SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
As the sun rose over the air base tarmac like it does every morning, one could feel a sense of anticipation but yet also sorrow at the same time. Pilots and crew chiefs performed their normal checks, filled out their paperwork and readied themselves for another day of flying. But this day wasn't just any other day. This day would be a day of good-byes.
May 28, 2014 marked a new chapter in the history of Bravo Company, 1-228th Aviation Regiment and the end of an era for Army aviation as two CH-47D Chinooks, wet with the dew from the morning air drying in the sun, awaited their final mission - a mission that would send them to retirement. The 1-228th said farewell to the CH-47Ds as they prepared to transition to the CH-47F model. The 1-228th was the last active duty unit in the Army to fly these historic behemoths which began their service during the 1960's.
The aircrews of Bravo Company flew the Chinooks from Honduras all the way to Delaware in a 17-hour stretch over the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and finally up the United States' eastern coast where the air frames would either be sold at government auctions or stripped of all parts that can be used on the new CH-47F and then eventually scrapped.
U. S. Army Capt. Darin Hunter, CH-47D pilot and Bravo Company commander, takes pride in the fact that they got to play a small role in ushering in the end of an era.
"Our crews thought that it was a unique and historic experience," stated Hunter. "I think that we were lucky to have the opportunity to crew these particular aircraft that have served our country well over the past 20 plus years on their last flight on active service."
One aircraft in particular, affectionately known as "638," was the oldest active Chinook in the Army's inventory and carried a storied past with it through the years.
"One of our CH-47Ds that was turned-in (tail number 638) flew in Vietnam and was brought down by enemy fire during that conflict," declared U. S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Dynelle Pierre, lead planner for the mission and Bravo Company mission survivability officer.
During the flight to Delaware, the planned route happened to go past Washington, D.C. so the crews were able to give a special tribute to the retiring Chinooks and the current and past crews who flew them.
"Our planned flight route from Honduras to the designated turn-in location in Delaware happened to take us past Washington, D.C. and we did a little extra coordination to fly up the Potomac River past the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, and many of the monuments in the national mall - something that not every military pilot gets to do in their career," added Pierre. "I believe that it was a fitting retirement for these aircraft and a small tribute to the many dedicated and professional air crews that have served our country so well over the years."
Now that the 1-228th Aviation Regiment has the latest evolution of the Chinook helicopter, they are now able to provide aviation support for more types of missions safer and at reduced maintenance and operational costs.
"The most noticeable improvement is the upgraded cockpit which includes a digital data bus that permits installation of enhanced communications and navigation equipment," said Hunter. "This new avionics architecture gives our aircrews more situational awareness and improves mission performance."
The aircraft also comes standard with a new cargo handling system that more closely resembles what one would typically see on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane and can accommodate a wide range of cargo. The floor of the CH-47F now has built-in cargo rollers that can be quickly deployed or stowed to allow for rapid reconfiguration of the cargo compartment. The new system significantly reduces the time required for flight engineers and crew chiefs to re-configure the aircraft when mission changes occur.
All of the aircrew members were actually qualified on the CH-47F from previous assignments, but had to receive refresher training to get current in the new aircraft. As part of the fielding plan, they flew the CH-47D aircraft from Honduras to Delaware, received the refresher training in Georgia and then flew the brand-new CH-47Fs from Georgia back down to Honduras in two separate waves.
"These long distance flights were a great opportunity for us to get re-acquainted with the new aircraft and systems again. We conducted the flight in two waves to ensure that we could still provide mission support here in Central America during the turn-in process which was definitely a test of our Company's abilities," said Pierre.
In total, the pilots and crewmembers of B Company flew over 6,200 nautical miles, to include over 4,000 nautical miles of overwater flight, to accomplish the mission.
"To say that the crews performed admirably during this logistically complex operation is an understatement," added Hunter. "We are now looking forward to putting the aircraft to use supporting our higher headquarters' diverse mission set here in Central America."
The 1-228th Aviation Regiment, under U. S. Army South, has directly supported the U. S. Southern Command's engagement and security cooperation strategy. This one-of-a-kind battalion provides heavy lift, medical evacuation, general aviation and VIP support spanning the area of responsibility in support of Joint Task Force-Bravo. The regiment has actively participated in counter narcotics missions and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief support throughout Central America.