Night Stalkers!

The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment was formed initially as Task Force 160, as a result of the debacle at Desert One during Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue Americans held hostage by Iran. The failure of helicopters in that raid convinced the Army, and more importantly, Special Forces, that they needed an aviation unit dedicated to the support of special operations.  With their modified versions of the Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters, as well as the MH-6 and AH-6 Little Birds, the 160th SOAR provides special operations units the ability to deliver forces at long range at night or in bad weather. The Night Stalkers are probably best known to the public for their losses in the Battle of Mogadishu, made famous in the movie Black Hawk Down.


In addition to providing transport, the 160th provides fire support on the ground with AH-6 Little Birds, and with a modified MH-60L know as the Direct Action Penetrator, or DAP. Armed with forward firing miniguns, 30mm cannon, and 70mm rocket pods, it can unleash a hail of fire to support ground forces.


Big Changes Ahead for Army Aviation?

The Army had industry partners propose an Armed Aerial Scout based on existing, in production helicopters recently to look for a replacement for its OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet. The results were not particularly impressive.

And so now, it seems Army Aviation may just get out of the armed scout business.

US Army leaders are considering scrapping its entire fleet of Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, while pulling the National Guard’s Boeing AH-64 Apaches into the active-duty force to fill the scout helicopter role as the Army seeks to fulfill its longer-term requirement of a newly developed armed aerial scout, according to several Army and defense industry sources.

The plan also calls for giving active Black Hawk helicopters to the Guard, while taking half of the Guard’s Lakota fleet, using them as active-duty trainers and scrapping its Jet Rangers.

While a final decision has yet to be made, the industry sources had the impression that the deal was all but done.

This is a fairly huge realignment of the aviation master plan. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago the OH-58D was thought good enough that the 82nd Airborne’s organic attack helicopter battalion was composed solely of Kiowas.

And as the article notes, the National Guard isn’t going to be eager to give up its Apaches to the regular Army (and all those Guard units flying Apaches each have two Senators and at least one Representative who can be counted on to ask Big Army to justify itself in excruciating detail).

Further, if all attack helicopter capability is vested in the regular Army, where will the attack helicopter support for activated National Guard divisions come from?

The article also mentions retiring the TH-67 trainer (basically a Bell Jet Ranger 206) with UH-72A Lakotas again stolen from the Guard and Reserves. Frankly, I’m not sure how much money that would save. Ordinarily, necking down the total number of types of aircraft flown is a money saving measure. But the UH-72, while cheap to fly for its mission, is still going to have much higher operating costs than the TH-67.

Short Landing – Turbo Caribou

Last Saturday we braved the weather to watch an airshow.  The show included a pair of skydivers jumping from a Turbo-Caribou.   My son loves watching the jumpers run through the stunts.  But I don’t get excited since they closed out my DA 1307.   The rest of the show was rain-shortened.  But I did get a short video of the Turbo-Caribou landing in the cross-wind.


Brings to mind another topic of discussion.  Brad and I pontificated some months back about the Army’s attempts and failures to obtain fixed wing CAS from the 1950s through today.  There’s another story line there too – the Army’s parallel efforts to field a in-theater cargo plane.

Leesburg Air Show 033

The Turbo-Caribou is a descendant of the most successful of the solutions offered.

Leesburg Air Show 011

The Turbo-Caribou is for the most part a re-engined civilian version of the original DHC-4 Caribou.  The original Caribou used two 1,450 hp Pratt & Whitney radial engines, which the “turbo” replaced with turbo-prop engines (duh!).

The Caribou’s first military customer was the US Army.  Initial deliveries came after the prototype assessments in 1958. The DHC-4 met the Army’s requirements for a Short Take-off and Landing (STOL) aircraft which could operate on rough airfields, providing cargo support inside a theater of war (and not to interfere with the intra-theater roles supported by the Air Force).

Originally designated AC-1 then CV-2, with the establishment of the DoD designation system the Caribou became the C-7.  The Army purchased around 160 of these Canadian-built aircraft.

