TOW Missile in Vietnam

Today, the US designed TOW missile is almost ubiquitous, being used by more countries than you can shake a stick at. It’s also in use by the Free Syrian Army rebels in that nasty little civil war they have going on.

But in 1972, the TOW was brand spanking new. The Army had its eye on the stupendous fleets of Warsaw Pact tanks in Europe, and wanted to get a good idea of just how well TOW would work, particularly mounted on a helicopter.

As it happened, the famous Easter Offensive of the Vietnam War broke out just about the same time that TOW was ready for operational testing. While we generally think of the Vietnam War as one fought by infantry supported by artillery in jungles or rice paddies, there was a shift in the Easter Offensive. The US had spent the years from 1964 to 1972 perfecting counter-insurgency warfare. But the the North Vietnamese Army in 1972 launched an entirely conventional, mechanized, invasion of South Vietnam. Large numbers of tanks, APCs and fleets of trucks supported the invasion. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam was ill equipped to deal with that mechanized threat. Only the prompt and massive application of American airpower staved off the invasion.

And one small part of that was the combat debut of TOW, mounted on UH-1B gunships.



The success of the interim XM-26 TOW armament system would inspire the Army to mount a similar system on its fleet of AH-1 Cobra gunships, which would be the primary attack helicopter in the Army fleet until introduction of the AH-64 Apache and its Hellfire missile in the late 1980s.


The Dunker

Pave Low John and I got to talking about underwater egress training for helicopter crews.


One of the dozens of training courses that rotary-wing aircrew have to endure during their career is underwater egress training, also known as the infamous “Dunker Training”. The initial course is usually a day of academics and pool training, with annual refresher training scheduled once a year, usually at the base swimming pool. The reason this training is so important is because a helicopter crew that crashes into the water will almost always survive the actual crash. It’s during the egress from the sinking helicopter itself that most crewmembers are killed. I used to fly with an older flight engineer named Pat Hogan who was the sole survivor of an Air Force HH-3 Jolly Green that drifted back into the ocean off Okinawa during night water operations. He doesn’t even remember how he got out, he just got lucky. So crashing in the water, especially at night, was a situation that crews needed to be trained and equipped to handle.


With regards to equipment, the Air Force provided LPUs and HEEDS bottles for any aircrew that planned to fly beyond autorotational distance from shore. If you flew from a base next to the ocean, though, you wore them on every mission. LPUs were collapsible water-wings that were inflated by CO2 cartridges when you pulled a lanyard. They were bright orange and would keep you afloat even while wearing all your flight gear. However, you had to wait until you actually egressed the helicopter before you activated your LPUs or you would most definitely go down with the sinking aircraft. The HEEDs bottle was nothing more than a miniature SCUBA bottle with a mouthpiece regulator that fit in a holster on your survival vest. If you hit the water, you placed the HEEDS bottle in your mouth and it would provide at least a minute or two of air while you got untangled and exited your newly converted submarine. With a HEEDS bottle, you stood a much better chance of getting out of the helicopter. However, all of this required that you not panic and stay calm during a very stressful situation. Hence the one-day block of hands-on training in a semi-realistic environment.

This video, titled “Seconds to Live”, was the official training video that the USAF has been using as long as I can remember for aircrew underwater egress training. I suppose the Army and Navy have their own videos, but this is the only one I saw during my twenty years as an aviator. There are plenty of other videos on Youtube that show aircrew going through the training in a controlled pool environment. The “Dunker” itself is just a giant beer-can with seats in it that is lowered into the water while it rotates upside-down (helicopter are top-heavy, due to the main gear box and the engines, and roll over as they sink). It wasn’t until I attended initial training at NAS Jacksonville that I realized that most people dreaded the “Dunker”.

Being lucky enough to grow up next to a lake in NC, I had grown up swimming, jet-skiing, water-skiing, white-water rafting, you name it. Outside of being a water-polo player, I was about as comfortable in the water as one could be. However, some of the people in my class were not very comfortable in the water (we even had a bunch of helicopter mechanics from Ft Rucker in my class that flat-out admitted they joined the Army because they didn’t like swimming. Oops). Let’s just say it is a good thing they have divers on duty in the pool to pull people out if they start panicking or they would have killed half the class. You have to do five egresses and the last two have to be with the lights off to simulate a night ditching event. I didn’t have any problems but I saw some folks absolutely freak out when they dropped the big can into the water with the lights out. They make you keep doing it until you pass, so everyone passed, in the end.

The refresher training for us was much milder, you sit in a floating cage made of PVC pipe and just unlock your simulated harness and get out of that, all in your friendly local base pool. I had heard that the Navy made their guys use the underwater egress simulator a lot more, being overwater to a greater extent than Air Force rotor-heads. The Air Force probably should have done that as well, but remember, we are talking about the Air Force here. No reason to make it too painful, right?

All in all, I kind of enjoyed “Dunker Training”, it was the kind of stuff I imagined doing when I was growing up and dreaming of being a military pilot. However, I can definitely see why people that were not strong swimmers would dread it and I commend everyone that went through the course without tapping out, even as they hated every second of it.

XBrad- It’s a very real world problem. Here’s a scenario. An H-46 conducting Vertical Replenishment from the USNS Spica loses an engine while lifting a sling load and in hover out of ground effect. It’s able to immediately ditch the sling load, and get over the water, but settles into the water. The normally amphibious Sea Knight should have been able to move forward into translational lift, but the failure of the belly hatch meant the cabin filled with water. Watch just how fast the helo sinks.


In this case, all crewmen escaped (using both their LPUs and HEED).

Coast Guard MH-65 Makes Precautionary Landing in Target Parking Lot, Kemah, TX

I don’t have any details on it, just came across the video on youtube. Looks like it happened last night.


Update: ’twas a bird strike. And my Coastie helo friend tells me that suspected/possible rotor damage calls for landing as soon as possible.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that struck a bird Thursday night made an emergency landing in the parking lot of a Target in Kemah.

The pilots landed around 8pm in the parking lot of a Target in the 200 block of Marina Bay Drive.

I’m glad the crew is safe.


Osprey APKWS

Aviation Week & Space Technology has the story, but it’s behind the paywall.

A Marine MV-22B fires an APKWS guided rocket during trials.

The APKWS is the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System. You have to look fairly closely to see the rocket leaving the pod mounted to the port cheek of the fuselage.

APKWS takes an unguided 70mm Hydra rocket. Hydra rockets are modular. There are various motor and warhead configurations that can be mixed and matched.  The APKWS is a guidance section. Unscrew the warhead from the motor section, screw the APKWS to the motor, and the warhead to the guidance section. Suddenly, you have a guided missile that’s very precise, and has a much longer effective range than an unguided rocket. It has a small warhead, but its quite sufficient to take out a truck, other unarmored vehicle, gun emplacement or similar target. And it is comparatively cheap, as opposed to say, a Hellfire missile.

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.