While going through some old photographs the other day I came across several from a training exercise that I participated in back in 2005 on Fort Campbell. The base is home to the 101st Airborne and 5th Special Forces Group (where I later served) but 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment also resides there. At the time, I was in 3rd Ranger Battalion and our entire battalion was conducting a rotary wing training exercise, using the same helicopters we would have available in future deployments and running what were essentially rehearsals for the types of missions we were already running in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 160th pilots flew their helicopters just outside their compound into a large field were we would stage for training missions. The pilots started by introducing the airframe, the flying black egg of death, or more accurately a highly modified MD500D helicopter with a whole lot of special components that are made specially for 160th. The aircraft familiarization concluded and soon we got started.
I was in sniper section at the time and it was anticipated that the Little Birds would be used to insert us into objective areas to cover for Ranger assaulters or that we would be used as aerial platform interdiction, as we had just on my previous deployment. That is one of those experiences that you never really forget. Snap linking myself into the side pod of the helicopter, the pilot lifted off and we shot through the cold winter night. I can still remember hovering over and Afghan compound, watching through green tinted night vision with an SR-25 laying in my lap. The Rangers on the ground captured their high value target, making the pilot on my Little Bird a happy man as it was his last combat mission before he would go to train new pilots at the simulator after this.
Back at Fort Campbell, the pilots took us up for a ride and I managed to snap a couple pictures with my crappy disposable camera.
The next day we flew out to an area where the pilots practiced a number of different insertion techniques on urban training mockups, more hair-raising than others. First we had to learn how to fast rope from Little Birds. As Rangers, we were all well acquainted with fast roping from Black Hawks and Chinooks, but as snipers we may have to fast rope from the Little Birds if they were unable to land for some reason.
Because of the external pod that you sit on, there are some aspects of fast roping that are unique to the aircraft. The rope is tied off to a hard point above the pod, but then the rope rests against the side of the pod. If you just grab the rope and slide down, your hands will hit the lip of the pod and you’ll most likely lose your grip, falling 30 feet or so to the ground. On the other hand, fast roping isn’t so bad when it is just you up there rather than an entire Ranger platoon packed into a MH-47.
Another insertion technique I learned for the first time that day was when the pilots explained that they might not always be able to land directly on a rooftop because of obstructions, like radio antennas for example. If this was the case, the pilots could gently ease the front of the skids to a rest on the lip of the roof. Rangers (0r operators) on the external pods would then scoot their way forward and actually climb down off the aircraft to the roof for a successful insertion.
A quick word about the pilots. These guys are fucking magicians with these aircraft. I’m sure the unit costs the military a ton of money but it is taxpayers’ money well spent. I flew with 160th on all three of my combat deployments overseas and was always impressed. Some people on Fort Campbell believe the Night Stalker pilots to be arrogant or cocky. Listening to an MH-60 pilot brag about mission’s success can give one that impression, but based on my observations, I can say that these guys can usually back up that cockiness with actual performance.
While we were having fun with the Little Birds, the rest of the battalion was preparing for full mission rehearsals. One of the training exercises saw me and another Ranger I knew driving a ATV off the back of an MH-47 Chinook to drive around and seal off the objective area. That was a fun one, although driving an ATV into the darkened hull of a MH-47 under night vision goggles wasn’t that easy. The crew chief also told me that if I ran him over that he’d have an axe handle waiting for me!
Now it was time for the big one the guys had been preparing for, a helicopter assault force mission which would hit an abandoned prison somewhere outside Nashville. A Ranger company was going in, breachers carrying broco torches to burn through prison doors. Overwatching the assaulters, would be several sniper teams that were to be inserted onto a rooftop by the little birds.
It was night-time as we prepped for the mission. Myself and another sniper who I’ll just call M were going to be on the Little Bird. I had the .300 WINMAG bolt-action sniper rifle and as I recall M had the SR-25. When it was time for us to roll, M and I snapped into the aircraft and the pilot lifted off. Turning the aircraft, we shot off into the dark. This pilot was hauling ass. I had flown on Little Birds before, but I had no idea that these things could fly that fast. The wind was so bad that it my .300 WINMAG was acting like a giant sail and pushing me around on the pod. Eventually, I leaned back into the aircraft behind the pilot’s chair and held on for dear life.
After about an hour of flight, the pilot slowed and we maneuvered down to our insertion point. The skids touched down on the prison roof with a slight bump. We unsnapped from the pods and dashed away from the aircraft. A second later, the pilot lifted off and the Little Bird disappeared into the night. The pilots and our own senior leaders had timed all of it amazingly well. On a large-scale mission like this, there are a lot of things that have to happen in sequence or at the same time in order to maintain surprise, speed, and violence of action.
The assaulters were soon in the courtyard below us, burning their way through external doors, and assaulting the entire compound. I took a knee at the corner of the building and set up overwatch for the assaulters where I would be in a position to shoot any bad guys who were trying to kill fellow Rangers. Or at least I would have been, if this had been an actual mission and I had actual ammunition.
At one point, a simulated VBIED screamed down the road on my left hand side. Pivoting the long black barrel of the WINMAG, I worked the bolt and pulled the trigger to “kill” the driver. Of course the driver kept coming and exploded his bomb in front of us. This is the frustrating thing about training exercises, the cause and effect chain is broken. You take action, but there is usually not a realistic reaction.
With the objective secured, the Rangers began exfiltrating off the objective. Our Little Bird was inbound so M and I were up on a knee next to each other waiting. Now, all along it was very clear that I was to be on the Little Bird’s left pod while M was to be on the right pod. However, when the pilot brought the helicopter back to the roof top and set down, M ran straight for the left pod. I figured he got confused, which wasn’t a big deal. I would just adjust by running around the front of the helicopter and jumping on the right pod. When I scooted around the front bubble of the helicopter and arrived at the right pod, I saw that M had attempted to crawl through the tiny cramped compartment behind the pilot’s seat to reach the right pod where he belonged.
The compartment is not intended for human passage in the first place and in this case it was loaded with the fast ropes in case we needed them to get on the objective. M had become completely entangled in the fast rope and was going nowhere fast. He looked up and spotted me before yelling, “Murph! What the fuck!” M then climbed back to the left pod and we both snapped in. M was a terrific guy and I really enjoyed working with him so don’t get me wrong, but this particular story is pretty funny. It’s not as if I didn’t have my share of fuck-ups either.
One would come years later when my ODA and an Iraqi SWAT team was being infiltrated onto a street in Mosul, Iraq. I foolishly thought we had landed and jumped out of the MH-60 Blackhawk. To my surprise, I was in freefall for a what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a second before a crashed down on the pavement and fell on my face.
Arriving back at the circus tents we were staying in at Campbell, we did an After Action Review and began breaking things down for transport back to Fort Benning where our battalion was stationed. It was a hell of a good exercise and I was happy with the results. One of the big criticisms to come out of Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 was that there was never a full mission rehearsal involving all of the different units and elements participating in the operation. This led to difficulties while working in a joint environment when the operation was green-lit.
Thankfully, this was a lesson that Special Operation Forces learned well and was not going to repeat if they could help it.