Afghanistan helicopter crash: Why Army has used Chinook for half a century

The rugged CH-47 Chinook helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan flies fast and has double the lift capacity of its Vietnam-era forebears. But it is loud, and vulnerable, while preparing to land.

Shah Marai/Reuters/File
US soldiers board a military Chinook helicopter in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on July 19. The CH-47 Chinook helicopter shot down in Afghanistan by Taliban insurgents over the weekend is one of the oldest aircraft designs in the US military inventory.

The CH-47 Chinook helicopter apparently shot down in Afghanistan by Taliban insurgents over the weekend is one of the oldest aircraft designs in the US military inventory. The Army received its first models in 1962, and the twin-rotor heavy-lift chopper saw action throughout the Vietnam War.

But age in this case does not necessarily equate to vulnerability. Like its fixed-wing cousin, the C-130 transport airlifter, the CH-47 has been updated numerous times over the decades, and remains in service because it is rugged, adaptable, and fills an important mission niche.

CH-47D models currently in service can haul up to 19,500 pounds of cargo, for instance. That’s double the lift capacity of Vietnam-era “A” versions. Today’s Chinook can hold two Humvees, or a Humvee and a howitzer and gun crew, or upwards of 33 fully-equipped soldiers.

Thus the helicopter which crashed August 6 in eastern Afghanistan was loaded to capacity. It carried five crew members and a full complement of 28 US and Afghan troops, according to a press release from the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command.

According to US officials, the Special Operations Chinook was on a mission targeting a Taliban leader in the Sayyidabad district of Afghanistan’s Wardak province. Reportedly the helicopter was fired upon by an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher while it was bringing reinforcements in to a firefight that was already occurring.

CH-47s have successfully navigated such dangers in Afghanistan before. Big and tough, they can survive some ground fire damage. Why was a Chinook shot down this time? Most likely, the rocket hit an engine or other vulnerable spot as the helicopter was slowing to land its cargo.

Veteran Time Magazine defense correspondent Mark Thompson writes today that he’s flown in similar situations on CH-47s, and the ride can be harrowing. In-transit the helicopter roars along at upwards of 140 knots per hour while hugging the landscape to protect itself from insurgent fire.

But the chopper is vulnerable during its low-and-slow approach. And the enemy would have been fully aware it was coming.

“Even at night – especially at night – a Chinook makes a lot of noise as it prepares to land (and take off – it’s not yet clear whether the doomed chopper was arriving or departing the scene when it was hit),” writes Thompson.

All aboard were killed in the crash.

“Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families, including all who have served in Afghanistan,” said President Obama in the wake of the tragedy.

According to the US military, the crash should be seen as a single combat incident, and not a dire signal that Taliban strength is increasing.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said Monday that the “tragic loss” of the CH-47 should not be interpreted as a watershed moment in the Afghanistan fighting.

But on “Meet the Press” Sunday Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona noted that the Taliban remain a threat due to their continued ability to hide and organize in Pakistani safe havens. In general, the world has interpreted as a withdrawal President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from the surge he sent in to tamp down Taliban resistance, said the former Republican presidential candidate.

“All our military leaders have said that it increases the risk,” said McCain of the draw-down. “Why would we want to increase the risk to the lives of our young men and women who are serving?”

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