORT, ENDURING FREEDOM, and IRAQI FREEDOM. A total of 447 CH-47D helicopters were produced by Boeing-Vertol between 1982 and 1995.19

Special Operations Chinook Configurations

Beginning in the 1980s, Boeing converted 12 A and C model Chinooks to MH-47Ds. The MH series aircraft were designed for special operations missions conducted by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) headquartered at Fort Campbell, KY. Typical special operations missions often involve extended range, high-speed, night flights conducted in adverse meteorological conditions at both extremely high and/or low (nap-of-the-earth) altitudes. Boeing went on to produce 26 upgraded MH-47E and 62 MH-47G models. All of the G models were built from reconfigured CH-47D, MH-47D, and MH-47E aircraft and incorporated highly sophisticated satellite navigation/communications equipment, countermeasure systems, long-range fuel tanks, inflight refueling capability, terrain-following radar, Near Real Time Intelligence Data (NRTID), and more efficient/more powerful T55-GA-714A engines. Further discussions of MH series Chinooks and special operations will be limit since the focus of this Long War Occasional Paper is restricted to conventional US Army operations only.20

Introduction of the CH-47F Series

The most recent addition to the Chinook lineup is the CH-47F series. The US Army Modernization Program specifies a total of 464 F model Chinooks – 220 newly built and 244 remanufactured from retired CH-47Ds. First delivery of the F model occurred in late 2006, and the aircraft was officially certified combat ready by July 2007. As of yearend 2011, Boeing had produced and delivered to the Army approximately 160 CH-47 F helicopters. These newest Chinook models are configured with a variety of significant upgrades, such as all glass cockpits incorporating Common Avionics Architecture Systems (CAAS) and Digital Advanced Flight Control Systems (DAFCS), along with two Honeywell T55-L-714A (4,733 shp – nearly double the rating of the original CH-47A) engines, vibration-dampening fuselages, and modernized cargo-handling equipment. The many impressive performance characteristics of the Chinook F model include a 170 knot cruise speed, a 200 nautical mile mission radius, a service ceiling of 20,000 feet, a useful load of 24,000 lbs., and a maximum gross weight of 50,000 lbs. As the Army’s only heavy-lift transport helicopter, the advanced multi-mission CH-47F is scheduled to remain in inventory well into the 2030s. Several Boeing Rotorcraft Systems executives have speculated that the CH-47 Chinook may remain in the Army fleet for a century or more.21



Chapter 2


Cavalry and I Don’t Mean Horses

Current US Army doctrine defines an air assault operation as a vertical envelopment in which “assault forces, using the mobility of rotary-wing assets and the total integration of available firepower, maneuver to engage enemy forces or to seize key terrain.22 During the mid-1950s, the concept of combat assaults using helicopters increasingly intrigued senior level Army leadership. The US Marine Corps, using six-passenger H-19 Chickasaws, had experimented with the unique capabilities of helicopters in tactical situations and with vertical envelopment techniques during the Korean War.23 In 1954, the Army’s interest in heliborne operations mounted with the publication of “Cavalry – And I Don’t Mean Horses,” a journal article by Major General James Gavin. Having personally witnessed the limitations of airborne and glider operations during World War II, Gavin believed that cavalry-type operations could be effectively implemented using helicopters to transport Soldiers into battle. To demonstrate the concept, he theoretically inserted helicopters into war-gaming studies at the Army Command and General Staff College to show how the speed and maneuverability of the aircraft could significantly improve tactical results.24

Joint Exercise Sagebrush

As the Army’s G-3, Major General Gavin continued to pursue his vision of tactical helicopter operations, noting that “to win decisively and quickly in future limited wars, the Army needed substantial forces of sky cavalry.”25 During Joint Exercise Sagebrush in 1955 at Fort Polk, Louisiana, much of Gavin’s sky cavalry concept was validated. Soldiers from the 82d Airborne Division formed a provisional sky cavalry troop consisting of a reconnaissance element, a blocking force, an artillery/anti-tank group, and an aviation platoon. On several occasions, sky cavalry Soldiers using helicopters successfully infiltrated behind opposing force lines to gather valuable intelligence information unavailable by other means. The mobility and flexibility of Army helicopters was clearly evident during Sagebrush, as the aircraft routinely operated from improvised landing zones throughout the designated battle area.26

