Helicopter Warfare

Tuesday 2nd June 8.00pm

The documentary series examining historic helicopter operations concludes. In this final instalment, 847 Naval Air Squadron’s James Newton recalls the crucial 2003 mission that saw him pit his Lynx helicopter against an unseen enemy tank on the outskirts of Basra.

In March 2003, the US had laid siege to Baghdad and the regime of Saddam Hussein. British forces were approaching the southern city of Basra, where 50 Iraqi tanks were defending its suburbs. As the British tanks crossed the desert from Kuwait, the troops were supported by a single helicopter unit – 847 Naval Air Squadron, coordinated by senior pilot Lt Cdr Andrew Clarke.

The mission commander was Lt Cdr James ‘Scooby’ Newton, a young pilot with 12 years of training but no combat experience. His job was to navigate, operate the radio and locate the enemy in his missile sights – and launch the attack himself if necessary. Joining him in his Westland Lynx – the fastest helicopter in the world – were experienced, unflappable Colour Sergeant Derby Allen and machine gunner ‘Guns’ Jones.

As the Lynx left 847’s base, Camp Viking, Newton was nervous. “For the first time in my life, there was a chance I possibly wouldn’t come back,” he recalls. The heavily loaded Lynx, armed with anti-tank missiles, only had enough fuel for 100 minutes’ flying so there was little room for error. And with 50 T55 battle tanks – fearsome vehicles with guns designed to inflict sudden, massive firepower – hiding amongst Basra’s trees and buildings, Newton’s Lynx was the only thing between the enemy and the frontline of British troops.

Halfway through the mission, Newton still had not spotted any enemy tanks. The Iraqis had learned their lesson from the 1991 Gulf War, and knew how to conceal the tanks’ tell-tale heat signatures with buildings and sand. Five British Scimitar tanks joined the hunt, but these were lightweight reconnaissance vehicles not designed for combat. So when they came under attack from a T55, Newton knew that it was a race against time to find and destroy the tank.

With no support jets available to help him out, Newton was on his own: “It was apparent within a minute and a half of arriving that 847 was it,” he remembers. It became evident that he was the hunted, not the hunter, when a shell landed alarmingly close to the Lynx. The shells kept coming – but Newton and his crew still could not see where the attacking tank was hiding.

This was extremely bad news: Newton’s Lynx only had 18 minutes’ worth of fuel left before it would have to return to Camp Viking. And if it were shot down, it would leave the Iraqi tanks free to move out into the desert and attack the approaching British troops. The Lynx and its ‘eyes and ears’, an accompanying Gazelle helicopter, attempted to make themselves into more elusive targets – but the tank’s assault continued. “I was just about out of ideas, if I’m honest,” says Newton.

Suddenly Newton’s machine gunner spotted a muzzle flash, indicating the enemy’s position – but it was not where the commander thought it would be. The tank had made the most of its ‘home-field advantage’ and manoeuvred itself into a new position: a school playground, which meant it was harder to attack due to the rules of engagement. With three minutes’ of fuel left, Newton had to think fast – but launched his anti-tank missile too soon. A second missile hit the target, but only after a nerve-shredding face-off between Lynx and tank that saw Newton heading straight into the enemy’s sights to get close enough to fire.

The tank was finally destroyed, and Newton’s crew were on their way back to Camp Viking – completing a mission that would start the heaviest day of fighting in 847’s history.

Tuesday 26th May 8.00pm

The documentary series examining historic helicopter operations continues. In this instalment, a group of US Air Force reservists relive a perilous mission that saw them sent into the Afghanistan war zone to rescue a stranded Navy SEAL.

In the summer of 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL team was on a covert mission to assassinate an Al-Qaeda leader high in the mountains of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. When the mission was ambushed and the men surrounded, a Chinook helicopter packed with special-operations troops was sent to assist – only to be shot down by Taliban insurgents. With no options left, the US Air Force called upon the reservists of the 920th Rescue Wing.

When Col Jeff ‘Skinny’ Macrander received the call, he and his two helicopter crews were nearing the end of their tour in Afghanistan and preparing to return to their civilian jobs in the US. However, it was now up to these men to succeed where the best had already failed. Their mission was to fly deep into the war zone to rescue any SEALs that might have survived the ambush. Before he set out, Skinny’s confidence was high. “If there was somebody there and they were alive, we were going to find them,” he recalls.

Instead of the lumbering Chinook, the reservists would be using one of the most sophisticated search and rescue helicopters in the world – the MH-60G Pave Hawk. This machine is capable of flying non-stop for 18 hours in virtually any weather conditions and features colour radar, infrared cameras and anti-missile defences. “It’s a very awesome helicopter,” says pilot Jeff ‘Spanky’ Peterson. If they were to succeed, the 920th Rescue Wing would need every one of the Pave Hawk’s special features.

Shortly before nightfall on June 29, Skinny’s two crews set out into the Kush mountains. With very limited information regarding the location of the stranded SEALs, the men were forced to hug the ground as they searched using night-vision goggles and infrared cameras. After eight hours, there was still no sign of the SEALs. “It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” recalls Capt Dave ‘Gonzo’ Gonzales. But the men could not give up – if they did not find their comrades soon, the Taliban surely would.

After returning to base as dawn removed the cover of darkness, the men made a breakthrough. An old Afghan man delivered a hand-written note from a Navy SEAL hiding out in a mountain village. The only survivor from the covert mission, the badly injured Marcus Latrell was now in desperate need of medical attention.

