MCGREGOR RANGE, N.M. – Soldiers of the 563rd Aviation Support Battalion, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, did what seems like the impossible when they made a dead bird fly Friday.
The seven-vehicle convoy assumed a 360-degree perimeter to provide security for the site that contained the downed AH-1 Cobra used for the training exercise.
Soldiers prepared the main body of the aircraft by cutting off unnecessary parts, such as the one remaining skid, to allow the fuselage a better center of gravity to ease its transport.
“Sometimes things sticking out of the aircraft make it more difficult to sling. If it’s just the body of the aircraft, it’s just that much easier,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph M. Leatherman, section sergeant for maintenance platoon for Company B, 563rd ASB.
“The hardest part of a sling load is getting the aircraft to where it’s slingable, removing certain parts and making sure it’s safe to carry, so that it doesn’t injure personnel or other equipment,” Leatherman said.
“Any pieces we cut off usually come back with us, especially if it is a sensitive item,” he said. “A sensitive item means it would have a trackable serial number. We don’t want our enemies getting hold of our technology.”
While the main body of the Cobra was to fly, the parts that were formerly on the bird could have become foreign object debris if left on the ground nearby, a danger to troops, aircraft and the load itself. Crews worked quickly to remove the FOD to a safe distance away from the site before the Chinooks arrived to lift the downed aircraft.
A heavy expanded mobility tactical truck’s hydraulic crane lifted the aircraft upright to a more life-like position in order to place the sling-load cable under the belly of the inanimate shell that once flew.
The downed aircraft recovery team worked meticulously to get the cables rigged around the main body, carefully securing with cloth tape the parts with questionable strength.
Learning the steps while not in danger is important. Downrange, minimizing time on the ground is critical to the lives of the DART members.
“In Afghanistan, people’s heads will be more on the swivel – they’ll be in a war zone, so they’ll have more haste and do things faster,” said Spc. Shaun M. Somers, AH-64 Apache crew chief for Company B, 563rd ASB, who assisted with the sling-load training.
“The basic purpose of a DART mission is to get the aircraft out of the area as quickly and as safely as possible,” said Leatherman.
“We [did] a good bit of DARTs the last time in Afghanistan,” Somers said. “The important part is to get everyone used to doing it the right way. Everybody could go about it doing it their own way. It’s about getting them to do the right thing.”
The DART members must have been doing the right thing, because everything was going according to plan.
The Chinook’s rotor wash pelted the ground crew with rocks, sand and plant debris with the power of a sandblaster as it hovered overhead.
The Soldiers who were prepared to hook the cables to the Chinook disappeared into a dust cloud. The Chinook landed, a crew chief jumped out and approached them. They spoke for a few moments, and then the crew chief returned to the Chinook, which rose into the air seconds later.
They were making sure everything was ready for the sling load to be hooked up and that all debris was out of the way, Leatherman said.
“With a sling, you can always have unforeseen things that might make it harder to sling – weather, sharp parts on the load that could cut the lines, that sort of thing,” he said.
After a second flyover, one successful hookup and another all-consuming dust cloud later, the Chinook appeared above the cloud like a phoenix, with the downed aircraft dangling below, possibly – probably – its last flight, to be taken to safe ground.