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NEWS | Oct. 8, 2013

The Chinook: Multi-rotor, multi-mission chopper

By Airman 1st Class Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Flood water churned violently beneath the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter's twin rotors as it cut through the smoky skyline. After landing on the torn but level concrete near a local community center, its ramp lowered and Soldiers began unloading much-needed supplies.

For the Soldiers on board, this mission was only the latest in a long line of tasks, ranging from casualty evacuation to firefighting.

While most aviation units have separate attack, troop transport or medical helicopters, allowing them to accomplish special missions, the 5th Battalion,159th Aviation Regiment, stationed at Fort Eustis, is different from every other brand of aviation unit.

They can do it all.

"This airframe can do pretty much whatever we need it to do," said U.S. Army Capt. Hector Rodriguez, 159th Avn. Reg., B Company commander. "It can carry up to 33 personnel, 20,000 pounds internally or externally and, with the proper load out, it can even help fight fires."

Rodriguez said the CH-47 airframe is perfect for the unit, which finds itself lifting when others need support.

"Our main mission has always been heavy-lift transportation," said Rodriguez. "When your standard convoys can't reach a location, like in the Afghan mountains, we are called in to get the troops what they need to succeed."

With the ability to also carry containers externally, the CH-47 can haul anything from standard shipping containers to humvees and everything in between.

The CH-47 can also handle environmental restraints better than other choppers, said Rodriguez.

"When other choppers like [Sikorsky UH-60] Blackhawks go up against the dry, hot conditions in a desert combat environment, their lift capabilities are severely limited," said Rodriguez. "Although the CH-47 may be affected by the adverse conditions, it can still carry more than its brothers, and that means the cargo can go out faster, putting fewer of our Soldiers in danger."

The sight of a big twin-rotor helicopter may not be intimidating to some, but a CH-47 is not just a "sky bus." If space allows, the CH-47 can accommodate a door gunner on the ramp of the chopper and on the forward left and right sides of the craft. Furthermore, units can customize their birds with under-the-seat and door-mounted Kevlar plates to protect the people on board.

Regardless of its defensive and offensive capabilities, CH-47s are not limited to a combat theater. Since late 2010, the unit's mission encompasses humanitarian support and emergency response under Fort Eustis' Joint Task Force Civil Support unit.

"After 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the Army saw the need to provide aid to critically damaged areas," said Rodriguez. "Of course, given the diverse capabilities of our CH-47s,we were picked to fill the spot."

Instead of landing troops and artillery placements, the twin-rotor chopper will be used for standard cargo transport, firefighting and casualty evactuation.

"In the unfortunate event of a mass casualty situation, standard medical evacuation might not be expedient enough to save as many lives as possible," said Rodriguez. "In that instance, my guys can load up our birds with litters and pick up all the people we can and transport them to a medical facility."

While the crew cannot provide as much medical attention as a medevac helicopter, it can still move casualties to a better location for treatment.

Luckily for the unit, the chopper also has the ability to prevent mass casualty. With the ability to carry about 2,000 pounds of water, CH-47s have been used to put out forest and structural fires.

"If the emergency encompasses fire, you can guarantee we will have our fire buckets ready to deploy," said Rodriguez. "If we arrive on scene right after the onset of a disaster, our ability to dump literally thousands of gallons of water can prevent casualties."

Once on site, Rodriguez and his team usually plan for 72 hours of fire prevention and casualty evacuation. Afterward, the unit stays as long as necessary to accommodate supply and personnel transport until the federal government or local civil authorities can take over without military assistance.

Once local authorities can take over and the order comes down to pack up and head out, the twin rotors will turn, lifting the 159th Avn. Reg. off until they are needed again to transport supplies, fight fires and, most importantly, save lives.