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Chinooks make historic 3,400-mile journey to Alaska

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The signature sound of the tandem-rotored Chinook was multiplied by four as Sortie 2 took to the early morning air over Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga.

The new helicopters had been flown to the airfield just a couple of weeks earlier in mid-March from the Boeing production facility in Philadelphia. And though new, the helicopters were far from shiny; their mid-toned, flat green paint was well-designed to offer concealment against terrains in theater operations where most F models would fly.

It was now April, and the Chinooks were departing on what would likely be the longest mission they'd likely ever be tasked to do; fly from the eastern seaboard of the southern U.S. all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska. Once in Alaska, the new F models would be turned over to the aviators of the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.

The mission sounded easy enough.

But the nearly 3,400 nautical mile route to Alaska would take almost two weeks with multiple fuel stops and overnight breaks for the crews along the way. They would be trailing in the wake of Sortie 1, also consisting of four new F models and a combined crew of about 22, by just a day. The sorties were separated by at least a day so that some of the smaller airfields used along the way would not be overly taxed in terms of fueling capabilities or ramp parking spaces.

Four more CH-47 F model Chinooks would follow a couple of weeks later to comprise Sortie 3 for a total of 12 new aircraft delivered to the 16th CAB in Fairbanks.

The route was lengthy and well-planned out.

The new F models and their crews would fly from Savannah, Ga., to St. Louis then on to Rapid City, S.D., with a quick stop for fuel and lunch at Campbell Army Airfield at Fort Campbell, Ky. From Rapid City, the route continued north to Helena, Mont., and, from Helena, north across the Canadian border to Edmonton in Alberta. From there, stops included Fort Nelson in northern British Columbia, a brief fuel stop at Whitehorse in the Yukon, and, finally, the immense state of Alaska and the final destination of Fairbanks.

All of the major stops were conducted as an overnight stay to allow the crews needed rest and downtime as well as to allow for required maintenance on the Chinooks.

Amazingly enough, the ferry mission to Alaska was to be a first of sorts for the venerable airframe. In its 50 years of production and hundreds of thousands of hours of flight time as a fleet, a ferry of this magnitude across the breadth of North America had never been done before.

"From an operational standpoint, or a logistical, planning and actual execution standpoint, it's been a big challenge," explained Col. Bob Marion, Cargo Helicopters project manager. Marion spoke during a weather delay in Helena that held up the mission for two days. The delay wasn't part of the extensive planning, of course, but the plans were necessarily flexible due to the complexity of the mission.

A team of Boeing technicians was traveling along to handle issues that might have come up during the long flight. They didn't travel light. One of the four helicopters was the "maintenance bird," so-called because, in addition to the technicians, it carried a couple of large tool boxes as well as spare parts and other items they might need along the way.

Marion elaborated on the long history of the Chinook, noting that the basic design may be old in terms of military vehicles, but it was a completely up-to-speed aircraft.

"If you go back in time and look at the fact that the Chinook has been around for over 50 years now, flying in the Army, from the big picture standpoint, it shows how reliable, how sustainable, how effective operationally the system is. The physics of the aircraft have remained the same for 50 years.

"We've done a lot of things like upgrading the engine, the gearboxes, the transmission, to make it more and more reliable as we've gone through these last generations of aircraft from A through F. We've improved the aircraft over 50 years, but the fact that it's continued to be a part operationally of the Army's inventory of aircraft shows just how reliable it is," Marion said. "Engines have been upgraded over the years, as have the most of the other major components. What really sets the F model apart is its greatly upgraded avionics."

Marion added that Chinooks in theater have flown anywhere from 50 to 100 hours in per month.

"And that's been ongoing for the last 10 years," he emphasized, noting that the airframe was originally designed to fly just over 14 hours per month with a life span calculated on those flight hours. "The aircraft has done great."

The first couple of days covered familiar ground for most of the CH-47F crews. And though the scenery was entertaining from 1,200 feet in the air, the days were fairly uneventful.

The battle rhythm was developed.

Get to the airfield and the aircraft early in the morning. Pilots had already completed their pre-mission planning and all crew members assisted in getting the aircraft ready to fly for the day. The ramp at the back was lowered to allow access to the interior. Covers were removed from the engines, rotor hubs and other sensors that needed protection overnight. Blade ropes that had secured each rotor's four large blades were taken off. Luggage was stowed and tied down within.

