Flying & Fighting in the OH-58D: Interview with OH-58D Kiowa combat veteran
Among the most dangerous flying roles in US 21st Century combat operations was piloting the OH-58D Kiowa armed reconnaissance helicopter. We spoke to former US Army OH-58D pilot Dan Berriochoa to find out more.
When I first joined the Army back in 2000, the OH-58D had two different roles. The first was that of armed reconnaissance, the traditional cavalry role. The second role was light attack. I was never in a light attack unit, although we did practice certain attack tactics with hellfire missiles.
The cavalry mission was by far my favorite, and it consisted of the usual reconnaissance and security tasks. My first unit was a division cavalry unit, 1-10 Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division. We had three troops of M-1 Abrams and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two troops of the OH-58D, totaling 16 aircraft. There were also a few support troops in there as well. We would work a lot with the ground side, operating over the shoulder for the tanks and Bradleys. Typically we would scout out routes, look for river fording sites, recon bridges, landing zones/pick up zones for air assaults and conduct the doctrinal screen, guard, and cover missions (although a Cavalry squadron didn’t have the capability to conduct the doctrinal cover mission).
Now I would say this all changed post-invasion of Iraq. As the battlefield transitioned from linear to asymmetric doctrinal roles for the OH-58D changed. We transitioned to more of a security role, providing convoy security and on-call fire support for the troops on the ground. We still did our reconnaissance, but it was no longer focused on probing enemy front lines.
Afghanistan was primarily security-focused. We flew in support of the ground force commander and operated over the top of the infantry or whoever was on the ground. It was still doctrinal in the sense that we were there to provide reaction time and maneuver space to the ground forces and allow them the freedom to maneuver, but it was no longer at the brigade or division level, it was at the platoon/company level. We were there for on-call close combat attacks. It became a knife fight.
The 58D had agility and maneuverability. If you thought it, the aircraft was doing it. It was also relatively simple when compared to the other aircraft in the Army inventory. In an emergency, a crew could have the aircraft off the ground in under five minutes. During my first tour in Iraq in 2003, we often scrambled the aircraft out of Baqubah during mortar attacks (ask Waitman about these!). The other thing about the 58D, and I alluded to it in question one, is that you’re in the knife fight. You’re low, sometimes between the infantry and the enemy, to identify where the gunfire is coming from or to draw the fire so the infantry can move. The 58D could get in low and in tight places to put fire on enemy positions.
The worst thing about the 58D? There were a few. The first was the lack of funding from the Army. They pumped millions in the Apache program for upgraded software, new equipment while the 58D languished. It also was not a forgiving aircraft. You flew it constantly on the edge of the power margins, often over max gross weight. In combat, the usable payload of the aircraft forced crews to trade-off ammunition for fuel and vice versa. It was a constant struggle, and every takeoff full of fuel and ammunition was an event, just hoping the aircraft would clear the berm or concertina wire at the edge of the forward arming and refueling point (FARP). The aircraft was running old 1980s computers in the back; it could have all been updated and compressed into one or two lighter-weight boxes. But then, the Army would have just added more crap in the back to weigh us down again, which they often would when they lightened the aircraft.
