Retiring a Tired War Horse

By By Mike Hangge, mjHangge | April 2, 2015

Using the MH-60K, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), or 160th SOAR (A), is capable of accomplishing any mission over any terrain at any time—plus or minus thirty seconds.
Photo courtesy of CW4 Elvis Costello

The American military has depended upon the war horse since we first gained our independence. The horses have changed through the years—beginning as privately owned farm horses, transitioning into iron-sided tanks, and now into modern tactical vehicles and advanced aircraft. Despite the change from living creature to iron to steel to advanced composites, the interaction between man and horse has never changed. Those fighting men who have ridden their horses (either air or fuel breathing) into battle have a special bond that often develops deeper than the ones shared with other two-legged warriors.

Any cavalry soldier worth his Stetson understood that the care of his horse often took precedence over his own needs. Despite the Special Operations’ motto ‘humans are more important than hardware,’ there is no doubt that it was the horse that made the cavalry’s tactics special, not the soldier. Without a horse, a man can be little more than an infantryman. To move by horse and fight by foot makes a man simply a dragoon. But to be a true cavalryman—to fight using the tactics of speed, mobility, and shock—a horse is required, preferably one bred specifically for the difficult and deadly world of mounted combat.


The MH-60K Black Hawk is a special breed of war horse, having served the world’s finest Special Operations forces in some of the most dangerous and deadly regions around the globe. While the men who crewed these helicopters are certainly talented and amazing, the MH-60K (more commonly known as the ‘Kilo’) allowed their capabilities to be fully focused and augmented.

The MH-60K owes its capabilities and lineage to the UH-60A, which, in turn, owes its own existence to the legendary Bell UH-1 Huey. The U.S. Army launched studies in 1968 to find a troop-carrying helicopter replacement for the aging UH-1. This study developed the requirement for a twin-engine helicopter capable of carrying 11 combat-ready troops plus a crew of three. In early 1972, Airframe Requests for Proposals (RFPs) went out to nine companies, which were narrowed to two finalists by August – Sikorsky’s YUH-60A and Boeing-Vertol’s YUH-61. Sikorsky’s prototype first flew in October 1974, and the first unit was entered into the ‘fly off’ by March 1976. The Sikorsky entry was slightly more versatile than Boeing’s, which earned Sikorsky an early Christmas present when the Army declared the UH-60A as the contract winner. By 1979, the UH-60A began supplementing the Army’s fleet of UH-1s before totally retiring them from the active Army inventory by 2005.

By now, the ubiquitous UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter has become the backbone of U.S. Army aviation and one of the most recognizable designs ever created. From carrying troops, tubes, supplies and vehicles, the Black Hawk’s long and sexy profile can often be seen in tight formations in the skies, on the news, and in the movies—everywhere from downtown Denver to Iraq, Afghanistan and other dangerous locations. The low stretched profile gives the Black Hawk aerodynamic lines that offer high top speeds and maneuverability to help increase survivability on the battlefield. Capable of carrying 11 or more fully loaded combat troops, the Black Hawk is still able to move a 105mm howitzer and thirty rounds of its ammunition. Built into the helicopter is armor to withstand multiple small arms hits and redundancy for critical components and systems. The airframe itself is also designed to progressively crush on impact to protect the crew and passengers in the event of a crash. The four main rotor blades have electrically-charged de-ice heating mats, and extend from a rotor head that incorporates bifilar absorbers and elastomeric bearings to reduce vibrations and maintenance. The high-mounted four-bladed tail rotor is canted to provide lift for a longer center of gravity travel. A large stabilator (combination stabilizer and elevator) extends horizontally from the tail boom area to improve longitudinal stability of the airframe and decrease pitch excursions. Stability augmentation and flight path stabilization systems make flying the Black Hawk less labor intensive, and an impressive suite of avionics and system controls surrounds two pilots sitting in armoured bucket seats that stroke in the event of a hard landing or crash.

The MH-60K’s high-tech equipment included IAS Hover symbology to improve desert survivability rates, and an aerial refueling probe combined with removable internal aux fuel tanks to provide a nearly-indefinite flight time capability.
Left photo courtesy of CW4 Elvis Costello, and right photo courtesy of the 160th SOAR (A)

In January 1988, Sikorsky received an $82.8 million/38-month contract to develop a modified prototype of the UH-60A/L for the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces. The UH-60A had already proven its reliability and capabilities before the MH-60K variant was even proposed, but the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) had more specific needs than the standard H-60 could provide. The first MH-60K took flight in August 1990 and full fielding began in 1995. The many aircraft and mission improvements all contributed to making the Kilo a precision tool of the 160th for twenty years. Though the MH-60K was the first helicopter specifically designed for sole use by a Special Operations unit, there were less than two dozen of the mighty Kilos ever constructed. This constitutes less than one percent of the more than 2,300 H-60s built by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, and makes the Kilo among the rarest production helicopter variants ever used by America’s military.

