Chinooks make historic 3,400-mile journey to Alaska

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — The sig­na­ture sound of the tan­dem-rotored Chi­nook was mul­ti­plied by four as Sor­tie 2 took to the ear­ly morn­ing air over Hunter Army Air­field in Savan­nah, Ga.

A new CH-47F Chi­nook heli­copter flies high above the Alcan high­way in Cana­da, dur­ing a fer­ry trip from the south­ern U.S. to the inte­ri­or of Alas­ka. A riv­er can also be seen far below, wind­ing its way through the North­ern Rocky Moun­tains.
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The new heli­copters had been flown to the air­field just a cou­ple of weeks ear­li­er in mid-March from the Boe­ing pro­duc­tion facil­i­ty in Philadel­phia. And though new, the heli­copters were far from shiny; their mid-toned, flat green paint was well-designed to offer con­ceal­ment against ter­rains in the­ater oper­a­tions where most F mod­els would fly. 

It was now April, and the Chi­nooks were depart­ing on what would like­ly be the longest mis­sion they’d like­ly ever be tasked to do; fly from the east­ern seaboard of the south­ern U.S. all the way to Fair­banks, Alas­ka. Once in Alas­ka, the new F mod­els would be turned over to the avi­a­tors of the 1st Bat­tal­ion, 52nd Avi­a­tion Reg­i­ment, 16th Com­bat Avi­a­tion Brigade. 

The mis­sion sound­ed easy enough. 

But the near­ly 3,400 nau­ti­cal mile route to Alas­ka would take almost two weeks with mul­ti­ple fuel stops and overnight breaks for the crews along the way. They would be trail­ing in the wake of Sor­tie 1, also con­sist­ing of four new F mod­els and a com­bined crew of about 22, by just a day. The sor­ties were sep­a­rat­ed by at least a day so that some of the small­er air­fields used along the way would not be over­ly taxed in terms of fuel­ing capa­bil­i­ties or ramp park­ing spaces. 

Four more CH-47 F mod­el Chi­nooks would fol­low a cou­ple of weeks lat­er to com­prise Sor­tie 3 for a total of 12 new air­craft deliv­ered to the 16th CAB in Fairbanks. 

The route was lengthy and well-planned out. 

The new F mod­els and their crews would fly from Savan­nah, Ga., to St. Louis then on to Rapid City, S.D., with a quick stop for fuel and lunch at Camp­bell Army Air­field at Fort Camp­bell, Ky. From Rapid City, the route con­tin­ued north to Hele­na, Mont., and, from Hele­na, north across the Cana­di­an bor­der to Edmon­ton in Alber­ta. From there, stops includ­ed Fort Nel­son in north­ern British Colum­bia, a brief fuel stop at White­horse in the Yukon, and, final­ly, the immense state of Alas­ka and the final des­ti­na­tion of Fairbanks. 

All of the major stops were con­duct­ed as an overnight stay to allow the crews need­ed rest and down­time as well as to allow for required main­te­nance on the Chinooks. 

Amaz­ing­ly enough, the fer­ry mis­sion to Alas­ka was to be a first of sorts for the ven­er­a­ble air­frame. In its 50 years of pro­duc­tion and hun­dreds of thou­sands of hours of flight time as a fleet, a fer­ry of this mag­ni­tude across the breadth of North Amer­i­ca had nev­er been done before. 

“From an oper­a­tional stand­point, or a logis­ti­cal, plan­ning and actu­al exe­cu­tion stand­point, it’s been a big chal­lenge,” explained Col. Bob Mar­i­on, Car­go Heli­copters project man­ag­er. Mar­i­on spoke dur­ing a weath­er delay in Hele­na that held up the mis­sion for two days. The delay was­n’t part of the exten­sive plan­ning, of course, but the plans were nec­es­sar­i­ly flex­i­ble due to the com­plex­i­ty of the mission. 

A team of Boe­ing tech­ni­cians was trav­el­ing along to han­dle issues that might have come up dur­ing the long flight. They did­n’t trav­el light. One of the four heli­copters was the “main­te­nance bird,” so-called because, in addi­tion to the tech­ni­cians, it car­ried a cou­ple of large tool box­es as well as spare parts and oth­er items they might need along the way. 

Mar­i­on elab­o­rat­ed on the long his­to­ry of the Chi­nook, not­ing that the basic design may be old in terms of mil­i­tary vehi­cles, but it was a com­plete­ly up-to-speed aircraft. 