There are so many memorable flights. Some are from back home, flying cross-country to training events. Those flights always generated some epic stories. I remember one flight in Afghanistan, we were in the Pech River Valley escorting a ground convoy carrying the Konar Province governor. We were told to expect an ambush from the Taliban, but if we had a nickel for every time we heard that, I could have retired years ago. I was flying right seat trail when the hillside out my door started to sparkle and I remember seeing puffs of dirt kicking up from RPGs being fired at the convoy. It was directly 90 degrees to me, and too close to kick it right and start a gun run, so we had to circle around to make our run. There was probably a dozen or so areas to shoot on the hillside, so lead made their run, and we made ours behind them. There was a road that zig-zagged down part of the hillside, where the road made its switchback, there were 3-5 Taliban, I could tell from the muzzle flashes. I fired off a flechette into the area, I remember it seemed as if the ground jumped with all the nails hitting. I think it was on the next pass the weapons fire switch (the trigger) stuck in the full down position. I couldn’t get the switch to come back up. The co-pilot, seeing what was happening, put our Armament Control Panel (ACP) to standby, basically safing the weapon systems. By this time lead was going back in on another run while I was trying to explain that I wasn’t able to cover their run. So we acted as if we were going to do another rocket pass, hoping to keep their heads down. I remember thinking to myself during all of this, get a Leatherman/Gerber out and pull the damn switch back up. I also remember thinking why couldn’t my co-pilot see this thought bubble I was having amidst the 90 other things going on around us. He had his hands full as the AMC for the flight while I’m fighting with this piece of plastic. I was finally able to convey my thoughts, and acting quickly he pulled out his Gerber and was able to pull the switch out despite my maneuvering to stay on lead’s tail. The switch worked fine for the rest of the flight after that, but it was not fun being in the fishbowl of gunfire, not being able to shoot back or cover the lead bird. That co-pilot and I still talk about that mission and laugh about it. We were able to get the convoy out of the ambush, the Konar governor made it back home that night. Apparently it was a bigger deal than we knew, we ended up getting Air Medals for it. That was just the start of a rash of those malfunctions, we had a bad lot of switches that would either stick in the full down, or shoot two rockets, once when you pushed it down, and then again when the button popped back up. That’ll get your attention when you’re not expecting it. Plus, it wasted rockets which at times were in short supply.
The OH-58D in three words? Low and lethal.
The doctrinal cavalry mission is dangerous. It throws a smaller, faster unit against the larger, main body of the enemy. I would recommend watching the movie Gettysburg, specifically the scene with Sam Elliot, who plays General John Buford. That is the best depiction of what the Cavalry does. He put the US Cavalry in a position to block the entire Confederate Army to allow the 1st Corps and General Reynolds time to get into position. That whole reaction time and maneuver space, and early and accurate warning. Hallmarks of the Cavalry.
The ’58D and the Apache shouldered their own dangers during the invasion of Iraq. We both flew low and had to contend with shoulder-fired missiles and small arms fire. The Apache has better armor for the crew. I described the 58D as a Coke can with plexiglass. We did have some armor plating, but not anything truly effective for gunfire coming from the front like the Apache did. Later in the Afghanistan war, we got armored floor plating which further compressed your body in an already small cockpit. And it reduced our usable payload.
So long answer short, you’re down low in a power-limited aircraft in the mountains of Afghanistan getting shot at, it’s dangerous. The Apache was in a similar, albeit not as power-limited situation. It was dangerous for everyone.
Iraq was a completely different beast. I was a 20-year-old Chief Warrant Officer 2 co-pilot in the left seat during the invasion of Iraq. We lived out of the aircraft for a few months, slept in the dirt or the aircraft. Around the summer of 2003, we saw the start of the insurgency. We got mortared A LOT. We flew route reconnaissance missions and found a lot of IEDs. They weren’t as well hidden back then. We all had a few engagements, it started to get a bit more sporty as we got ready to leave in March of 2004. I didn’t return until the summer of 2008.
That was right after the surge, which had a devastating effect on the insurgency. The unit we replaced had been there 15 months. So it was a relatively quiet year for us. When there was trouble, it was usually in Mosul (We were up north between Tal Afar and Mosul). The issue with Mosul was it was so tightly packed gunfire could come from anywhere, and we couldn’t do anything about it. There were too many antennas and wires to allow us to get really low. Even if we could, we weren’t allowed to shoot, the collateral damage would have been too high. It was frustrating. Then compound that with bad leadership, it made for a long year.
8. Afghanistan was a fight, plain and simple. The Taliban stood their ground and fought. They definitely had their say in what we did. The first day we assumed the mission from 3-7 Cavalry, our area of the FOB Fenty in Jalalabad was attacked. I don’t mean three guys, it was a full-on attack. Some of our best maintainers were wounded and had to be sent home. I don’t remember how many Taliban were involved, but they had machine guns, small arms, and rocket-propelled grenades. They made it to the wall of the FOB and began lobbing hand grenades over. Apaches were conducting strafing runs (even though 58Ds were already in the air long before them and told not to engage for some reason). The Taliban attacked our FARP up in Mehtar Lam and destroyed our refuel/rearm capabilities at FOB Wright in Asadabad. We ended up having to set up a new FARP at another FOB nearby while we repaired the one at Wright. Mehtar Lam wasn’t out of the fight for long, but enough to put us on notice.