To accomplish its near impossible mission task list, the Kilo was one of the first helicopters to combine some very powerful force multipliers together.

The airframe was modified with additional longerons and other structural support components that, when combined with uprated General Electric T700-GE-701C/D turboshaft engines, provided a maximum operating gross weight of 24,500 pounds—over a ton more capability than most other H-60 airframes.

The MH-60Ks have seen the sun set over some of the most incredible landscapes in the world. Photos courtesy of CW4 Elvis Costello

A fully integrated and advanced Aviation Support Equipment (ASE) suite was initially combined with the aged, but reliable Browning M2 “Ma Deuce”.50 caliber machine gun to deliver a lead-lined defense for the aircraft and cargo. During the 1990-91 Operation Desert Storm missions, the M2 proved unstable in flight and its extended range not as critical. The accurate and deadly Dillon Aero M134D 7.62mm minigun was chosen soon after as a replacement due to its high rate of fire (2,000-4,000 rounds per minute).

A Raytheon AN/AAQ-16 Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), a Texas Instruments AN/APQ-174 Terrain Following/Terrain Avoidance Ku-band Multi-Mode Radar (TF/TA MMR), a powerful MIL-STD-1553B serial data bus, and a Digital Map Generating system all combined with an extensive IBM Integrated Avionics Subsystem (IAS) utilizing four Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) and two Control Display Units (CDUs) provided the pilots with the ability to quickly and accurately access information about the aircraft and surrounding battlefield to accomplish the clandestine, deep-penetration missions it was designed for.

An extendable aerial refueling probe that could receive fuel from a mixture of C-130 platforms was combined with removable, extended-range auxiliary internal and external fuel tanks to achieve a nearly indefinite mission flight time capability.

A starboard, fuselage-mounted external hydraulic rescue hoist provided the ability to retrieve friendly forces from danger over water or across most difficult terrains, while the Fast-Rope Insertion/Extraction System (FRIES) allowed the crew to expediently insert combat troops to any target without necessitating a landing.

A hydraulically-operated rotor brake system gave the Kilo full shipboard operability, while the folding stabilator provided faster load times during transport.

Because the 160th operates primarily at night, the MH-60K was painted an ominous matte black, differentiating it from its regular Army green stable mates. The Kilo underwent many changes and upgrades throughout its twenty years of service to the 160th, but the base design and mission purpose never changed.

Who Does the Kilo Work For?

The final sunset has fallen on the mighty Kilo fleet. They have served our country with pride and distinction for over two decades. Photo courtesy of the 160th SOAR (A)

‘Plus or minus thirty seconds’ isn’t a guarantee given without the ability to fulfill the promise. The 160th has underwritten that contract to the Special Operations community and has continually proven its capabilities with over three decades of time on target anywhere in the world —plus or minus thirty seconds.

The MH-60K has provided that ability, but it takes training, talent, and audacity for the 160th to claim itself as the finest military helicopter aviation unit—not just in the U.S. Army, but in the entire world. But it isn’t false bravado, this elite aviation unit boasts the best helicopter pilots, crews and maintainers. They fight under the cover of darkness and are known as the Night Stalkers for their ability to fly into any battlefield under any conditions and against any enemy. The 160th has built its reputation upon an unparalleled record of inserting Special Operations forces where no other aviation unit could and exfiltrating them regardless of the battlefield conditions. Most commonly known from its depiction in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, the 160th has been involved in nearly every U.S. conflict since its inception in 1981. It is the only unit in the U.S. military to be continuously engaged in combat operations since October 2001, flying from locations in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other areas of the world. The tactics, techniques, and procedures of the 160th have migrated into common usage by many other units and have assisted in bettering Army aviation as a whole.

Because of this reputation, the demand for experienced and motivated crews is always high and the selection process is very difficult. Training to become a Night Stalker is intensive, but the result are crews with the confidence and precision to operate in any environment with the ability to accomplish any mission. Their persistence and devotion to the mission has earned the 160th the motto “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit!”

