If a Veteran stood before you, who had earned nearly 55 years of military service with combat deployments in every American war and conflict since Vietnam, would you be impressed? What if that veteran was an aircraft?
The CH-46 Seaknight, or “Phrog” as it’s more commonly referred to, is that veteran, and it’s getting ready to take its last flight into retirement next month. While theflew the Ch-46’s last service-flight in October of last year, reserve unit HMM-774 “Wild Geese” has continued to fly the Phrog into 2015.
On Saturday, Aug. 1, however the Phrog's long service history will come to an end, as HMM-774 will fly the iconic aircraft one last time before landing at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum's Steven F.Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia as part of its retirement ceremony. There, it will remain on display at The National Museum of the Marine Corps.
For some, this day will signify a new beginning with the, while for others it marks the end of an era and the new conflicts we currently face. But for those who knew the Phrog best, it will be an opportunity to see their old friend fly one last time before shutting her down for good—“power off!”
Considered by many to be one of the most-versatile aircraft the marine Corp has flown to date, the CH-46 received its nickname early on, due to its uncanny resemblance to a frog or “Phrog” perched atop a lily pad. Developed by/Vertol, the Phrog took its first flight in 1962, and entered combat several years later during Vietnam with both The Navy and Marine Corps. With expectations high, it initially fell short, as field-performance issues lead to a high loss of aircraft during this time. Boeing/Vertol’s ability to fix these initial problems helped keep the Phrog around for the duration of the war, while periodic upgrades post-Vietnam has allowed the 46 to earn its keep, seeing combat service in Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Due to its lengthy service history, one unique aspect of the aircraft was that it was often older than the crew operating it. “By Dessert Storm most of the Phrogs we were operating were older than the pilots themselves,” states Lt. Col. Wilson, recently retired CH-46 pilot with HMM-774. “There was a point where the aircraft themselves were the same age as most of the crew’s parents.” While the fuselage stayed the same and continued to age everything else remained new. “One of the key factors to the Phrogs extensive service life was the Marine Corps investment in upgrades, thus allowing it to keep up with mission demands,” remarks Lt. Col. Wilson, CH-46 pilot with HMM-774. “Its stable airframe allowed for necessary updates over the years, such as improved engines, electronics and other vital technology, all at a fraction of the cost of manufacturing new aircraft.”
Phlying the Phrog
While its easily identifiable dual-tandem rotors became somewhat of an iconic symbol, what truly made the Phrog so special was only discovered through experience. “The more helicopters I fly, the more it becomes apparent how right they got it when they designed the CH-46,” remarks LT. Col. Wilson. “The Phrog is by far the most forgiving and easiest aircraft I have ever flown to date. While tail-rotor helicopters require constant input from the pilot, the counter-rotating props on the Phrog require very little use of the rudder pedals.” Similar to its ease of flight, the visibility from the cockpit was just as impressive. The combination of its added chin bubbles underneath the main windshield provided pilots with a panoramic view of the entire operating area: An added bonus that was both practical in combat and enjoyable to fly.
At first, its multi-mission assault transport design seemed improbable, due to its size. At 84 ft. 4 in., the Phrog seemed anything but small. “One of its most impressive aspects was just how [nimbly] it flew compared to its size.” states Lt. Col Bruun-Andersen, CH-46 pilot. “It performed extremely well in Confined Area Landings or CAL all over the world as it was known for fitting into tight spaces.” With beefed up rotors and stronger engines than previous models, the CH-46E of today has plenty of lift in all regimes with a maximum takeoff weight two times greater than its own.