The other thing about Afghanistan was the mountains. For the first time, you were now getting shot at from above. As you descended into the engagement area, you had to contend with gunfire from the ground below, the hillsides you’re level with, and from up above. Unlike my time in Iraq where the fighters we did encounter fired their weapons and fled, the Taliban stood their ground and went toe to toe with you.
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The myths and misunderstandings of the 58D were at the Army level. Senior leaders didn’t fully understand the impact the 58D had on the ground and with the ground forces and against the enemy. The ground troops loved us because we fought at their level. The Taliban knew that when we showed up, they couldn’t hide. Sure we had our limitations, but that goes back to lack of funding from higher up. We routinely flew at high altitudes and engaged targets and high elevations. We would operate up to 14,000 feet engaging targets on ridge tops at 12,000 feet. We weren’t the aircraft to set conditions on an LZ, but we were the aircraft to carry the fight. So I guess misconceptions were that we couldn’t operate effectively at the higher elevations in Afghanistan, and that just wasn’t true. We did it every day.
My advice to any young pilot in this profession is study, study, study. Learn your craft, learn your aircraft, learn your tactics. Combat is not the place to realize you’re lacking and wish you had studied harder or known something more about your aircraft. It will keep you and the people on the ground alive. This brings me to my second point, you operate for one reason only, to support the ground force commander and keep the ground force alive.
Every unit was different. Depending on who was in charge, the culture changed. It definitely changed from the first half of my career to the second half. Partying was not tolerated as much. Sexual harassment was paid lip service the first half of my career, and it definitely got teeth and became a serious, hot button issue that was dealt with very severely in some cases, right or wrong. Culture also changed with who was the president. Promotion rates fluctuated depending on the year. As Iraq began to wind down before the rise of ISIS the Army was downsizing, and the Army purged a lot of personnel either by passing over good officers for promotion or barring enlisted from promotion for a failed physical fitness test as a way to thin the ranks (no pun intended).
I will say, though, that my time in 6-6 Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division was by far the best assignment that I had. The unit had been together, some through two combat tours, the majority had been home for a year and were going back out the door to Afghanistan. The unit was tight-knit, and for the most part, had a highly proficient, good group of pilots. I was the interloper even though I was coming off an Iraq tour myself. Our two units weren’t far from each other in Northern Iraq. My squadron, 6-17 Cav was in Tikrit, Mosul, Tal Afar. 6-6 Cav was in Tikrit and Kirkuk. When I look back at my four tours, the 2010-2011 tour with 6-6 Cav was by far the best.
By the time we deployed in 2010 to Afghanistan, we had the new M3P .50cal machine-gun. It was a marked improvement over the M-296. The 296 was your standard M2 machine-gun tilted a bit, put in this god-awful cage, and belt-fed from the right instead of the left. It had a slower rate of fire, and was highly prone to jamming. The M3P was a godsend. It had a higher rate of fire and was reliable. The other great feature it had was it was plug and play. The old 296 was attached as a single unit to the Universal Weapons Pylon (UWP). So if the gun broke hard, the whole unit had to be removed, a new one installed, and a boresight conducted. This could not be done on the fly. So often times you had to fly around and finish your mission with a broken gun. Why not get a new aircraft you ask? Well the birds are scheduled out, so there might not be a spare. That’s another can of worms. Anyways, the M3P basically slid into a mount and used a big pin to secure it to the mount. So if the gun broke, the guys at the FARP could simply pull the pin, slide the gun out, and put a new one in. No need to boresight because it was the mount that was bore-sighted, not the gun, so when you put the gun in the mount, it was combat-ready in less than five minutes. So on a day when you’re firing 2,000 or more rounds a day (which is a lot considering the ammo can only carried 500 rounds), it was a great advantage to be able to swap out a gun for a new one and head back out.
As far as what would have been nice on the bird? A better sensor that could look down. Our Mast Mounted Sight (MMS) was designed for the Cold War and hiding behind hedgerows and trees. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it would have been nice to have a nose-mounted sight that was upgraded and useful. I think the better question is what equipment would you NOT like on the aircraft. I think the MMS would have been nice to dump because, for the most part, it was dead weight. The sensors were garbage, and we rarely used the Hellfire missile in Afghanistan. But removing the MMS would incur a lot more maintenance, and it would have shortened the lifespan of some key components.