The Next Mighty War Horse

The matte black paint, MMR dome, FLIR, and aerial refueling probe made the Kilos even more menacing looking than the standard UH-60 Black Hawk. Photo courtesy of the 160th SOAR (A)

The Kilo has flown some of the finest warriors in history and taken them to targets against some of the most determined enemies. They have flown America’s presidents, dignitaries and heroes. They have been shot up, shot down, rolled over and beaten hard, but the Kilo fleet has never refused a mission and has always given everything to finish what they start. Several have been lost through the years and the fleet has suffered from long, hard flights into areas where no helicopters should ever operate. They have suffered from age, attrition and high wear until being recently replaced by the MH-60M—another specially-designed helicopter variant.

In 2011, the MH-60M began replacing the MH-60K as the primary medium assault aircraft of the 160th. Beginning again with a base UH-60 variant (this time, Sikorsky’s newest UH-60M design), the 160th modified and upgraded certain components to make the helicopter more specific to the mission set. The base UH-60M retains much of the standard UH-60 airframe, components, and the T700-GE-701D turboshaft engines. To this proven base, Sikorsky strengthened known weak areas of the airframe; added an Active Vibration Control System (AVCS) to reduce airframe vibrations; redesigned wide chord main rotor blades to improve rotor efficiency; and installed improved Dual Digital Automatic Flight Control Systems (DDAFCS), a fully coupled auto pilot, and a dreamy integrated cockpit to reduce pilot workload and improve operational capabilities. To this impressive variant, the MH-60M has added the incredibly powerful YT706-GE-700 FADEC-controlled turboshaft engines and an even stronger airframe to increase operational gross weight to 24,500, advanced ASE suite, minigun mounts, FLIR, TF/TA MMR, an extendable aerial refueling probe, removable internal auxiliary tanks, electrically-operated external rescue hoist, FRIES bars, hydraulically-operated rotor brake, composite folding stabilator, and an even more impressive graduate-level Rockwell Collins avionics suite.


Rest Well!

MH-60Ks have been seen in tight formations everywhere from the news to the movies and Denver to Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of CW4 Elvis Costello

Despite its retirement, the Kilo will always be flying for many of us. I cut my teeth in this special helicopter, and it will forever be a part of me. I will always describe myself as a ‘Kilo pilot’ and some of my proudest moments were accomplished in those worn bucket seats. I cherish the memories of nearly unachievable missions, friendships with the finest warriors, and unforgettable expeditions around the world.

Of the small pool of MH-60Ks ever built, only two now survive. 91-26388 rests at the Naval UDT SEAL museum in Ft. Pierce, Florida and 91-26373 is at the U.S. Army Aviation museum on Ft. Rucker, Ala.

To most, these MH-60Ks may look like nothing more than tired old helicopters in desperate need of a cleaning and fresh coats of paint.

To some, the final Kilos may represent war horses that have been worn hard by dangerous battlefields.

To a few, 388 and 373 may reveal the scars of battle and tell stories of courage, pride and pain.

But to a scarce handful, they remind us of long and painful nights in places we could not pronounce. Their flanks show the patched and spray-painted reminders of bullet holes and battle damage. Straight edges now bent remind us of landings that nearly killed us and dusty ropes with no ends. They leak and settle on hard ground when they ought to be freed to the open skies. No rain will ever wet them again, yet they will never be warmed by sunlight either. The Kilos are safe and enjoying their retirement, yet those special few who once depended upon them will keep going into the fight—better for having been a part of the Kilo’s incredible legacy.

Outside the U.S. Cavalry Museum, a beautiful statue of another tired and worn war horse stands tribute to those that died in service during the Civil War. Beneath James Nathan Muir’s statue ‘Duty’, a caption reads “a tribute to the Cavalrymen and their Horses who so faithfully served our Nation.” Likewise, the final MH-60K holds a caption hidden from the public, which reads “This horse has rode through Hell. Rest well!”

What Made the Kilo Special?

• Additional longerons and airframe support structures
• Uprated General Electric T700-GE-701C/D turboshaft engines
• Maximum operating gross weight of 24,500 pounds
• Advanced Aviation Support Equipment (ASE) suite
• Dillon Aero M134D 7.62mm Minigun
• Raytheon AN/AAQ-16 FLIR
• Texas Instruments AN/APQ-174 TF/TA MMR
• MIL-STD-1553B serial data bus
• Digital Map Generating system
• IBM Integrated Avionics Subsystem (IAS)
• Extendable aerial refueling probe
• Removable, extended-range auxiliary internal and external fuel tanks
• Starboard, fuselage-mounted external hydraulic rescue hoist
• Fast-Rope Insertion/Extraction System (FRIES) capability
• Hydraulically-operated rotor brake system
• Folding stabilator
• 160th SOAR (A) Crews, Maintainers, and Support Teams

Related: Military News

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