The Caribou’s combat debut was during the early phases of US involvement in Southeast Asia.  There it proved extremely useful.  But with success came political problems.  Anticipating the need to expand the force, the Army asked for more fixed wing pilots.  This, along with the success of the C-7 in Vietnam, attracted attention from the Air Force.   After the Johnson-McConnell Agreement of 1966, the Air Force got the C-7s (and the rather promising C-8 Buffalo program was dropped).

The Army retained a handful of C-7s for special uses.  One example at the Army’s Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis supported the Golden Knights parachute team.  But aside from those limited numbers of C-7 the Army had to make do with a handful of UV-18 Twin Otters until acquiring Short C-23 Sherpas (initially in the 1980s these were second-hand ex-civilian types, again only for limited roles).

10 July 11 701

Other users of the DHC-4/C-7 included Australia.  One of those Aussie DHC-4s with the original engines shows off in the video below.


As I watch the Caribou, I can’t help but think about what could have been if the Army had retained more than a limited STOL cargo capability through the 1970s.

The Army’s Quest for its Own CAS – Part 4

At the end of the last post on Army close air support (CAS) developments from the early 1960s, I mentioned one last attempt by the Army to secure an organic fixed-winged CAS capability.  This effort occurred concurrently with the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) tests, but had strong political backing.

To some degree, the Army’s tests with fast forward air control (FAC), attack jets, and VTOL from 1960 onward were spurred by interest from President John F. Kennedy to improve the arm’s capability in mid- and low-intensity conflicts.  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara became a strong proponent for army aviation, as he factored ways to increase mobility and potency of the conventional forces.  McNamara merged two schools of thought with regard to Army aviation – those calling for more helicopters and those who wanted improved fixed-wing assets.  The former, involving the genesis of the airmobile concept, deserves full treatment in another post.  Regarding the later, I’ve given a cursory overview of the Army’s experiments with armed fixed-wing aircraft, but keep in mind also the procurement of some very capable theater transports in the time period.

In 1962, McNamara created a “Tactical Mobility Requirements Board” under Lieutenant General Hamilton Howze.  Commonly referred to as the “Howze Board,” the board’s main focus soon became air mobility.  As part of the airmobile concept, the Howze Board explored ways to use both rotary- and fixed-wing platforms to provide direct support.    Keep in mind that man of the jet-turbine powered helicopters (such as the UH-1,  just entering service in the early 1960s, so board members viewed that platform with potential, but had to consider the limitations of the airframes on hand.  But in 1962, the Army did have quantities of a short take-off and landing (STOL) observation plane with a weapons capability.

The Grumman OV-1 Mohawk came from a joint service project.  At the time the Army needed a replacement for the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog observation aircraft, and added the need for sophisticated sensor payloads (infa-red and radar in particular).  The Navy and Marines also wanted an observation plane, but required an armament payload.  After several years of design work, the Marines dropped from the project with concerns for the elaborate electronics packages associated with the sensors.  Air Force pressure made the Army drop any armament requirements.  So when the type first entered production in October 1959, the OV-1 was an unarmed observation plane… that happened to retain all the necessary “plumbing” to be armed.

OV-1A Mohawk

For those not familiar with the Mohawk, the aircraft possessed incredible rough field operating abilities.  Early Mohawks nearly reached 300 mph, but its empty weight of 11,000 pounds required a waiver to pass the Pace-Finletter memo restrictions.  And of course with that waiver, the Air Force insisted the OV-1 should not carry weapons – despite operating over the combat zone and possessing the ability to carry 3,200 pounds of external stores!

When Howze Board issued its recommendations (some sources say fall 1962), it projected a requirement for 24 fixed-wing attack aircraft in the airmobile divisions, 8 in each conventional division, and additional numbers in “separate aviation brigades.”  Of the aircraft available for this role, the board eyed the OV-1’s neglected weapons capability.  As the board’s findings circulated among decision makers, the Army secured approval for a “concept demonstration” of the enhanced airmobile concept, which would include Mohawks flying CAS.  Working with a team of Navy experts, the Army outfitted OV-1s to drop delayed fuse 1000 pound bombs using the two hard-points on the production aircraft.  Although very successful, the Air Force eyed the development with suspicion.