The pilots worked through their checklists while the flight engineer coordinated external checks from the ramp near the opened right side door as the engines started and the rotors began the first of their revolutions for the day. After a short taxi to the runway, the pilots would perform a hover check, then other final checks. The air mission commander in the lead helicopter would confirm a go for all aircraft in the sortie then the pilots in the four birds would increase air speed and elevation and take off.

The day's flight had begun.

The trip from Savannah to St. Louis was punctuated only by the fuel stop at Campbell Army Airfield.

The overnight in St. Louis was nearly uneventful except for having to wait for an avionics software update on one of the F models. The delay slowed the day's mission by a couple of hours, putting off the arrival of the four Chinooks at the National Guard facility in Rapid City by a couple of hours.

Departing from Rapid City the next morning, the sortie crews saw the first of several crowds drawn to the attraction of four Army Chinooks passing through had gathered just inside a National Guard hangar out of the reach of the morning's drizzle. The 30 some-odd men, women and children were just in time to witness the morning hover check and launch for the day.

The weather had been clear flying into Montana and the crews had the first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. By the next morning, however, the clouds had settled into the valleys and low areas to the north along the planned route to Edmonton. Traveling through the mountain passes had become a major safety concern which resulted in a two-day weather delay and the biggest single setback on the road to mission complete. But, as Lt. Col. Brad Killen, Cargo office product manager for the F model, explained that the mission was to get the Chinooks to the Soldiers of the 16th CAB in as safe a way as possible.

"We can see to certain ridge lines, but we can't see over other ones. If you do punch in (to the clouds), then you would proceed to altitude and fly instruments. The problem here is, as we can see with all the snow capped mountains, once you get to altitude, then you're dealing with icing. And that's something you don't want in a helicopter.

"In an aviation unit, we focus on getting the mission done and getting it done safely. We have weather conditions such that we'd probably be really close on whether or not we should launch or not and, in our case, we don't have troops that we need to go save, we don't have an injured Soldier that we're trying to go rescue on a mountain top somewhere. We're trying to get these eight 47Fs to Fairbanks, Alaska, safely. So we're going to wait until we're certain that we have good weather between here and our next stop in Alberta," Killen said.

Once given the go ahead, the trip north was uneventful considering that eight Army Chinook helicopters, separated by just about an hour, were traveling into the heart of the Canadian province of Alberta and the cosmopolitan city of Edmonton.

But it was a friendly invasion and the helicopters continued to draw at least a small crowd of onlookers and well-wishers.

Several of the support staff at the Edmonton City Centre airport just north of downtown took a look inside one of the F models of Sortie 1 shortly after the sortie landed. They were joined by several others the next morning to watch the four Chinooks take off for the day.

The Chinooks of Sortie 2 had landed at Edmonton International Airport situated south of the city. When they departed the next day, airport support crews with bucket trucks had lined up several hundred yards away against the edge of the airfield with buckets raised high to allow their occupants the best view of the departing Chinooks. The truck crews held their pseudo salute as the Chinooks climbed away and departed for the Canadian province to the west.

A little over five hours later, the four helicopters in the sortie had arrived at Fort Nelson in northern British Columbia. The small town on the Al Can Highway served as a hub for the oil drilling activities in the region and had its fair share of air traffic as evidenced by busy regional airport nearby.

A lot of things passed through Fort Nelson on the Al Can, but most of them were not new F model Chinooks.

This stop along the route drew the attention of the students and faculty of the R.L. Angus Middle School who wasted no time in inviting themselves to the airport for a tour of the Chinooks.

A few volunteers waited for the students and kept one aircraft open and ready and a short while later, the middle-schoolers were on the parking ramp where the four F models sat and talking to the pilots and flight engineers. The ramp extensions were lowered to allow easier access and soon the cargo helicopter was full of 15 students with iPads taking photos and video. The main attraction in the helicopter, however, was the cockpit.

Since a little seat time was called for, one of the pilots offered some basic instructions on how to successfully enter the busy cockpit and briefly occupy a seat.

