‘Whopper’ in Afghanistan: Jack McCain on flying the Blackhawk in combat – Part 1

 

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Images: Jack McCain/US Navy

Jack ‘Whopper’ McCain followed in the footsteps of his father (the war hero and senator John McCain), grandfather and great-grandfather, when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Here he describes flying and fighting in the Blackhawk and MH-60S ‘Sierra’ helicopter. 

“Even the routine flights where I was teaching students to land in the dust at night were hair-raising, especially given that my initial level of comfort in the dust was fairly low —something I forcefully beat out of myself. However, one flight in particular stands out to me. I was dash two (chock two or wingman) in an all American section (which was rare) because we were headed to bring a maintenance crew to fix an aircraft that had made a precautionary landing at an air-field called Tarin Kowt. I had never been to the field. On Halloween, on a flight we coined “spooky” because it was zero percent illum (no illumination at all) in the dead of night, with extremely bad weather in the area.

Despite out best efforts, we had to return to base because we were unable to maintain visual contact; we were north of Kandahar in mountains greater than 9000 feet, with clouds funnelling us into smaller and smaller valleys. The next night was still zero illum, but it was clear enough to make another go at it… so we took off. I was on the controls as the copilot, and my Aircraft Commander was a Pave Hawk pilot from the Air Force, and it was a mixed Army and Air Force crew in the lead. I had a UH-1 crew chief on the left gun and a very new Army crew chief on the right gun. I had trouble maintaining visual, but it was not as exacerbated as the night before. But because of the terrain, I was essentially chasing an infra-red light around the sky. Because of the visibility, we were worried about test firing, so we waited (too long) until we were almost into the mountain bowl where Tarin Kowt sits. This is also an area with no shortage of enemy activity. Right as we crossed into the bowl, my crew was cleared to test fire, and exactly at that moment was when things began to get… silly.

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My left gun tested fine, but my right gun went ‘bent’ almost immediately. Simultaneously, the right gunner’s inter-communication system (ICS) went dead, so I began hearing a one-sided conversation about trying to fix the gun and the ICS. At the same time the lead aircraft, as briefed, drops to about 80 feet, but — not as briefed — accelerates rapidly. I watch the light I was chasing diminish, and dropped down, and sped up to try and catch him. While this was happening, I hear my crew chief trying to talk the other through getting the gun back up. It was about this time that someone — I don’t remember who —says —

“Hey, are those tracers coming our direction?”

Tracer fire was not uncommon, and was almost never effective, and it was not in this case. It was likely people with ‘noise complaints’ or just generalised shooting at noise. However, we were in a precarious position — with one bent gun. Still trying to catch up, and figure out just where the hell the airfield was, I finally hear the crew chief with the good ICS say —

“Fuck it, just stick your M4 out the window and we will fix it later.”

Innovative. The tracer fire died down as we approached TK, but the entire LZ was blacked out, and the GPS was taking us to a mid-point on the field, not the fuel-point. We finally made our short, inartful, approach, wanting to get on the ground quickly. We landed and begin refuelling, and then for some unknown reason the base starts launching illumination rounds in the general direction of the enemy. While at the same time, I could see an AH-64 not far off in the distance, vigorously shooting 30mm at something. I had been in the country 6 months at this time, and despite having been rocketed a few times (and having seen tracer fire) this was wholly new, it felt like an actual war. To cap off the Apocalypse Now scene-at-the-bridge vibe, after we repositioned, some ragged looking Army advisors materialised out of the dark to ask us vague questions and point to the areas they knew where the enemy was. Little did I know, that the spot we were standing in had no actual ‘wire’: it was essentially an open airfield. The base was protected, but not the flightline was not. Thankfully, I could not see this in the inky blackness. After the repairs were made, we returned via a different route as a three ship (a very uneventful flight). I learned to be very cognisant of my test-firing, and to ask the Afghan pilots where they thought the enemy was before we went anywhere. They often knew much better than we did because they flew in the area more often. They laughed when we showed them the spot we flew over, they were unsurprised we saw tracers —

“That is where the enemy was trying to sleep!”

Excellent.”

What is the best thing about the MH-60? 

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“Flexibility. It is an aircraft that can do almost anything, and is exceedingly well suited to the utility role, and has been upgraded in ways that I doubt its original designers could have imagined. We are still coming up with new and interesting ways to employ it. I also deeply admire just how much survivability was a core premise in its design.”