Encouraged, the Army sent fifty-four OV-1As back to Grumman for installation of six underwing pylons, sights, and other equipment to facilitate the CAS mission.  Re-designated JOV-1A, the armed Mohawks carried .50-caliber machine gun pods, rockets (either 2.75- or 5-inch), 500 pound bombs, and flares.  Just like that, the Army had its fixed-wing CAS.

With the involvement in Vietnam becoming more and more important, the Army sent six JOV-1As with the 23rd Special Warfare Aviation Detachment to Southeast Asia for operational tests.  With supportive and vocal responses from the field, the Army soon dispatched more armed Mohawks to Vietnam.  This move met with support again from McNamara, who felt any aircraft in the combat zone should be armed.  While somewhat fuzzy, the video here captures some of those armed Mohawks in operation.  Check out the crew loading the rockets:


But this proved to be the gilded hour of Army fixed-wing CAS.  By 1965, the Air Force had enough of the tests, demonstrations, and operational deployments of armed Mohawks.  Aside from the Army butting into the airspace with armed planes, the Army was also calling for more pilots to support anticipated expansion of the force.  The two services compromised with the Johnson-McConnell agreement in 1966.  Under those terms, the Army gave up both organic fixed-winged CAS and theater transport.  Not only did the Army give up the armed Mohawks, options on the “in the works” AV-8 Harrier, but also the most capable Caribou (CV-2 or C-7) and Buffalo (V-7 or C-8) transports.  While the Air Force gained ascendency over the fixed-winged CAS role, the Army retained all options for rotary-winged attack, assault, and heavy transport.

Under these arrangements, the Army retained the armed UH-1 gunships then employed in Vietnam.  The Army also proceeded with the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS), with the leading candidate being the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne.  Calls from field commanders prompted the Army to procure an interim AAFSS, which came to be the Bell AH-1 Cobra.  I’ve not seen such in writing, but the official designation of that helicopter, retaining the “1” of the Huey line, seemed a paper hedge against Air Force interference.  In the end, the AH-56 proved too much, too fast, and the Cobras became the Army’s attack helicopter until replaced by the AH-64 Apache.

AH-56 - Biggest Cost Overrun Until the Sgt. York!

The Air Force, now “stuck” with the CAS role in a war that required “down and dirty” CAS, found its supersonic fighters insufficient for the job.  Several interim types entered service to include the A-37 attack jet and the F-5A fighter, both tested by the Army in the search for CAS (other aircraft used included A/B-26 Invaders from World War II and A-1 Skyraiders from the Navy).  The Air Force’s CAS role breathed life into the Light Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LARA) which eventually produced the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco.  It also birthed the A-X requirement, issued in 1966, for a purpose built CAS aircraft to be flown by the Air Force in support of the Army.  After a fly-off competition in 1972, the Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt entered production.

A-10 all Dressed Up

And that brings us right up to the current state – the Army with an excellent rotary-winged attack helicopter, but dependent upon the Air Force for fixed-wing CAS.  Only now the airframes have much more flight hours than anticipated and there is no replacement in sight.

The Army’s Quest for its Own CAS – Part 3

In the first two posts, I discussed the Army’s efforts to develop an organic close air support (CAS) capability.  In spite of restrictions, the Army considered jet-powered forward air control (FAC) aircraft, which looked very much like fully capable attack aircraft.  This met, as expected, with resistance from Air Force leaders, who judged the Army’s jets an unwanted encroachment the junior service’s mission.

Looking back for a moment to Pace-Finletter of 1952, the Army had one other loophole to exploit:  “The provisions of this memorandum are not intended to apply to convertiplane-type aircraft, nor will this agreement be interpreted to prohibit the continuing research, development and testing of such aircraft for the Army.”

And what is a convertiplane, you ask?  That would be a fixed-winged aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL).  Sound familiar?  If not, that soon will.

Through the 1950s, the Army experimented with several designs, some radical and others more conventional.  None of those types did much more than test theories.  Among those experimental types was this odd contraption:

A joint Air Force-Army project, the Avro Canada built the VZ-9 AvroCar by reverse-engineering a crashed UFO recovered from Roswell…. um… NOT!  Don’t believe what you hear on the History Channel.