Using satellite images of the mountain village, Skinny devised a rescue plan. He would pilot the lead chopper into the landing zone and drop a glow stick, allowing a second craft to follow on and pluck Latrell from under the noses of the Taliban. However, when the crews set out, a heavy cloud layer meant that the glow stick did not work. With a fierce gun battle between US ground troops and the Taliban taking place below, it was impossible for the Pave Hawks to land. Eventually, a supporting Warthog attack craft came through and pinpointed the landing zone using a targeting laser. “It was like the finger of God,” says Gonzo.

Despite the rough terrain and blinding clouds of dust, Spanky eventually managed to land the chopper – with just feet to spare from the rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Despite gunfire all around, the crew’s two highly trained pararescuemen managed to make contact with Latrell and bring him safely on board. With all crew members back in the chopper, Spanky was able to flee back to base where the rescued SEAL could receive medical attention. Only after talking to his wife back in the US did Spanky realise what he had achieved. “It was a great feeling to know that I did what I’d been training for for ten years,” he says.

However, for the men of the 920th Rescue Wing, there was one last job to complete – to fly back into the war zone to pick up the bodies of the SEALs that did not survive.

Tuesday 19th May 8.00pm

The documentary series examining historic helicopter operations continues. The second instalment sees a group of Vietnam veterans relive the most traumatic mission of their lives – a perilous trip into enemy territory to rescue more than 100 stranded allies. Alongside reconstructions and archive footage, the film features interviews with the men involved as they return to Vietnam to revisit the site of their heroics 40 years before.

The helicopter came of age in Vietnam. By 1967, the first helicopter war was at its bloodiest, with casualty rates among young pilots worse than in the infantry. This film tells the story of one of the most dangerous helicopter missions of the war. Forty years later, the crews who flew on this mission return to Vietnam to recount this extraordinary feat of bravery.

Tom Baca, Larry Liss and Jack Swickard were all in their early 20s when they arrived in Vietnam. Using personal footage shot at the time, they describe how an acute shortage of pilots meant they were rushed through flight school in less than a year. They were catapulted into combat in the jungles and mountains of South East Asia. Tom had already been shot down five times and Larry had been wounded twice before they embarked on their epic helicopter rescue mission.

The adventure began in the jungle when a company of over 100 men led by US Special Forces was ambushed. Surrounded and outnumbered six to one, the men’s situation was dire. Their only escape was a helicopter rescue. Two choppers answered the soldiers’ desperate call for help. But when the flight crews arrived, there was nowhere to land amid the thick 40ft- high bamboo. They decided their only option was to chop their own landing zone using the helicopters’ rotor blades. To rescue all of the trapped company, they had to return five times. And each time they went back, there were less troops on the ground to defend the landing zone.

Throughout the entire operation, Tom and Larry’s helicopter was totally unarmed. In the back of Jack’s helicopter was a single machine gun manned by Al Croteau, an avionics engineer hoping for a bit of sightseeing on his day off. To make matters worse, his gun jammed on the very first trip. Yet despite all these obstacles, the two choppers managed to rescue every single survivor, even though they were perilously close to destroying their own vehicles.

This mission demonstrated the incredible resilience and toughness of the Huey helicopter. Missions like this confirmed its status as an icon of the Vietnam War. For the men who performed this selfless act of heroism, it was a day they will never forget. At the end of the operation, each man received one of aviation’s highest awards for gallantry – the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Tuesday 12th May 8.00pm

This brand new documentary series examines historic helicopter operations. The opening instalment sees a group of Vietnam veterans relive the most traumatic mission of their lives – a perilous trip into enemy territory to rescue more than 100 stranded allies. Alongside reconstructions and archive footage, the film features interviews with the men involved as they return to Vietnam to revisit the site of their heroics 40 years before.

The helicopter came of age in Vietnam. By 1967, the first helicopter war was at its bloodiest, with casualty rates among young pilots worse than in the infantry. This film tells the story of one of the most dangerous helicopter missions of the war. Forty years later, the crews who flew on this mission return to Vietnam to recount this extraordinary feat of bravery.

Tom Baca, Larry Liss and Jack Swickard were all in their early 20s when they arrived in Vietnam. Using personal footage shot at the time, they describe how an acute shortage of pilots meant they were rushed through flight school in less than a year. They were catapulted into combat in the jungles and mountains of South East Asia. Tom had already been shot down five times and Larry had been wounded twice before they embarked on their epic helicopter rescue mission.

The adventure began in the jungle when a company of over 100 men led by US Special Forces was ambushed. Surrounded and outnumbered six to one, the men’s situation was dire. Their only escape was a helicopter rescue. Two choppers answered the soldiers’ desperate call for help. But when the flight crews arrived, there was nowhere to land amid the thick 40ft- high bamboo. They decided their only option was to chop their own landing zone using the helicopters’ rotor blades. To rescue all of the trapped company, they had to return five times. And each time they went back, there were less troops on the ground to defend the landing zone.

Throughout the entire operation, Tom and Larry’s helicopter was totally unarmed. In the back of Jack’s helicopter was a single machine gun manned by Al Croteau, an avionics engineer hoping for a bit of sightseeing on his day off. To make matters worse, his gun jammed on the very first trip. Yet despite all these obstacles, the two choppers managed to rescue every single survivor, even though they were perilously close to destroying their own vehicles.

This mission demonstrated the incredible resilience and toughness of the Huey helicopter. Missions like this confirmed its status as an icon of the Vietnam War. For the men who performed this selfless act of heroism, it was a day they will never forget. At the end of the operation, each man received one of aviation’s highest awards for gallantry – the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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