What does nearly every successful mission by Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Marine Raiders, and Green Berets have in common? They’ve probably been carried to and from their missions by members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment Airborne with the abbreviation of 160th SOAR (A).
The 160th SOAR commonly known as the “Night Stalkers” are the US Army’s best aviators and the premiere rotary wing aviation unit in the military’s Special Operations Forces. Their moniker is well-deserved, many pilots in the 160th have more flight hours with NVGs than commercial airline pilots have flight hours total.
The 160th operates three different types of helicopters, the Blackhawk, Chinook and Little Bird choppers in different designs depending on the mission. Night Stalkers are experts in flying missions ranging from direct action air assault to fast-rope insertion, overwater helocasting, extraction, and special boat support, as well as urban assault. They can also provide their own Close Air Support (CAS) of these missions and for the supported units.
Assessment and Training: Candidates for the 160th SOAR undergo a one-week assessment process with Special Operations Aviation Training Battalion (SOATB) where they go thru interviews with military and civilian members of the SOATB and have their character and demeanor assessed. A records check is performed and the candidates are also evaluated psychologically.
Pilots will conduct two flights to test their flying and navigation skills. If at the end of assessment week, they’ve been selected, the pilots will be told what type of aircraft they’ll be flying. They may be chosen to fly a different helicopter than one that they’ve been accustomed to. That may entail further training later.
The first phase of training covers ground-based combat skills; it lasts three weeks for officers and five to six weeks for enlisted personnel. Candidates assigned to the “Green Platoon” receive instruction on basic combat tasks, first responder, land navigation, hand-to-hand combat, weapons, and teamwork. Then they must pass qualification in the helicopter “dunker” and do water survival training.
For the pilots the approximately six-month training program takes place in Company B which is responsible for aviators, crew chiefs and medics in two stages. First is a basic navigation course that lasts about a month. It is all conducted in the Little Birds because it is inexpensive to operate, compared to the Black Hawks and Chinooks.
Pilots will then be trained for the helicopters that they will fly in a four-month advanced skills courses. Depending on the birds, the courses will vary. But at the end of this section of the program, a prospective Night Stalker will be proficient in all types of combat situations. They’ll all get experience flying in the desert, mountains, and over water; shipboard deck landing qualifications; as well as urban warfare tasks. They’ll began very proficient at flying with night vision goggles (NVGs). Their final tasks will be becoming proficient in aerial in-flight refueling and nap-of-the earth flying much closer to the ground than conventional Army pilots.
Upon successful completion of the advanced skills course in their aircraft type, they are given a check ride by an instructor pilot. It is a long full mission profile that can last up to five-to-six hours. If they pass, they become basic mission qualified (BMQ) and are assigned to one of the battalions in the 160th.
Once a 160th pilot has two years completed in an operational unit, he can upgrade to fully mission qualified (FMQ), though to achieve this they need to prove they can command an aircraft in a combat situation. Given the current state of operations within USSOCOM, that requisite will be easily checked off. Once pilots are rated as FMQ they can work with units outside the 160th SOAR.
When a pilot completes an additional three to four years as a FMQ, he is then eligible to become flight lead qualified (FLQ). As one can see, the training never stops in the 160th and the experience level of the aircrews is outstanding.
History: After the disastrous 1980 Operation Eagle Claw attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran, failed, President Jimmy Carter ordered the Pentagon to plan another rescue operation. At that time, there were no U.S. helicopter units trained to conduct a stealth, no-notice special operations mission. Especially one whose specialty was flying during hours of darkness.
The Army looked to Ft. Campbell, KY, home of the 101st Airborne Division, which had the most experience of the service’s helicopter units. The selected units immediately began intensive training in night flying.
This provisional unit was at first dubbed Task Force 158 since most of the pilots were Blackhawk aviators detached from the 158th Aviation Battalion. The new unit was quickly recognized as the Army’s premier night fighting aviation force, and its only special operations aviation force. The unit was officially established Oct. 16, 1981, when it was designated as the 160th Aviation Battalion.
The 160th first saw combat during 1983’s Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, and has been a part of every major conflict since. They became the first helicopter pilots to use advanced night vision goggles and forward looking infrared devices in night combat.
In 1986, the unit was re-designated as the 160th Aviation Group, and became the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment in May 1990.
In June 1988, the unit executed Operation Mount Hope III. Two MH-47 crews flew 490 miles deep into Chad to retrieve a crashed Russian model Mi-24 Hind medium-attack helicopter.
The Night Stalkers spearheaded Operation Just Cause, the 1989 invasion of Panama, where a Little Bird flying members of Delta Force was shot down just after the operators rescued American Kurt Muse from a Panama City prison.
Less than six months later the Night Stalkers were sent to Kuwait for Operation Desert Shield in the summer of 1990 with follow-on combat operations in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
In 1993 the unit was sent to Somalia for Operation Restore Hope, the humanitarian mission where to support the UN’s mission to bring food and aid to the starving people that had been wracked by civil war. Once the clans run by warlords became too violent, the humanitarian mission turned to combat.
Operation Gothic Serpent (the Battle of Mogadishu) in 1993, was next. One of the Regiment’s most known battles was in Mogadishu, commonly known as “Black Hawk Down” in a book title as well as a feature film.
While supporting a team of Delta operators and Rangers trying to arrest top lieutenants of the clan run by Mohamad Farrah Aidid, the unit lost two Black Hawks to RPG fire from the ground. At the second crash site, only one crewman, pilot CW3 Mike Durant survived. Two Delta snipers, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon deployed to protect him from a Somali mob numbering into the hundreds.
Despite inflicting severe casualties on the Somalis, both Shughart and Gordon were eventually killed in action while Durant was taken prisoner for a short time. Later both Delta snipers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
The war in Afghanistan, and across the Middle East have spawned the unit’s heavy operational use in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn in Iraq.
The unit suffered heavy losses in two separate engagements. During Operation Red Wings in 2005, a Night Stalker Chinook carry a SEAL Team Quick Reaction Force (QRF) on its way to rescue a small 4-man SEAL team under heavy fire was hit by an RPG. All eight SEALs on board and all eight Night Stalkers died in the crash.
Later another Chinook carrying U.S. and Afghan military forces on a night-raid mission in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan’s Wardak province on August 6, 2011, was shot down by Taliban insurgents using an RPG. Thirty Americans and eight Afghans were killed in the attack and the helicopter’s subsequent crash. Seventeen of the U.S. servicemen killed were Navy SEALs, including 15 commandos from Naval Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), better known as SEAL Team Six.
But perhaps the unit’s best-known success story was Operation Neptune Spear. A combined force of the 160th’s Chinooks and specially modified “stealth” Black Hawks carried SEAL Team Six (DEVGRU) from Afghanistan into Abbottabad, Pakistan on a mission to kill Osama bin Laden. One of the Black Hawks crashed into the compound and had to be subsequently destroyed by the crew and the SEALs to preserve the stealth secrets and avionics but the unit completed their mission and everyone was returned to Afghanistan safely.
On a personal aside, I’ve flown with Night Stalkers on all three types of their aircraft. We conducted fast rope missions out of Black Hawks and Chinooks and flew on the Little Birds which is an adrenaline rush that may be even better than being a jumpmaster on a C-130. My Night Stalker coin, given to me by a Company Commander in the 160th is one of my prized possessions.
Today there are more than 3,000 specially selected and trained Night Stalkers in the Regiment. So the next time you see a Special Operations unit conducting a high-profile mission on television or read about it in a newspaper, you can be sure who brought them to the target and who brought them home safely. “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit.”
Photo courtesy DOD