Air Assault Doctrine Initiatives

At the same time Exercise Sagebrush was evaluating helicopters as a means of transporting sky cavalry on the battlefield, Brigadier General Carl Hutton, commander of the US Army Aviation Center (USAAVNC) at Fort Rucker, proposed the development of an Armed Helicopter Mobile Task Force to fight along-side the sky cavalry. “In one case we would have an air transported Army, and in the other case we would have an air fighting Army…the time has come for the Army to consider its aviation needs with a fresh eye,” Hutton explained in Army Aviation Digest.27 In 1957, Hutton’s replacement as USAAVNC commander, Major General Bogardus Cairns, and his staff rewrote a 1936 horse cavalry field manual (FM 2-5) to create a training handbook entitled New Tactical Doctrine that reflected the sky cavalry advancements developing at Fort Rucker. Cairns also established a provisional Aerial Combat Reconnaissance Platoon that, after several re-designations, eventually deployed to Vietnam as the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry. Finally in 1958, the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth published FM 57-35, Army Transport Aviation Combat Operations, in which the phrase ‘air landed operations’ described the expanded sky cavalry concept.28 A subsequent version of FM 57-35 revised the nomenclature again to ‘airmobile operations’ – those in which “combat forces and their equipment move about the battlefield in aerial vehicles under the control of a ground force commander to engage in ground combat.”29

Army Aviation Assessments and the First Deployments to Vietnam

In 1960, advancements in Army aviation continued with the establishment of an Army Aircraft Requirements Review Board led by Lieutenant General Gordon Rogers, Deputy Commanding General of the Continental Army Command. The Rogers Board Report – Army Aircraft Development Plan – presented a series of recommendations regarding observation, surveillance, and transport aircraft. Included in the Board’s proposals were the purchase of UH-1 Iroquois/Huey and CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and the continued feasibility testing and evaluation of the airmobile operations concept. This later recommendation was addressed in an addendum, entitled “Requirements for Air Fighting Units,” to the Rogers Board Report which was written by Lieutenant General Hamilton Howze, Commanding General of the Strategic Army Corps and the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg.” Howze argued that air cavalry units, equipped with their own aircraft, could successfully fight both dispersed traditional enemy forces in conventional/European-type conflicts and less-formidable opponents in small brush fire actions, such as the one intensifying at the time in the Republic of Vietnam.30

Meanwhile, Major General William Westmoreland, commanding general 101st Airborne Division, centralized control of the division’s disjointed aviation assets under the newly formed 101st Combat Aviation Battalion (Provisional), the first such unit authorized by the Army.31 Then in the fall of 1961, General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) suffered from a serious lack of mobility in the growing Vietnam conflict. As a result of Maxwell’s assessment, the 8th and 57th Transportation Companies (Light Helicopter) deployed expeditiously to Vietnam. On 11 December, the USNS Card arrived at the port of Saigon with 400 Soldiers and 32 Piasecki H-21 Shawnee helicopters from the two transportation companies. Less than two weeks later, 30 Shawnees participated in the first airmobile combat operation in Vietnam – Joint Operation CHOPPER, in which 1,000 Vietnamese paratroopers were airlifted into position for a surprise attack on a Viet Cong stronghold near the village of Duc Hoa. The 93d Transportation Company (Light Helicopter) from Fort Devens, Massachusetts also deployed to Vietnam, arriving aboard the USS Princeton at Da Nang on 25 January 1962. Airmobile operations and combat air assault tactics soon became routine in the Vietnam War, with H-21 Shawnees initially, then H-34s and UH-1s pioneering the effort.32

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