This advanced demonstrator leveraged a pair of conventional jet engines turning a central turbine, with airflow bleed off to the disk edge for control.  The “wing” in this case was of course a rounded disk.  The craft was a great subject for concept diagrams.  Impressive eye-candy for the Popular Mechanics audience for sure.

But the project flopped due to control and stability problems.  Probably for the better.

Other convertiplane testbeds offered less radical departures.  A joint project with the Navy and NASA, the Vertol VZ-2 used a tilting wing to offer VTOL capability.

The Fairchild VZ-5 of 1959, continued the tilting wing concept.  This ugly contraption that only an aerospace engineer could love lead to cleaner designs.

Fairchild : VZ-5 (M-224-1)

The Bell V-3 introduced tilt-rotor concept, leading to today’s V-22 Osprey over several decades of work.

But none of these prop-driven convertiplanes, even with refinement and better power plants, offered much in the way of speed and weapons payload.  Thus the Army looked at other technical innovations for a possible convertiplane FAC, which might eventually offer a CAS capability.

The Air Force had already tested some promising jet VTOL aircraft in the late 1950s, notably the Ryan X-13 and Bell X-14.   The X-13 simply landed on its tail, while the X-14 used an early thrust redirection system.  But neither option overcame the technical limits of that time, and the Air Force dropped further refinement.  Then in 1961 the Army Transportation Research Command, jumped on board and ordered two different jet VTOL types for concept evaluation.

In contrast to the ungainly looking prop-driven convertiplanes, the Lockheed XV-4 Hummingbird appeared trim and streamlined.  The Hummingbird used a duct system for the jet exhaust, augmented with cold air through intakes.  Exhaust ports in the nose, tail, wingtips and central fuselage provided lift and control.  The type actually did fly, in 1962, as seen in the video here (with bonus crash scene at the end!)


But the thrust ducting system failed to provide a useful thrust to weight ratio, limiting the Hummingbird to little more than a concept testbed.

More promising, but more complex, the Ryan XV-5 Vertifan diverted jet exhaust to a set of fans in order to provide vertical lift (actually similar in concept to the AvroCar above).  After the first flight in 1964, the Army tested the Ryan fan-jet for several years.


The fan-jet system worked fine in practice.  Indeed the principle foreshadowed the system used on the F-35 VSTOL variant.  But the setup took up too much room in the small airframe, detracting from any potential combat load.

But, to the chagrin of the Air Force, the Army’s interest with VTOL jets did not cease with the two limited experiments.  In 1962, the US entered a joint project with England and West Germany involving the Hawker-Siddeley P.1127 Kestrel VTOL jet.  Hawker built the Kestrel around a British requirement for an attack aircraft operating close to the front lines from unprepared locations.  The Kestrel used a specially designed Pegasus thrust-vectoring engine for both vertical lift and horizontal thrust.  Although the video below fails to mention such, two Army pilots (along with one Air Force and one Navy pilot) joined those from the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe in a multinational test squadron in 1965-66.


Although very successful during the tests, only the RAF dropped orders, with the service type becoming the Harrier GR.1 (entering service in 1969).  West Germany opted to pursue a domestic VTOL design, which ended up stillborn.  But the US agencies opted for further tests and refinement.  Designated XV-6A, seven Kestrels arrived in the US for more evaluations.  Eventually the Air Force and Navy dropped their participation, citing existing programs which met operational needs.  The Army remained very interested, administering the additional tests.  But eventually, demands from the growing war in Vietnam and pressure from the Air Force pushed the project to closure.

At the close of the last post, I made light that the Army, with no small external pressure, passed on some conventional jet types – each of which proceeded to accumulate very impressive service records with other services and countries.  In the case of the “convertiplane loophole,” the Army passed on a very capable VTOL jet which went on to serve the RAF, Royal Navy, USMC, and other nations with distinction.  One must wonder if the Army had deployed Harriers in the late 1960s and retained that capability beyond the Cold War (as the USMC did), if the situation, with regard to air support, might differ today.

