View Full Version : Crash highlights intense Night Stalker training

08-21-2009, 07:43 PM
Crash highlights intense Night Stalker training

By Kristin M. Hall - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Aug 21, 2009 18:46:42 EDT

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — The Night Stalkers, which lost four soldiers in a helicopter training accident in Colorado, have compiled a rich history since the special forces unit was created more than 20 years ago after a failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran.

The elite aviation unit is home to the Army’s best helicopter pilots who focus on getting special forces soldiers, Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, into some of the most dangerous areas of the world for covert operations. Using the cover of nightfall and keeping low to the ground to avoid radar detection, the pilots often have to navigate through enemy territory and bad weather to safely deliver and retrieve soldiers.

The dangerous and extreme nature of their work means that training for the missions can sometimes be fatal.

A MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed Wednesday near Colorado’s second-highest summit Mount Massive. The crew was training in high-altitude mountainous conditions, “much like the environment they operate in Afghanistan,” said Lt. Col. John Clearwater, a spokesman for the Army’s Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Although the exact nature of the unit’s missions are secret, the regiment has served in almost every conflict around the world since its creation in 1981.

Army special forces leaders recognized the need for a highly-trained aviation unit after an operation failed to rescue hostages taken in Iran in 1980 and resulted in two helicopters crashing and the deaths of eight people.

The new unit was created by pulling in members from existing aviation units at Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division. The new team was first called Task Force 160, and it began training its pilots to operate in low-light situations.

That included regularly using night-vision equipment and infrared devices, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a defense analysis Web site. The soldiers’ special capabilities earned them the name “Night Stalkers.”

Because the pilots often fly low over water as well as land, Night Stalkers use a special pool facility at Fort Campbell to train on how to exit a downed helicopter in a body of water.

In 1993, during fighting in Somalia, two helicopters piloted by Night Stalkers were shot down in Mogadishu. The subsequent rescue of the captured soldiers was made famous by the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”

The unit has had a large role in Iraq and Afghanistan and has suffered several casualties.

In 2005, eight members of the unit were killed along with eight Navy SEALs after their MH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, making it the single deadliest attack on U.S. forces in that country at that time.

More recently, five Night Stalkers were among eight servicemembers killed in February 2007 when a Chinook crashed in southern Afghanistan. The helicopter was carrying 22 servicemembers when it crashed. Fourteen people on board survived.

Currently the regiment has four battalions, two based at Fort Campbell, one at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., and one at Fort Lewis, Washington. They use a variety of helicopters including Black Hawks, Chinooks and AH-6 Little Birds.

Tim Cash, president of the Night Stalkers Association, a nonprofit group that provides scholarships and other support for the unit’s soldiers and their families, described its members as “quiet professionals” who wanted their privacy to mourn the fallen soldiers.

“The members of the Night Stalkers Association grieve the loss of our comrades and again are focused on the care and well-being of the families,” Cash said.

Maj. Brandon A. Bissell, a spokesman for the unit at Fort Campbell, said a memorial for the fallen soldiers is planned, but wouldn’t discuss further details.

Military officials are expected to release the identities of the soldiers killed in the crash late Friday.