"Put your left foot in first if you're going in the right seat, and your right foot in first if you're going in the left seat," Chief Warrant Officer 5 Matt Carmichael instructed. Carmichael was a pilot from 10th CAB at Fort Drum, N.Y., temporarily assigned to the ferry task force.

The experience of getting in to the cockpit for the first time wasn't easy for everyone.

"No, your other right foot," Carmichael scowled jokingly toward a student who didn't yet grasp his directions. "Now pull your other foot over," he said, adding a "there you go" when the student figured it out.

"And remember, if you break it, you buy it," he announced to all of the students in the cargo bay of the F model. He then broke a smile to cue them in and added "they're actually pretty hard to break. They're Army tough."

After everyone had a chance to sit up front, Carmichael, along with Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jack Tartaglia, a pilot with the Cargo Helicopters Project Office, handed out CH-47F patches to them as parting souvenirs, and then posed for photos with the students and the other pilots and crew in front of the aircraft.

The following day, the four Ch-47F models of Sortie 2 followed the Alcan Highway through mountain passes too numerous to count. Following the highway below was not only the most direct route through the endless mountains, but a reliably open offer for a good spot to put one or more of the helicopters down should the need to land arise. Options for emergency landing zones were nearly non-existent in the otherwise craggy and forested area below. Options in any terrain are a necessity, but even more so in this unforgiving and remote part of the world. Fortunately, the need never arose.

The scenery was impressive and downright spectacular.

The rugged, snow covered mountains stretched from horizon to horizon and then some. Sporadic clusters of cabins along with an occasional airstrip could be seen from the crew's varying vantage points of between several hundred to 1,000 or 2,000 feet above ground level. Traces of wildlife could also be seen by the tracks they left in the snow below, and at one point, an eagle flew across the field of view.

The need for the airstrips was obvious. Although an occasional car or truck could be spotted on the lonely road, the best way to get in or out of here was by air. Wheels on the ground took too much time and the distances between pockets of civilization were too vast.

After a few more hours of solidly dramatic scenery, the four F model Chinooks in Sortie 2 stopped at Whitehorse to refuel, and then were off to Alaska once again. As the sortie neared the final destination on the ferry trip, the terrain below opened into the broad geologic basin that was the home to Fairbanks and Fort Wainwright. More signs of civilization followed and the Chena River, displaying the broken ice chunks of spring along its banks, joined the Alcan in leading the crews of Sortie 2 to the airfield destination ahead.

Ladd Army Airfield was populated with a few D model Chinooks on skis instead of wheels. The D models stood out due to their darker green paint color against the snow in the middle of the air field where a few of them were parked. The four Chinooks in Sortie 1 were there, too, having arrived just the day before.

It was a long way from sunny Savannah, Ga., but the weather was surprisingly not much different. The sun was out and Fairbanks was enjoying a mild 57 degrees Fahrenheit.
And for Sorties 1 and 2, it was mission complete. Some of the pilots and crew members would travel back to Savannah to ferry the remaining four F models to this same spot.

From an operational standpoint, Col. Marion pointed out the first two deliveries were a success. He then elaborated on the abilities of the Chinook.

"We've used this aircraft in so many different roles. When we did the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Chinook in Philadelphia where they build the Chinooks, the original design engineers came to the ceremony," Marion said. "I know that they had no idea that we'd be using this as an air assault platform and all the other missions that we've asked this aircraft to do. It's a testament to the folks who designed the aircraft and the Soldiers who are flying and maintaining the aircraft today that every time we ask it to pick up something else, to do something more, to take on a new mission, it's always done more than we asked it to do."

The eight new CH-47F models parked on the ramp near a 16th CAB hangar were home. Not just home, but tested and proven. Not battle tested, maybe, or hooking a truck or Humvee from below proven, but they had just traveled 3,400 nautical miles by rotor without a major hitch.

Four more new F models would join them in early May. Over the next few months, they would be turned over to their new crews in the 16th CAB with the help of the New Equipment Training Team pilots who will instruct them on the finer points of the latest model Ch-47F Chinook.

The 16th CAB will, no doubt, have much to add to the storied legacy of the multi-capable cargo helicopter.

Article by Randy Tisor, ASA(ALT)