[Kiowa Warrior firing Stinger]


(The Graveyard Shift)

Tonight the moon did not rise in the Northern Persian Gulf. No stars could be seen through the dense layer of fog and dust. The horizon was barely visible through Anvis 6 goggles of the flight leader. The aircrews of the U.S. Army Aviation detachment aboard the Mobile Sea Base had never seen a similar condition of total darkness and meteorological obscuration. The only lights visible were from the gas oil separators of off shore rigs. The nearest land was nearly one hundred miles to the west. As would become the pattern of operations in future months the flight crews conducted a flight briefing at precisely 18:30. Scheduled takeoff would be after midnight, after preflight the team relaxed in the six man room below the hangar and flight deck. Without warning the aural warning sounded "General Quarters, General Quarters all hands man your battle stations! Iranian gunboats inbound!" Quickly the aircrews put on Second Chance vests and 9mm pistols and ran down the hall and up the stairwell to the flight deck. As the pilots and crewmen ascended the steps loud cannon shots could be heard in the distance at nearly one per second. Little time was lost finding seats and responsibilities as this had been already briefed. As the pilots found their aircraft and positions the flight team was already pushing the 2.75 rockets into place and arming the .50 caliber machine-gun. The aircraft were cranked and running within minutes. The launch order had already been given prior to crank. As flight lead's radios were brought on line internal commo checks were completed. Left seater's immediately typed navigational alignment data into onboard computers to bring the system on-line and powered the thermal imaging sight. Right seaters rolled their throttles to full operating RPM and turned on all weapons systems. Flight lead initiated the call to the FFG that would control the launch and vector to target. A cease-fire order was given aboard the FFG and the Warrior flight departed the deck 50 ft above the smooth waters of the Northern Persian Gulf. Immediately after leaving the deck the two AH-58D aircraft joined in formation and proceeded on their initial vector to the northeast. They were ordered to arm and fire at any hostile vessel in the target area. Only seconds into the flight it was apparent how bad the visibility and flight conditions were. The Army aviators aboard the aircraft realized that for perhaps first time in their careers they would really earn their pay. This is a brief look at how they organized, trained, and operated.

Task Force 118 was officially formed and designated on the 24th of November 1987 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The planning order was issued in September of 1987 at which time organization and planning began. Task Force was specifically organized for night overwater reconnaissance, surveillance, and aerial attack. Army Aviation AH-58D's and crews were selected due to specific mission equipment requirements and enhanced night vision capabilities. These capabilities did not exist within U.S. Naval and U.S. Marine Corps aviation assets. Task Force 118 deployed its first fully trained detachment of two aircraft and associated personnel on 18 February 1988 to the Persian Gulf. The mission was to occupy a Mobile Sea Base (MSB) afloat in the Northern Persian Gulf. and conduct small boat surveillance and anti-mining operations on a sustained basis. During the next three months Task Force 118 deployed three additional detachments to the Persian Gulf. One detachment occupied another MSB while the other detachments were deployed to Guided Missile Frigate's (FFG). MSB's were stationed in the Northern Persian Gulf to influence Iranian attack vessels and mining operations often staged from Farsi Island or related oil fields within that region. FFG's were primarily assigned to escort duty with civil shipping transiting the Persian Gulf. No defensive capabilities existed on civil shipping which made them easy prey for Iranian gunboats staging numerous attacks from the Straits of Hormuz or Iranian islands and oil fields throughout the Gulf.

Due to the sensitivity of the mission, initial classification for all TF 118 operations was SECRET (special category). All personnel were briefed and signed disclosure statements. Aircraft configurations and operations have since been declassified. Initial selection of personnel began at a mission planning cell located at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Key personnel were selected based on aircraft experience, NVG experience and other special qualifications. Personnel were assigned from numerous Army installations. Additional assignments of pilots were made from the existing organization designated to receive the OH-58D Target Acquisition element at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Training began at Fort Rucker, Alabama in October of 1987. The training was phased for arriving personnel and varying levels of experience. Initial unit training and special mission/equipment training began for OH-58D qualified instructor pilots and pilots. Two OH-58D standardization instructor pilots were assigned from the U.S. Army Aviation Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization to assist in training and development of tactics. Subject Matter Expert's with actual overwater NVG mission experience were available to advise, assist, and train. This factor assured that lessons learned in other such special situations were applied during trainup and implemented into unit operations. The OH-58D had not been previously armed and this development required weapons training of assigned personnel. The AH-58D had not been fully developed yet. Initial training was conducted in OH-58D aircraft or partially modified AH-58's.