Aside from the technical specifications, there were other personal imperfections that became just as appreciated with time. “The way the 46 is designed allows for a strong draft of air into the cockpit from the cabin,” remarks Lt. Col Bruun-Andersen. “In hot weather we would often slide the side cockpit window open to cool down. It became known that if you opened the window you were subject to having any loose papers in the cockpit sucked out. In 1992 my active duty squadron HMM-266 was flying a navigation route in Israel. We were provided maps by the Israeli government that we needed to sign for due to the sensitive information they contained. A fellow squadron mate was flying the nav route when his map got sucked out of his hand and out the window, lost over some farmland in Israel. Needless to say the Israeli's were not too happy. While clearly not a selling point of the aircraft, it was something that happened to all of us at some point. It was one of the pleasant nuances that only those who operated the Phrog came to appreciate.”
Regardless of its pros and cons, perhaps there was nothing was more satisfying than the feeling the crew shared upon their safe return from a completed mission. “Upon landing just prior to shutting the aircraft down we will ask the crew chief, ‘ready to shut it down or kill it?’” remarks Lt. Col Bruun-Andersen. “Upon the crew’s confirmation we would then say, ‘power off or ape stop’ at which point the battery switch for the APU is turned off and all operating noise stops. Those were the last words uttered when shutting down the 46, simple words I will truly miss.”
While piloting the Phrog was both reliable and engaging, its role in both combat and peacetime was just as crucial. The Marine Corp is about the infantry simply put, the man with the rifle,” Col Bricklemyer states. “The CH-46 is a true field aircraft in that it enables us to put that man and rifle anywhere we need.” The Marine Air Ground Task Force or MAGTF, is the design model in supporting the infantry with the objective to rapidly build up and deploy forces anywhere at any time. In supporting the MAGTF, the CH-46 has been the backbone of the mission helping to bridge both the air and ground elements.
Secondary to its designated role, its durability and resilience to a variety of elements made it highly effective. “During a winter training mission outside Pohang, South Korea, we often landed and kept the aircraft right next to the tents of the infantry troops we were supporting,” remarks Col Bricklemyer. “On the last day, we were asked to provide medevac support, so we landed the Phrogs on the beach and slept in them overnight. When we woke up the next morning there was a half inch of ice on the front windshields. Not quite sure of what to do we poured isopropyl alcohol on the frozen windshields. Ten minutes later, the ice melted and we took off; that’s a true field aircraft.”
While the path to today’s enemy is no longer via the beaches of Normandy nor the jungles of Vietnam another aspect the Phrog delivered was that of its multi-role capabilities, capabilities that often became evident during its adaption to different combat environments. “In Desert Storm our primary mission at its start was that of transport,” states Lt. Col Bruun-Andersen, who deployed with HMM-266. “After a few days in we then began supporting medevac flights in Kuwait. Compare that to Iraq, where we mainly flew low level at night on NVG’s to conduct para-ops via static lines occasionally climbing to 10,000 ft. for free fall. We would fly 10 kt. at 10 ft. over water to deploy navy seals in zodiac boats during one mission, only to conduct fast rope operations in order to place marines on top of a building the next. We could insert troops deep into enemy territory then fly assault with bilateral 50-caliber machine guns on our return. No matter what the mission it didn’t matter, we knew the Phrog was capable."
With the Phrog retiring, many have been skeptical regarding the V-22 Osprey’s capability as a replacement to the CH-46. While the V-22 looks good both in person and on paper, it too has had a less than perfect start, similar to that of its predecessor years earlier during its Vietnam debut. “It becomes a question of what you gain vs. what you lose as opposed to which is better,” remarks Col. Bricklemyer. “One of the major advantages of the V-22 is its ability to self-deploy anywhere in the world due to its in air-refueling capability compared to the Phrog which was always a tradeoff of carrying weight vs distance before having to land and refuel. On the flip side, the V-22 is bigger and as a result is harder to fit in areas those confined areas the Phrog could. The V-22 also doesn’t have the same performance characteristics of the Phrog as its smaller rotor blades and tilt rotors make it more susceptible to rotor wash and turbulence.”
Regardless of your personal preference regarding either, for those who have come to love the Phrog there can never be another. I’ve entrusted my life to the CH-46 for 20 years,” remarks Lt. Col. Wilson. “During that time, it never once let me down . . . for that I will always be grateful.”