Story and photo by Spc. Darriel Swatts
CAMP TAJI, Iraq – Flight engineers play an integral role during CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter flights. They are the eyes in the rear of the aircraft providing vital information to the pilots, the muscle that handles cargo, and they ensure the safety of passengers that are strapped in for the ride.
“I am a Chinook pilot and when we’re in the seat, we can’t see behind us,” said Capt. Benjamin Winborn, of the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, an Army National Guard unit from Minnesota and Iowa. Winborn is the commander of B Company. “The flight engineers provide us with aircraft clearance when we’re flying. They load the passengers and cargo and are in charge of how the aircraft is loaded.”
B Company is currently deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq with the 1st General Support Aviation Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, a Georgia Army National Guard unit attached to the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade from the California Army National Guard. B Company is the only Chinook unit left in Iraq.
Chinooks are typically flown during the nighttime hours to capitalize on the additional protection offered by darkness. As a result, the unit adopted the motto “All Night Long” from the title of a popular Lionel Ritchie tune.
The Chinook is a large tandem rotor helicopter with a rotor diameter of 60 feet. At more than 98 feet long, the pilots rely heavily on the flight engineers to keep them informed on what is happening around the aircraft at all times. The Chinook is the Army’s go-to heavy lift helicopter and equipment transporter. It is able to transport 33 troops and their gear, or three pallets of cargo, or a sling load (cargo suspended below the aircraft), or a combination of the three up to 26,000 pounds.
“The flight engineers in the Chinooks are really valuable. The amount of crew coordination that takes place between the pilots and the flight engineers is through the roof,” said Capt. John Allen, 40th CAB, a Brigade staff officer and Chinook pilot from Sutter Creek, Calif. “They have instruments in the back that we can’t see, so we depend on them to know what they’re looking at, then be able to articulate it to us up in the front.”
“Some of the biggest challenges we face here are loading the cargo and people into the aircraft. Things are not always the same shape and size that we’d like,” said Sgt. Joe Loscheider, flight engineer with the 2-211th, and a Little Falls, Minn. native. “It can easily be compared to playing Tetris at times.”
“We are kind of like a moving company,” said Sgt. Andrew Anderson, flight engineer with the 211th, and a Princeton, Minn. native. “The pilots are the drivers and we are the muscle in the back getting it all done.”
The Chinooks are out flying every night, moving personnel and cargo all around Iraq.
“Last month we flew more than 1,100 hours, which is a record for our airframe according to AMCOM (U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command),” said Winborn.
With so many flights going out, the crews are hardly the same for each mission and they often find themselves flying and working with different people on each flight. Every now and then the flight engineers may find themselves flying with the 40th CAB’s commander, Col. Mitch Medigovich, who is a Chinook pilot.
“It’s fun to be able to fly around with the brigade commander,” said Loscheider. “He treats us like one of the guys. It’s very informal; plus, it’s nice to be able to just talk and have fun with the colonel.”
The Chinooks are providing a vital service during the Army’s drawdown in Iraq.
“The Chinooks have been important any time we’ve had any drawdowns, repostures, or closing of bases. We move anything and everything we can to help expedite the whole process,” said Allen. “Plus, we help take a load off the C-130s (cargo planes) and other fixed-wing assets, and oftentimes we are the sole provider of aerial assets to the bases that can’t support fixed-wing aircraft.”
As the mission in Iraq comes to an end and units start packing up to go home, the 211th continues to bring first-class service to the table until the very end. As it is stated in their motto, they’ll provide coverage, “All Night Long.”