The danger of helicopters


DefenseTech points out a NY Times article on the Marine CH-53E Super Stallion that crashed, killing all 31 aboard.

The crash was the first such incident involving a large number of casualties since November 2003, when the downing of three helicopters led to the deaths of 33 American soldiers. In the first, a Chinook helicopter was shot down near Falluja by an insurgent firing an antiaircraft missile, killing 16 soldiers and wounding 26. Later that month, two Black Hawk helicopters that were trying to avoid ground fire collided in the air above Mosul, killing 17 soldiers.

After those incidents, American commanders ordered pilots to fly evasively at all times. American helicopters routinely fly at tree-top level, bobbing and weaving on their way to their destination. Like the Super Stallion that went down Wednesday, Army and Marine helicopters often fly at night, when the threat of attack is diminished. Helicopter pilots say that they are still routinely shot at from the ground but that the tactics have largely prevented the insurgents from hitting them.

MO has posted some time back on the double-edged sword of attack ‘copter use:

Helicopters are an incredibly versatile military vehicle, and we certainly won’t be phasing them out any time soon. Unless the Area 51 guys are working on anti-grav vehicles, of course. But World War III deep strike tactics, flying far behind enemy lines and attacking strong enemy ground forces, may result in losses greatly exceeding the returns, especially against enemy units consisting mainly of light infantry and irregulars. In these days of JDAM satellite-guided aerial bombs, J-STARS “ground AWACS”, and real-time targeting, perhaps the deep strike missions by attack helicopters are no longer needed.

But helicopters themselves will contribute greatly to our military for years to come. When the army called off the deep strikes and instead assigned Apaches to close ground support of the men and tanks on the ground, the results were astounding. Although the missions are not as “sexy” as Airwolf-type assaults, helicopters can be incredibly valuable members of infantry and armor attacks. They provide maneuverability, a good vantage point, and incredible firepower when employed as part of a combined-arms assault. Even in Mogadishu, the Little Bird gunships were invaluable to the US troops making it through the night.

The same vulnerabilities that attack choppers face make support choppers vulnerable. But despite these problems, the advantages that helicopters provide far outweigh the danger. Air transport has cut down on enemy opportunities to bomb roadways, making our supply lines far more secure. The ability to patrol (and pursue) from the air has undoubtedly contributed to our effort to limit insurgent attacks.

But helicopters remain fragile. And their operating environment and the severity of consequence that mishaps bring make them more than a little dangerous at times.


  1. I hate to point this out, but Murdoc, you need to stress one word in this article with a little more emphasis. That word is FRAGILE. Helicopters are inherently dangerous. I’m not saying we don’t need them, or shouldn’t use them, but just riding in one is a risk. I’m saddened that these marines (and a sailor) died, but it’s one of the risks. This could happen on a training exercise here in the states just as easily. I think that the ‘death toll’ that the media keeps screaming about should be limited to combat deaths. For crying out loud, there’s guys on there that had heart attacks, rollovers, and a guy that drowned in a swimming pool, on his off-time. Yes, maybe these things wouldn’t have happened had they not been deployed, but then again…..? I’m not saying they shouldn’t be honored by their country. I’m not saying that the deaths are not serious, and may be attributal to those soldiers being there. Soldiers know that we all die sometime. Most of the soldiers I know that have been there say that they’re glad they went. Yeah, they say it sucked, and that it was hot/cold, sandy, nasty, smelly, and a general pain in the ass, but they’re glad they went. They missed their families, they missed their conveniences, and they missed their everyday lives. But they are soldiers, and they saw what happened there first-hand. They know that when you get the call, you go. You can bitch and whine all you want, as long as it’s not to the detriment of discipline, but you go none the less. The people that say we’re not accomplishing anything obviously don’t spend a lot of time with our soldiers. I talk to one or another that has been there at least once a week. I can tell you that 98% of ‘our guys’ have great stories they can tell you about thankful Iraqis, and the good work we’re doing over there. Those of you that say we’re just breeding more terrorism need to hear the stories of how much the children over there love our soldiers. We show them kindness, and a helping hand. They’ve never seen that in most instances. It’s not all about the death tolls, or the press related soundbites. It’s about liberty, freedom, the value of human life. That’s what will make Iraq a success, not ‘getting out before we lose more soldiers’, because you are afraid it might be ‘another vietnam’. We could’ve won there too, if we’d have had the guts to do the job, and the fortitude to stick with it, even when it wasn’t popular.