“If you go back in time and look at the fact that the Chi­nook has been around for over 50 years now, fly­ing in the Army, from the big pic­ture stand­point, it shows how reli­able, how sus­tain­able, how effec­tive oper­a­tional­ly the sys­tem is. The physics of the air­craft have remained the same for 50 years. 

“We’ve done a lot of things like upgrad­ing the engine, the gear­box­es, the trans­mis­sion, to make it more and more reli­able as we’ve gone through these last gen­er­a­tions of air­craft from A through F. We’ve improved the air­craft over 50 years, but the fact that it’s con­tin­ued to be a part oper­a­tional­ly of the Army’s inven­to­ry of air­craft shows just how reli­able it is,” Mar­i­on said. “Engines have been upgrad­ed over the years, as have the most of the oth­er major com­po­nents. What real­ly sets the F mod­el apart is its great­ly upgrad­ed avionics.” 

Mar­i­on added that Chi­nooks in the­ater have flown any­where from 50 to 100 hours in per month. 

“And that’s been ongo­ing for the last 10 years,” he empha­sized, not­ing that the air­frame was orig­i­nal­ly designed to fly just over 14 hours per month with a life span cal­cu­lat­ed on those flight hours. “The air­craft has done great.” 

The first cou­ple of days cov­ered famil­iar ground for most of the CH-47F crews. And though the scenery was enter­tain­ing from 1,200 feet in the air, the days were fair­ly uneventful. 

The bat­tle rhythm was developed. 

Get to the air­field and the air­craft ear­ly in the morn­ing. Pilots had already com­plet­ed their pre-mis­sion plan­ning and all crew mem­bers assist­ed in get­ting the air­craft ready to fly for the day. The ramp at the back was low­ered to allow access to the inte­ri­or. Cov­ers were removed from the engines, rotor hubs and oth­er sen­sors that need­ed pro­tec­tion overnight. Blade ropes that had secured each rotor’s four large blades were tak­en off. Lug­gage was stowed and tied down within. 

The pilots worked through their check­lists while the flight engi­neer coor­di­nat­ed exter­nal checks from the ramp near the opened right side door as the engines start­ed and the rotors began the first of their rev­o­lu­tions for the day. After a short taxi to the run­way, the pilots would per­form a hov­er check, then oth­er final checks. The air mis­sion com­man­der in the lead heli­copter would con­firm a go for all air­craft in the sor­tie then the pilots in the four birds would increase air speed and ele­va­tion and take off. 

The day’s flight had begun. 

The trip from Savan­nah to St. Louis was punc­tu­at­ed only by the fuel stop at Camp­bell Army Airfield. 

The overnight in St. Louis was near­ly unevent­ful except for hav­ing to wait for an avion­ics soft­ware update on one of the F mod­els. The delay slowed the day’s mis­sion by a cou­ple of hours, putting off the arrival of the four Chi­nooks at the Nation­al Guard facil­i­ty in Rapid City by a cou­ple of hours. 

Depart­ing from Rapid City the next morn­ing, the sor­tie crews saw the first of sev­er­al crowds drawn to the attrac­tion of four Army Chi­nooks pass­ing through had gath­ered just inside a Nation­al Guard hangar out of the reach of the morning’s driz­zle. The 30 some-odd men, women and chil­dren were just in time to wit­ness the morn­ing hov­er check and launch for the day. 

The weath­er had been clear fly­ing into Mon­tana and the crews had the first glimpse of the Rocky Moun­tains. By the next morn­ing, how­ev­er, the clouds had set­tled into the val­leys and low areas to the north along the planned route to Edmon­ton. Trav­el­ing through the moun­tain pass­es had become a major safe­ty con­cern which result­ed in a two-day weath­er delay and the biggest sin­gle set­back on the road to mis­sion com­plete. But, as Lt. Col. Brad Killen, Car­go office prod­uct man­ag­er for the F mod­el, explained that the mis­sion was to get the Chi­nooks to the Sol­diers of the 16th CAB in as safe a way as possible. 

“We can see to cer­tain ridge lines, but we can’t see over oth­er ones. If you do punch in (to the clouds), then you would pro­ceed to alti­tude and fly instru­ments. The prob­lem here is, as we can see with all the snow capped moun­tains, once you get to alti­tude, then you’re deal­ing with icing. And that’s some­thing you don’t want in a helicopter. 