How survivable as it could be? Should any kit be added to aid survivability?
“If you read about the initial design of the Blackhawk (there is an excellent book on it called Blackhawk: The Story of a World Class Helicopter) you’ll find out about its origins. After the large number of helicopter losses in the Vietnam War, the Army wanted survivability to be a key aspect of its next utility helicopter. Survivability is the DNA that makes up the airframe. Every system, apart from the transmission and tail-drive, is either double or triple redundant, making it difficult to down with ground-fire, unless the enemy is extremely lucky. There is always more kit you can add, but more stuff means more weight, and one of the secondary aspects that makes the Hawk so survivable is its agility and speed, which degrades with increases in weight. In Afghanistan, the 1970s A models we flew were not equipped with any of the aircraft survivability equipment I was used to in the Sierra, and while unnerving at first, it forced me to change my paradigm, and go back to the basics of flying. I learned, and eventually taught, that drilling reaction to contact, enroute, on infil, and in the LZ, over and over and over, can be as helpful…if not more helpful… than 90% of the survivability equipment installed in my more advanced aircraft. I also learned helpful and simple ways to explain concepts like how to avoid ground-fire. For example, bird hunting is a common activity in Afghanistan, so when training Afghan serviceman I used the tactics of birds as an example. A bird becomes harder to hit when it is lower, faster or at a better crossing angle. This was a simple solution to communicating a complex problem, and worked well. You must be well-trained on the  basics to survive. You can have the best most complex infil plan in the world, but if you can’t safely put the aircraft in the LZ, you have no mission.”

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And the worst?
“Visibility is my biggest complaint. It seems persnickety, but there is about three inches too much dashboard on both sides of the cockpit, making it hard to see the spot you are landing on (especially if you are steep or headed to the back of a small deck ship). There are techniques for getting around it, including yawing the nose off in the opposite direction of the seat of the landing pilot, and correcting near the ground, but these are band-aids. I would love a few more inches of plexiglass to see out of. And a Navy-specific drawback is the fact that despite having a full glass cockpit, coupling system, laser-ring gyro EGIs, and a suite of electronic wizardry, someone, somewhere, declined to outfit the aircraft with a moving map! The pilot and copilot mission displays even have a frustrating button labeled ‘map’, that does nothing… just to remind you that it was obviously not a pilot who signed off on the final buy!”

What were you first impressions of the Blackhawk?

“Everyone loves their first aircraft, and I am no exception, and I was very lucky in that I got to learn to love the same aircraft twice. I started training to fly helicopters in the TH-57, but was always yearning to fly the ‘hawk, what we call “learning to fly the big grey aircraft” (as opposed to the the orange and white livery of the helicopter trainers). The first time I got to fly the ‘Sierra'(MH-60S) —the navalised version of the UH-60M Blackhawk —was while I was still at Whiting Field. This was during a ‘fleet fly in’ where the Navy sends fleet aircraft to the training squadrons in order to help the students pick their future careers. I already knew it was the aircraft I wanted to, due the diversity of its mission. I knew I wanted to join the Helicopter Sea Combat Expeditionary community, because of their somewhat cowboy reputation. The outside of the aircraft is utilitarian, and its two big cargo doors on the sides give it a very open feeling. The longer I stared at the haze grey paint job, the more I came to love it, and I still prefer it to the Army black — or Afghan camo paint. What struck me most when I first gripped the cyclic and collective, was that it felt like they had actually been designed with the human hand in mind, as opposed to the WWII-style sticks in the TH-57. I was also amazed at just how much glass there was up front, two HUGE displays on both sides with all the flight information you need in a single glance. Picking it up into a hover the first time, most students over-control because they’re used to the TH-57, but the MH has a very advanced stability system, and is capable of an Embedded Global Positioning System coupled ‘hands-off’ hover. Hovering it, provided you allow the aircraft black magic to do its thing, is simple. But you do not have the same tactile feedback you get in the less advanced aircraft like the TH-57 or the MD530. I also had (and still have) the tendency to button-mash, holding down the trim-release button, which disables much of the assistance given to the pilot, though it does gives a micro-second of better responsiveness, (I am sure a very smart engineer reading this will cringe).

Unlike the TH-57, which was sometimes laborious to lift, the Sierra jumped off the ground, with the big 701C engines producing all kinds of power. It was obviously stripped down for the fly-in, and I would later learn that 23,500 lbs in a Sierra can make even the strongest aircraft feel lethargic. My first flight lasted all of five minutes, and consisted of some box patterns and a landing or two, but I became infatuated, and would only continue to fall further under the spell of the aircraft I dubbed the ‘Magic Carpet’. Later on in my career, to prepare to fly for the Afghan Air Force, I was fortunate enough to go to a small civilian outfit to make the transition to the UH-60A. It was staffed by former Special Operations and Experimental Test pilots, who knew the aircraft in a level of detail that was nearly super-human. The A model was even lighter than my Block II and III Sierras and didn’t have the same automatic folding rotor-head that the Sierra did, and therefore had wider roll limits, and much more responsiveness. I got to fall in love all over again, and see things in the aircraft I never imagined I would, including high-altitude training at 18,000 ft. My esteem for the brilliance of the design only grew and continues to as I keep on flying it. Overall impressions were, it is light, responsive to pilot input, powerful, and maintains a flexibility that is unparalleled in modern aircraft, and it is a pure joy to fly in any conditions, especially with the new 701D engines.”

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