Concurrent with the fast FAC evaluations and the VTOL jet testing, the Army pursued one additional approach to fixed winged CAS.  I’ll turn to that chapter next.

The Army’s Quest for its Own CAS – Part 2

Looking back again at the the Army’s efforts to develop a close air support (CAS) capability during the Cold War.  As mentioned in the first post, in the mid-1950s the Army considered an organic fixed-wing CAS resource but remained constrained by policy.  Skirting the rules in some ways, the Army first stepped up development of helicopters.  When further constraints limited those options, the Army considered jet powered forward air controllers (FAC) as an option.  After testing the T-37 trainer jets, the Army acquiesced to Air Force pressure, but continued to pursue the FAC/recon requirement in at least three separate attempts.   Now I have never seen indications that Army leaders purposely set out to “wear down” the Air Force, or for that matter even deliberately attempted to evolve FACs into a CAS capability through some deception.  But considering that many airframes tested from 1961 to 1966 were plumbed to carry advanced weaponry, perhaps someone from the Army’s side of the E-Ring had some grand plans.

The first attempt at a credible combat jet came in 1960 when the Army, citing a capabilities shortfall, announced a test program for a fast FAC and tactical reconnaissance platform. In 1961, those tests included two Douglas A4D-2N Skyhawks, two Fiat G.91Rs, and a Northrop N-156F.

The Skyhawks came from Navy stocks, differing from standard production with double wheel main landing gear. Of course in 1961 the A-4 (as it was later re-designated) was already becoming a classic aircraft in the hands of Navy aviators and Marines.

Germany loaned two Fiat G.91s, then just entering service as the new “standard” NATO attack jet of the period. The jet was designed from the start with forward airbases in mind.  Unfortunately, during tests at Fort Rucker in 1961, one of the two Fiat jets crashed.

The Northrop N-156F was a fighter derivative from the Air Force’s T-38 supersonic trainer, also just then entering full service. The lone N-156F was one of two tested – but rejected – by the Air Force.  The N-156F offered many advanced construction techniques. But of most interest to the Army, Northrop incorporated many features to simplify field maintenance, to include easy engine removal.

The Army’s tests at Fort Rucker continued through 1962.  But under pressure from the Air Force, the Army abandoned any follow-up requirements and returned all the surviving jets.  Normally I’d detail the particulars for each of these jets, comparing performance and weapons loads.  But since none of these progressed beyond testing, the numbers are only useful for hypothetical discussions.  However, I’d be remiss not mentioning the subsequent service histories of these three types.

The A-4 earned an enviable reputation over Vietnam as a agile, reliable and rugged attack aircraft.  The “Scooter’s” faced the most imposing air defenses ever deployed (both over Hanoi and the Middle East) and survived.  Like it predecessor, the A-1 (or AD) Skyraider, the A-4 carried an impressive warload, enabling many modifications and enhancements over the years.

The Fiat G.91 remains somewhat overshadowed on this side of the Atlantic.  The type sat on NATO’s front lines for some thirty-five years.  But their only combat service occurred in the hands of Portuguese pilots in African colonial actions. Yet the G.91s also earned a solid record of reliable peacetime service in several allied air forces.

Having lost both initial Air Force interest and the Army’s attention, Northrop persisted with the N-156F.  The project received a reprieve in 1962 when President Kennedy, with an eye to arming allies, directed the Air Force to develop a low-cost alternative to the “century series” fighters.  The resulting F-5A differed in a few details from the prototypes.  Over the next forty years the F-5 armed many NATO and allied nations (and remains out there to this day).  But operationally the US Air Force flew only a token force, mostly to prove the type’s validity in front line service.  US F-5s saw more use as dissimilar aggressor opponents for both Air Force and Navy training programs.

Thus all three of the aircraft tested by the Army in 1961 served long and successful careers – but not in US Army colors.  Had the Army purchased any of the three types in quantity, no doubt the airframes would have served with distinction.  If there was a fault in the evaluated types, it was their similarity to Air Force fighter jets of the day.