“In an avi­a­tion unit, we focus on get­ting the mis­sion done and get­ting it done safe­ly. We have weath­er con­di­tions such that we’d prob­a­bly be real­ly close on whether or not we should launch or not and, in our case, we don’t have troops that we need to go save, we don’t have an injured Sol­dier that we’re try­ing to go res­cue on a moun­tain top some­where. We’re try­ing to get these eight 47Fs to Fair­banks, Alas­ka, safe­ly. So we’re going to wait until we’re cer­tain that we have good weath­er between here and our next stop in Alber­ta,” Killen said. 

Once giv­en the go ahead, the trip north was unevent­ful con­sid­er­ing that eight Army Chi­nook heli­copters, sep­a­rat­ed by just about an hour, were trav­el­ing into the heart of the Cana­di­an province of Alber­ta and the cos­mopoli­tan city of Edmonton. 

But it was a friend­ly inva­sion and the heli­copters con­tin­ued to draw at least a small crowd of onlook­ers and well-wishers. 

Sev­er­al of the sup­port staff at the Edmon­ton City Cen­tre air­port just north of down­town took a look inside one of the F mod­els of Sor­tie 1 short­ly after the sor­tie land­ed. They were joined by sev­er­al oth­ers the next morn­ing to watch the four Chi­nooks take off for the day. 

The Chi­nooks of Sor­tie 2 had land­ed at Edmon­ton Inter­na­tion­al Air­port sit­u­at­ed south of the city. When they depart­ed the next day, air­port sup­port crews with buck­et trucks had lined up sev­er­al hun­dred yards away against the edge of the air­field with buck­ets raised high to allow their occu­pants the best view of the depart­ing Chi­nooks. The truck crews held their pseu­do salute as the Chi­nooks climbed away and depart­ed for the Cana­di­an province to the west. 

A lit­tle over five hours lat­er, the four heli­copters in the sor­tie had arrived at Fort Nel­son in north­ern British Colum­bia. The small town on the Al Can High­way served as a hub for the oil drilling activ­i­ties in the region and had its fair share of air traf­fic as evi­denced by busy region­al air­port nearby. 

A lot of things passed through Fort Nel­son on the Al Can, but most of them were not new F mod­el Chinooks. 

This stop along the route drew the atten­tion of the stu­dents and fac­ul­ty of the R.L. Angus Mid­dle School who wast­ed no time in invit­ing them­selves to the air­port for a tour of the Chinooks. 

A few vol­un­teers wait­ed for the stu­dents and kept one air­craft open and ready and a short while lat­er, the mid­dle-school­ers were on the park­ing ramp where the four F mod­els sat and talk­ing to the pilots and flight engi­neers. The ramp exten­sions were low­ered to allow eas­i­er access and soon the car­go heli­copter was full of 15 stu­dents with iPads tak­ing pho­tos and video. The main attrac­tion in the heli­copter, how­ev­er, was the cockpit. 

Since a lit­tle seat time was called for, one of the pilots offered some basic instruc­tions on how to suc­cess­ful­ly enter the busy cock­pit and briefly occu­py a seat. 

“Put your left foot in first if you’re going in the right seat, and your right foot in first if you’re going in the left seat,” Chief War­rant Offi­cer 5 Matt Carmichael instruct­ed. Carmichael was a pilot from 10th CAB at Fort Drum, N.Y., tem­porar­i­ly assigned to the fer­ry task force. 

The expe­ri­ence of get­ting in to the cock­pit for the first time was­n’t easy for everyone. 

“No, your oth­er right foot,” Carmichael scowled jok­ing­ly toward a stu­dent who did­n’t yet grasp his direc­tions. “Now pull your oth­er foot over,” he said, adding a “there you go” when the stu­dent fig­ured it out. 

“And remem­ber, if you break it, you buy it,” he announced to all of the stu­dents in the car­go bay of the F mod­el. He then broke a smile to cue them in and added “they’re actu­al­ly pret­ty hard to break. They’re Army tough.” 

After every­one had a chance to sit up front, Carmichael, along with Chief War­rant Offi­cer 5 Jack Tartaglia, a pilot with the Car­go Heli­copters Project Office, hand­ed out CH-47F patch­es to them as part­ing sou­venirs, and then posed for pho­tos with the stu­dents and the oth­er pilots and crew in front of the aircraft. 