The aircraft had a weight problem, it carried around an antiquated wiring harness that needed to be overhauled. As equipment was added and taken away over the years, the wires were left in the aircraft. The wires were also old. I think I talked about it above, but just an upgrade of the avionics would have been nice, it would have freed up some weight.
The ability to carry more .50cal rounds would have been nice, or the three-barrel GAU-19 would have been phenomenal. I know they were testing it before the 58D was retired, it would have been amazing in Afghanistan with some Armor Piercing Incendiary rounds. Those rounds were always in short supply.
The weapons carried on the OH-58D when I first started flying it were the 2.75in, 7 shot rocket pod, the .50cal machine gun, the AGM-114 Hellfire missile system, and the Air-to-Air Stinger (ATAS). After 2004 they scrapped the ATAS as a viable weapon system for the aircraft, but man that was a fun missile to shoot. I only got to shoot one of them, it was rare to actually get one.
Because of the limitations of our MMS and the fact they hadn’t bothered to upgrade our sensors since the early 90s, I did not like flying with a Hellfire. I viewed it as carrying around an extra 100 pounds I didn’t need to. I preferred to go out with the lead bird configured 50/rocket and the trail bird rocket/rocket. Depending on the variety of rockets carried, you could pack a punch. The mission would dictate the rocket loadout. I liked carrying a combination of HE rockets, red-phosphorous, and flechettes if I was in the rocket/rocket bird. Now, if we were in a real knife fight and had to get back out, just throw in all HE and lets go. They were faster to load and worked well.
I think now would be a good discussion on lead and trail. The lead bird is the primary scout, talks to the lowest ground force, meaning the actual guys on the ground. Trail monitors that same frequency and talks to the next higher, either company or battalion. Trail’s main job is to provide covering/suppressing fire if lead should stir up a hornet’s nest. Typically the Air Mission Commander (AMC), the person in charge of the mission, sits left seat trail free to work the radios and coordinate the team.
Anyways, back to the question. The sensors were carried in the MMS, we had a Thermal Imaging Sensor (TIS) and the day TV. Also housed in the MMS was the Laser Range Finder/Designator (LRF/D). It was in serious need of upgrading.
The OH-58D flew more hours in combat and had a higher operational readiness rate of any aircraft in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
There will never be a replacement for human eyes on the battlefield. The 58D could react in real-time in a highly fluid environment and immediately engage targets. If you’re on the ground, do you want a robot or a manned helicopter overhead? We had skin in the game, and we hung it out to keep the guys/gals on the ground safe. The other issue that UAS has is that they lose situational awareness. Life gets different thousands of feet in the air. Your view is through a soda straw. The UAV/UAS operators get sucked into that straw, and it’s difficult to get out of it. Apache pilots get into trouble with this as well, they get sucked into their sensor and lose situational awareness. Also, UAV/UAS systems fly higher, a lot higher. If there is cloud cover over the reconnaissance objective, then you’re out of luck. Manned assets can flex with those limitations. UAV/UAS have their place and, depending on the system, are highly capable and can bring a level of lethality to the enemy while providing safety to the crews that can’t be matched. Unmanned has a purpose and place, but you can’t replicate actual eyes on the battlefield. The Army is still seeking to fill the void left by the 58D. The issue is the Army did a good job of purging all the institutional knowledge and cavalry culture out of the Army. So when they do get another scout/recon aircraft, they’ll have to start from scratch. Most likely using attack pilots who don’t understand the true nature of reconnaissance.
To be honest, I haven’t kept my finger on the pulse of Army acquisitions.
You didn’t ask what made it possible for the OH-58D to conduct combat operations day in, day out for years. We had an amazing group of dedicated individuals who maintained our fleet. They worked long, hard hours to turn birds around for the next day or the next mission set. When we would land and tell the crew chiefs about the battle raging up the valley and what their birds did, they were proud. I used to love coming into the FARP during a big battle, and the armament dawgs would already be kneeling on the edge of the pad, rockets laying across their thighs, ready to start loading. They knew what was happening and were proud to be a part of it. They moved like an Indy 500 pit crew getting us loaded and refueled to go back out. We had the glamorous job of flying the birds, but they all made it possible.
Special thanks to Waitman
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