But concurrent to these attack jet tests, the Army was pursuing a radical concept that greatly differed from the Air Force’s fighter jets – VTOL.  I’ll discuss that next.

The Army’s Quest for its Own CAS – Part 1

Earlier Esli made a very astute comment as to what the ground commander needs for fixed winged Close Air Support (CAS):

1. emphasis on CAS within USAF or change the service proponency of the mission
2. operate a/c from rough or austere fields; the same places US Army aviation already operates, and the USMC at least says it is willing to do. (And does in Iraq.)
3. Buy the aircraft, develop appropriate weapons and TTPs, and transition the pilots.

His points are on target, in my humble opinion.  Indeed, I uttered similar observations in the past – particularly advocating for the Army to attain a true fixed-wing CAS capability.  Further, I’d wager if one searched through the archives … say… back to 1953… the same or at least a similar list existed, also penned by veteran combat arms officers in the aftermath of the Korean War.

The Army left the Korean War with pile of lessons learned (or re-learned), and a fixed winged aircraft inventory featuring the Cessna L-19 “Bird Dog” (later designated the O-1 under the tri-service designation system).

Cessna L-19 O-1 Bird Dog__3143

Simple and rugged, the Cessna design continued the basic high-winged, STOL and rough field capable aircraft dating back to World War II.  The “Bird Dogs” served well as liaison and observation platforms.  But the only real “payload” carried were light arms or marking rockets.  During the Korean War the use of airborne artillery observation posts became much more dangerous as jet aircraft made their presence known.   While the Cessna birds were fine for light work like the observation and fire direction tasks, the Army sought something better – that might actually fight back.

At the same time complaints about CAS procedures in Korea began echoing around the Army’s higher ranks.  In some minds the solution was, harkening back to World War II, an Army controlled “tactical air command” assigned to field armies.  After all, the Marines maintained their organic fixed-wing CAS capability.  But within the framework of the Department of Defense, the Army lacked the authority to form such organic capabilities.  And the Air Force was at the time preoccupied with strategic bombing, tactical nuclear strike, and air defense.  The Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding (1952) limited the Army to fixed-wing aircraft under 5000 pounds and only for specific roles.  But the Army could operate helicopters with very few technical restrictions, and began exploring those options.

So through the mid-1950s, the Army worked to improve and make the most of rotary-winged aircraft of the day.  But even that hit a brick wall in 1956 when Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson further delineated the role and restrictions on Army aviation.  Retaining the 5000 pound limit on fixed-wing, Wilson added a 20,000 pound limit on helicopters.  He further limited Army aviation to four roles:

  • liaison and communications
  • observation, artillery spotting, and topographical survey
  • forward area airlift (both cargo and personnel)
  • medical evacuation

Wilson expressly denied the Army any role in CAS. Not only did this quell ideas about fixed wing Army attack jets, it also slowed the development of attack helicopters as the “air cavalry” concept matured.

However, under the guise of communications support and observation roles, the Army could operate forward air control (FAC) aircraft in a limited capacity.  If policy prevented the Army from purchasing attack aircraft, at least the service could field FACs that might pace the Air Force’s fighter-bombers.  While not “on the books” as attack aircraft, perhaps such jet powered FACs might toss a few bombs and eventually evolve into a CAS asset.  Towards that end, the Army tested three Cessna T-37 trainers in 1958-9.

Cessna T-37

The T-37, of course, was just entering Air Force service as a jet trainer at the time (and served in that role up to 2009!).  Tests impressed the Army.  But of course they were comparing the “Tweety Bird” to the old prop planes.  And the type did weigh under 5000 pounds empty.  Needless to say, the Air Force didn’t like this in the least.  So the Army returned the T-37s to the Air Force  (and bear in mind the Air Force later used the A-37 derivative in Vietnam, perhaps proving the wisdom of the Army’s tests).  But the proverbial camel’s nose was under the tent.

Over the next five years, the Army proceeded down three, somewhat distinct, paths in the effort to secure fixed-wing combat aircraft.  Please allow me the liberty of discussing those different courses in detail over a series of posts.