Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Army's Kiowa helicopters to fly in last formation

It's been a slow goodbye for the Army's OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter.

Nearly three years after defense officials first proposed eliminating the small aircraft from the Army's aviation, all but two squadrons - each flying 30 helicopters - have bid adieu to the Kiowa.

Of those that remain, half are in South Korea. The other half are at Fort Bragg.

But what has largely been a military-focused farewell for a central cog in the Army's reconnaissance efforts will become a public goodbye this Friday.

That's when the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment will fly all 30 of its Kiowa Warrior helicopters over Fort Bragg and Fayetteville for the last time.

The rare flight formation is unlikely to be repeated.

The squadron, part of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, is the last of its kind on mainland America.

And when the unit deploys along with its more than 400 soldiers to Korea this summer, it will become the last Kiowa squadron, period, in the U.S. Army.

The squadron-sized flight, officials said, is meant to honor current and past aviators, maintainers and others who have worked with the helicopters on Fort Bragg.

It's also being billed as a "thank you," to Fayetteville and others surrounding Fort Bragg, for their support of the squadron over the years.

Fayetteville city officials, however, want to turn the tables on that "thank you."

They are encouraging residents to view the flyover from the U.S. Army's Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville and, in doing so, communicate with those who will fly overhead.

A Fayetteville firetruck will be there, sporting a large American flag from a raised ladder and city officials want residents to bring signs and flags to show their support for the soldiers.

The museum will be one of two viewing locations for the final flight, which will begin and end at Simmons Army Airfield.

On Fort Bragg, the flyover can be witnessed from Pike Field, off Gruber Road, officials said.

The helicopters should be there shortly after 10 a.m., and will make two passes overhead.

About 30 minutes later, the formation will fly over the museum.

Officials said people wanting to watch from that vantage point should be there before 10:30 a.m.

The flyover is the final training exercise for the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment before it deploys later this year.

It will serve for nine months in South Korea, the last Kiowa unit to participate in what had become a regular rotation of that type of unit.

The squadron will make its final flights with the helicopters on that deployment, meaning Friday's flyover will be the last for a unit of this type in the United States.

Upon their return, officials said the squadron will instead adopt the AH-64 Apache and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Kiowa Warrior, and its unarmed predecessor, simply named the Kiowa, were used by the Army for decades, starting in 1969.

The helicopter saw service in Vietnam as a scout platform, carrying no weapons.

They were not armed until 1987, when a secret task force formed at Fort Bragg, known as Task Force 118, added sophisticated electronics and weapons pods designed for other aircraft to the helicopters as part of a then-classified program.

The helicopters were used in the Persian Gulf for nearly three years, protecting U.S.-flagged tankers during the Iran-Iraq war through Desert Storm.

The Kiowa was used, officials said, because its small size allowed it to be launched from the flight decks of Navy frigates.

Task Force 118 was eventually reflagged as the 4th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bragg, then later moved and is now an inactive unit.

But when the Army began converting its Kiowa fleet to the armed Kiowa Warrior in 1993, the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment gave up their AH-1 Cobra helicopters to adopt the Kiowa Warrior, which could be armed with a mix of Hellfire missiles, rockets, machine guns and air-to-air Stinger missiles.

Army officials announced in 2013 that the force would phase out the Kiowa Warrior.

The next year, as squadrons began inactivating across the country, the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment deployed with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade to Afghanistan.

There, the unit served as the last to fly the OH-58 in the skies above Afghanistan, conducting the final mission in November before redeploying to Fort Bragg.

Another "last" came in late March, when the unit conducted its last aerial gunnery at Fort Bragg.

Crews of four helicopters shot machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets over Fort Bragg's training lands.

The soldiers were unable to attend a larger gunnery exercise conducted on the North Carolina coast earlier this year, officials said.

Over the course of the training, crews fired 4,400 .50-caliber rounds and about 190 rockets, armed and refueled by soldiers operating in a nearby Forward Area Refueling Point.

"This is basically getting everybody on board 100 percent, so we can deploy 100 percent ready," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mason MacDonald, the squadron master gunnery.

MacDonald watched the gunnery from a tower overlooking a range filled with the rusted and burned hulks of vehicles.

As the airborne crews were given descriptions of enemy targets, their attacks reverberated across the area.

MacDonald said the unit would be conducting more gunneries in Korea, but the March training event would be the last of its kind for the unit on Fort Bragg.

The squadron will check off their final "last" this Friday, with the looping flight.

Their planned path will take them from Simmons to across post, where they will fly over the the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters area before changing directions at Pike Field to circle down into Fayetteville.

After passing over the Airborne & Special Operations Museum, the helicopters will turn back towards Simmons, where the flight will end.

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