The first two months of training concentrated primarily on basic NVG skills and water survival. NVG training focused on formation flying skills over land. Crews learned to fly as teams with very few radio calls, techniques were polished so that these tasks became routine and they were later performed without conscious thought. These first essential steps in the building block served to highlight the difficulty and danger of the task at hand. During this same period aircrews were conducting Helicopter Dunker and Helicopter Emergency Egress Device training at Pensacola Florida. Water Survival and Search and Rescue training were performed at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida. Pilots were extracted and conducted extractions as aircrewman using equipment temporarily mounted to OH-58D aircraft (all mission aircraft were later equipped with SAR devices).

All Persian Gulf operations are staged from U.S. Naval vessels or Mobile Sea Base platforms. Subsequently all aircrews were Deck Landing Qualified (DLQ) aboard the Helicopter Landing Trainer (HLT 514) and aboard naval ships. Initial DLQ was conducted at Pensacola, Florida. Aviators were required to perform day, night, NVG field deck landing practice and day, night, NVG landings to the single spot deck. Aircrewman and maintainence personnel later participated in additional water survival training (Deep Water Survival) at Pensacola. Upon conclusion of this training the first armed aircraft were delivered. Academic Gunnery training began in December of 1987 with live firing in January of 1988. Weapons training included, day and NVG qualification over land and overwater. Crews qualified in .50 caliber machine gun and 2.75 FFAR with flechette, HE, and submunition warheads mated to Mark 66 Mod 2 motors. All weapons training included academics with the assistance of military instructors and manufacturers technical representatives. After completing captive flight devices aviators gualified with live missiles in both singer and hellfire systems. Aircraft were special eqiupped with:

1. Loran C navigation device.

2. AN/APR 44 Radar warning device.

3. AN/ALQ 144 IR Jamming device.

4. SAR caving ladder, extraction rope.

5. TACAN navigation set.

6. Audio/Visual Tape Recorder.

7. Software integration for overwater applications.

These additional systems and devices required academic training and because some systems were off the shelf modifications training by trial and error became necessary. As aircraft integration neared completion aircrews were finishing individual skill training.

Personnel were joined into teams of five aviators. Team training started in January of 1988. Subject matter experts with actual mission experience were instrumental in guiding team tactical development. Aircrews performed simulated missions from actual naval vessels in the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Virginia. Threat assessment classes were taught and special warfare craft were used to increase realism. Army Aviators learned to operate their aircraft in a maritime environment and to integrate with U.S. Naval forces. This period also served as a trials for AH-58D multi-aircraft operations from single spot naval decks. AH-58D teams flew in coordination with shipboard Combat Information Center (CIC) and under Naval aircraft Light Airborne Multi-purpose Systems (LAMPS). LAMPS or CIC served as radar coverage agencies and were used to acquire contacts of interest and vector AH-58D's. AH-58D's provided additional acquisition capability but were primarily used to identify and report important information under night time conditions. AH-58D's became extensions of the platforms they were deployed aboard and complimented organic weapon systems. Certification or teams was conducted upon completion of training. Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization in cooperation with Subject Matter Experts completed initial certifications. Each team trained in this manner and completed a certification prior to deployment.

