The Phrog of War: Flying and fighting in the CH-46

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For half a century, this tough flying pick-up truck served the US Marine Corps with distinction. Carleton Forsling gave us the low-down on flying the Phrog, including his experiences in the unforgiving conditions of the fighting in Afghanistan. 

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What are the best things about CH-46E?

The best part of the -46 was how forgiving it was as an airframe. The design was very simple and robust. With the tandem rotor design, it barely even mattered where the wind was coming from. You didn’t have to worry about tail rotor authority, You could decelerate rapidly with a flare and the bottom of an approach and land it hard if you needed to.

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Though this is a Navy aircraft, we had to include this picture.

..And the worst?

The CH-46 was underpowered. It really was too much aircraft for its engine and transmission. By the time it was retired, it was like an old man lifting a chest of drawers. While it was agile, in the sense that you could change the attitude of the aircraft quickly, it was not manoeuvrable, in that the aircraft couldn’t change its velocity vector quickly. Once you dumped airspeed, it was hard to get it back.

“We did a night insert of Recon Marines to do a direct action mission against a suspected Taliban weapons cache. The visibility in the LZ and the dustiness of the zone was something I’d never seen before. The Marines did their actions on the objective and got several prisoners, or ‘EPWs’. When we came to extract, one of the other aircraft broke his nose gear half off landing in the dust”

What were you first impressions of the CH-46E?

To be honest, the CH-46 wasn’t my first choice, but it grew on me quickly. It’s very easy to fly for a large helicopter. The funny part is that the hardest part of a flight in a Phrog is taxiing it–there’s a very particular way you have to bounce the nose gear to steer it. Sometimes when pilots come off being on a ship for a while, they forget how to taxi, and they end up missing turns at the airport!

Did you like the aircraft?

A military pilot’s first fleet aircraft is always special. It could probably have been anything and I would’ve loved it. Especially when one is an aircraft commander for the first time. The first time you’re in charge of an expensive aircraft and four crew sticks in your mind.

What was the most daunting mission you carried out with the ’46?

Many others have far better stories than I do. I don’t know about daunting in the traditional sense. I’ve been shot at a few times, but never in the classic war movie, ‘Apocalypse Now’-style way. One of the missions we did in Afghanistan in 2001 stands out, though. We did a night insert of Recon Marines to do a direct action mission against a suspected Taliban weapons cache. The visibility in the LZ and the dustiness of the zone was something I’d never seen before. The Marines did their actions on the objective and got several prisoners, or “EPWs.” When we came to extract, one of the other aircraft broke his nose gear half off landing in the dust, so the Marines and prisoners that were going to go on his aircraft went on mine and a couple of others. In the time it took to reorganize everything, all the aircraft in the flight started to run low on fuel. We took off both heavy and short on gas–sometime you don’t see often. Everyone ended up landing well below the NATOPS fuel minimums for the aircraft. It was almost the “for want of a nail the battle was lost” scenario.

What was the most scared you’ve been on a CH-46 mission?

Scared? I don’t know if that’s the right word. As a pilot, you compartmentalise a little bit. You learn to deal with emergencies and then afterwards you realise how badly things could have gone. The CH-46 was notorious for problems with its utility hydraulic pump. It would start cavitating, then overheat to the point where it would glow white and set the aft fuselage on fire. One time we ended up having one of those on a flight, and we we happy to just get on the ground before the aircraft set itself on fire, which was not uncommon with the pumps of that era.

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What is it like to fly?

The Phrog was like a your old pick-up truck. Rugged and reliable. If something didn’t work, the fix usually involved hitting something with a hammer, I think. It evoked feelings like those you have for the first car you had in high school or college. It had its weird quirks that just endeared it to you

How did it deal with the conditions of Afghanistan?

In terms of reliability it did well. It terms of capability, the aircraft was not really well suited to the environment. The CGI (Cruise Guide Indicator), a measure of rotor load, was constantly pegged out working in the mountains. The engine was working in its ‘topping power’ region constantly in the high density altitude environment. It did a good job, but it was definitely stretched to its utmost.

How did you feel about the type’s retirement in 2015?

Some former Phrog pilots got very emotionally involved in the retirement of the aircraft. Some of them are almost obsessed with it to be honest. I liken some of them to the Japanese soldiers they found in remote islands in the 1960s who were unaware that WWII was over. The CH-46 was over 50 years old  by the time of its retirement. Whether it was the V-22 or another helicopter like the H-60, the CH-46 was going to get replaced by something newer.

Some guys anthropomorphised aircraft beyond what I think is rational. I love the V-22, but if a better alternative is available, we should get it. Machines don’t have feelings, and sentimentality of pilots is not a national security priority.

I was proud to have had a chance to be a part of history flying the CH-46, but I was more proud to have helped bring the V-22 into service and develop a capability that will allow the Corps to overmatch its enemies in the 21st century.

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Carl is the Senior Columnist for Task and Purpose
Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
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