The fol­low­ing day, the four Ch-47F mod­els of Sor­tie 2 fol­lowed the Alcan High­way through moun­tain pass­es too numer­ous to count. Fol­low­ing the high­way below was not only the most direct route through the end­less moun­tains, but a reli­ably open offer for a good spot to put one or more of the heli­copters down should the need to land arise. Options for emer­gency land­ing zones were near­ly non-exis­tent in the oth­er­wise crag­gy and forest­ed area below. Options in any ter­rain are a neces­si­ty, but even more so in this unfor­giv­ing and remote part of the world. For­tu­nate­ly, the need nev­er arose. 

The scenery was impres­sive and down­right spectacular. 

The rugged, snow cov­ered moun­tains stretched from hori­zon to hori­zon and then some. Spo­radic clus­ters of cab­ins along with an occa­sion­al airstrip could be seen from the crew’s vary­ing van­tage points of between sev­er­al hun­dred to 1,000 or 2,000 feet above ground lev­el. Traces of wildlife could also be seen by the tracks they left in the snow below, and at one point, an eagle flew across the field of view. 

The need for the airstrips was obvi­ous. Although an occa­sion­al car or truck could be spot­ted on the lone­ly road, the best way to get in or out of here was by air. Wheels on the ground took too much time and the dis­tances between pock­ets of civ­i­liza­tion were too vast. 

After a few more hours of solid­ly dra­mat­ic scenery, the four F mod­el Chi­nooks in Sor­tie 2 stopped at White­horse to refu­el, and then were off to Alas­ka once again. As the sor­tie neared the final des­ti­na­tion on the fer­ry trip, the ter­rain below opened into the broad geo­log­ic basin that was the home to Fair­banks and Fort Wain­wright. More signs of civ­i­liza­tion fol­lowed and the Chena Riv­er, dis­play­ing the bro­ken ice chunks of spring along its banks, joined the Alcan in lead­ing the crews of Sor­tie 2 to the air­field des­ti­na­tion ahead. 

Ladd Army Air­field was pop­u­lat­ed with a few D mod­el Chi­nooks on skis instead of wheels. The D mod­els stood out due to their dark­er green paint col­or against the snow in the mid­dle of the air field where a few of them were parked. The four Chi­nooks in Sor­tie 1 were there, too, hav­ing arrived just the day before. 

It was a long way from sun­ny Savan­nah, Ga., but the weath­er was sur­pris­ing­ly not much dif­fer­ent. The sun was out and Fair­banks was enjoy­ing a mild 57 degrees Fahren­heit. And for Sor­ties 1 and 2, it was mis­sion com­plete. Some of the pilots and crew mem­bers would trav­el back to Savan­nah to fer­ry the remain­ing four F mod­els to this same spot. 

From an oper­a­tional stand­point, Col. Mar­i­on point­ed out the first two deliv­er­ies were a suc­cess. He then elab­o­rat­ed on the abil­i­ties of the Chinook. 

“We’ve used this air­craft in so many dif­fer­ent roles. When we did the 50th anniver­sary of the first flight of the Chi­nook in Philadel­phia where they build the Chi­nooks, the orig­i­nal design engi­neers came to the cer­e­mo­ny,” Mar­i­on said. “I know that they had no idea that we’d be using this as an air assault plat­form and all the oth­er mis­sions that we’ve asked this air­craft to do. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the folks who designed the air­craft and the Sol­diers who are fly­ing and main­tain­ing the air­craft today that every time we ask it to pick up some­thing else, to do some­thing more, to take on a new mis­sion, it’s always done more than we asked it to do.” 

The eight new CH-47F mod­els parked on the ramp near a 16th CAB hangar were home. Not just home, but test­ed and proven. Not bat­tle test­ed, maybe, or hook­ing a truck or Humvee from below proven, but they had just trav­eled 3,400 nau­ti­cal miles by rotor with­out a major hitch. 

Four more new F mod­els would join them in ear­ly May. Over the next few months, they would be turned over to their new crews in the 16th CAB with the help of the New Equip­ment Train­ing Team pilots who will instruct them on the fin­er points of the lat­est mod­el Ch-47F Chinook. 

The 16th CAB will, no doubt, have much to add to the sto­ried lega­cy of the mul­ti-capa­ble car­go helicopter. 

U.S. Army 

Team GlobDef

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