The first team deployed to a Mobile Sea Base (MSB) on 18 February 1988. Two MSB's were in existence at that time. There was significant difference in size of platforms though operations were largely similar. Both platforms were manned primarily by Navy and Marine personnel and commanded by a Naval commander. All operations by Army aircraft were in conjunction with MSB support assets. Mission planning was conducted by the flight leader. This included interface with MSB assets. Briefings were conducted in the presence of the MSB commander, special boat units, medical corpmen, aircrews, maintenance team leader, and intelligence personnel. Briefings were thorough and covered all aspects of the mission to be performed. during the hours of darkness aircrews, aircraft and maintenance personnel were on constant alert. Typical periods of operations included a full fuel load flight before and after midnight in the MSB's sector of operation. Sometimes multiple sorties were flown as situation dictated. Aircraft were kept loaded but not armed prior to missions. Aircraft were always hangared by day and kept on deck at night when situation permitted (Often on FFG's or DDG's the deck must be cleared immediately after recovery to allow landing and hangaring of LAMPS aircraft). Aircrews could launch aircraft fully loaded in as little as 3-4 minutes when aircraft were on the deck. Two hangared aircraft aboard an FFG could be pushed out, blades unfolded, armed, cranked and launched in as little as 8-10 minutes. Pilots and enlisted flight teams worked together to accomplish these drills. Cross training between crewmembers and maintenance flight teams was necessary and normal operation. Enlisted flight team personnel could perform many functions normally only done by one man with appropriate MOS. Both aircraft were staged from the MSB's and FFG's alike. Only one platform had a multi-spot deck and it became necessary to stage both aircraft from single spot decks in the interest of operational parameters. During conditions of high sea states or high winds only one aircraft would be staged. Once aircraft were airborne they would perform NVG linkup. Tow aircraft were always flown. The lead aircraft would normally perform reconnaissance, surveillance and suppressive fire when necessary, except when performing deliberate attacks. Formation would normally be right or left echelon in a traveling overwatch type technique. Separation between aircraft depended on flight conditions and threat assessment. Crews could perform formation flight at 3-5 rotor disks separation if the situation dictated. Maintaining flight integrity was imperative and mutual security depended highly on this factor. Teams operated in a similar manner to typical aeroscouts principals with the advantages of armament and thermal image sensing. AH-58D teams were expected to perform attack roles. Procedures were developed for varying threats, situations and weapons. Procedures were dictated by actual or perceived threats which motivated keen interest by aircrew members. Many control measures existed for teams operating in the Persian Gulf. Military and civil ships transited areas of operations. Many countries had territorial waters close to transit areas. A declared war zone "Exclusion Zone, The Line of Death" existed and split the Gulf from North to South. Rules of Engagement were detailed and specific.

Navigation was primarily accomplished by radar vectoring. Teams were capable of point to point navigation by Loran C. This capability was used primarily in the Northern Persian Gulf where good signal reception existed. FFG crews were forced to home to the mother ship by Tacan signal. This feature was not reliable because ships turned off Tacan (Father) in vulnerable areas (Silkworm envelopes). AH-58D's were equipped with inertial nav systems but were subject to accuracy error from false Doppler return in overwater applications. Contacts were always approached as hostile. Each contact was recorded through a VCR linked to the thermal image. Voice reporting was conducted via CIC or LAMPS which was data linked to CIC. Contacts were numbered, marked on radar and specific information provided. AH-58D's provided defense, screening and attack capability to their assigned vessel or convoy. Recovery to the MSB's were multi-ship landings. To FFG's and DDG's multi-ship landings were conducted when situation permitted. All recoveries were with NVG's. This required a high degree of aviator proficiency especially during frequent periods of poor visibility, low illumination and high sea states. Rearm and refuel procedures could be conducted hot or cold. Maintenance personnel staged additional ammunition for contingencies. Thorough debriefings were conducted to critique flight procedures, commander's were informed of all pertinent data.

During Persian Gulf deployments Task Force 118 personnel have endured high stress, long separations, harsh flight conditions, cramped living quarters and real threats. They have performed beyond expectations. Tactics have been validated from real use. The importance placed on trainup and individual task proficiency could not have understated because our lives depend on it. The level of startup experience in related airframes proved essential to success. As with all aviation operations lessons learned and passed on and self improvement are perpetually necessary. A constructive atmosphere of self-criticism refines operations. All of Army Aviation may benefit from the experiences gained as a result of Operation Prime Chance II. Many further applications may be derived from airframe developments. The potential of Task Force 118 and the AH-58D has yet to be realized. The organization in its present confiquration is capable of ARMED RECONNAISSANCE TODAY.

Michael P. Fyfe

This article was written by CW2 Fyfe and placed in the Unit History book as one of the few unclassified documents that details the initial formation and train-up of Task Force 118.

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Last Updated 19 July 1997