Category Archives: Special Operations

We Got Interesting Photos of The Secretive 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s Helicopters in Training

Images May Show Special Operations Unit Training with DEVGRU or Army Delta.

Frequent contributor to The Aviationist, Lance Riegle, of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, noticed unusual aviation activity during his recent trip to Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grabbed his Canon EOS 70D with a Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lens and started shooting photos. What he got is interesting.

“To be honest, I started taking photos before I knew what I was taking photos of. There had been a lot of other activity from the airshow [Ed’s note: the NAS Oceana Airshow had just ended that weekend] and I had my camera ready to go next to the balcony where we were staying. I heard jets, then I heard a helicopter, ran out the door, and there they were.”

Lance Riegle spent four days photographing the secretive 160th SOAR flying off the Dam Neck training area. (All photos: Lance Riegle)

Virginia Beach is close to the Dam Neck Annex of Oceana Naval Air Station. In December, 2016, journalist Sarah Pruitt reported on the use of the classified area by the most famous special operations unit in the world, the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6. The unit, also known as “Development Group” or “DEVGRU” trains in this facility.

Pruitt wrote that, “Today, the top-secret headquarters of SEAL Team Six are located at the Dam Neck Annex of the Oceana Naval Air Station, just south of Virginia Beach.” Lance Riegle was only six miles north of the top-secret facility.

The general public knows DEVGRU from Operation Neptune’s Spear, the raid to capture Osama bin Laden in 2011 using highly-modified “Stealth Black Hawk” helicopters flown by the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR), the famous “Night Stalkers”.

While the military won’t officially verify it, what Lance Riegle got photos of just north of Dam Neck was almost certainly a (classified) training exercise being conducted by a Naval Special Warfare Team (SEAL team), possibly DEVGRU operators, using highly modified helicopters only flown by the 160th SOAR. The aircraft in the photos are MH-6M Little Bird and MH-60M Blackhawk helicopters.




The Night Stalkers’ unusual helicopters are readily identifiable during the day. They are painted flat black instead of the more common olive green color and have almost no visible markings. The aircraft Lance Riegle photographed had temporary markings on the fuselage using tape, a common practice in a large training evolutions using numerous aircraft.

The Nightstalkers are the only unit in the Army using the MH-6M Little Bird, the helicopter you may remember landing on the roof of the Olympic Hotel in the book and movie “Blackhawk Down” when the secretive SFO-D (Special Forces Operational detachment- Delta) assaulted the building.

A pair of MH-6M Little Bird helicopters of the “Nightstalkers” flies toward the Navy SEAL facility at Dam Neck. Even at night only a single red light was visible on the aircraft. (Photo: Lance Riegle)

The U.S. Army’s 160th SOAR specializes in night flying at low altitude for clandestine insertions into denied areas. Aircraft flown by the Nightstalkers have an exotic communications and sensor suite on board accounting for the massive number of antennae and vision systems protruding from the helicopters. The MH-60M Blackhawks have a dazzling array of special secure radios, sensors and satellite communications on board. They include the AN/ARC-201D single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS), four onboard Raytheon AN/ARC-231 Skyfire radios, two of them equipped with satellite communications capability, two AN/ARC-220 high frequency radios, an MTX Blue Force Tracker to prevent accidental friendly fire engagements. The nose of the MH-60M also features the Raytheon AN/APQ-187 SilentKnight radar for terrain-following at low altitude at night and the Raytheon AN/ZSQ-2 EOSS electro-optical (EO) and infrared (FLIR) cameras for night vision. Nightstalker pilots are also the most proficient aviators in the world at dangerous low-altitude, night vision goggle flying. All these system antennae and sensors are visible in Riegle’s photos.

MH-60M Blackhawks return to the Navy SEAL facility at Dam Neck after a training sortie at sea.

“The first time I saw them was at night. I was surprised they were flying as close to the ground and to buildings as they were at night with all their lights off. The only light they had on was one small, blinking tail light.”

Training activities for these elite teams are common in the area, but being in the right place at the right time to get photos can be tricky, especially for a large training exercise like this one. Riegle observed the aviation activity for four days at multiple times throughout the day. The aircraft would fly in and out of two points, sometimes loaded with operators, sometimes returning empty. The aircraft originated north of Riegle’s location and then flew south to Dam Neck initially before heading out to sea. This mission profile suggests the aircraft and their load of special operators could have been conducting Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operation training. “At night, they stayed closer to shore, during the day they were further out,” Riegle noted.



Once Lance Riegle began noticing the high tempo of special operations activity in the area he kept his camera with him and managed to grab some photos of the rarely seen stealthy 41-foot CCA Mk1 high speed boats used by Special Boat Team 20 stationed at Dam Neck.

The unusual CCA Mk1 high speed boats of Special Boat Team 20 at Dam Neck.

In August 2017 journalist Joseph Trevithick reported at The War Zone that, “From what little we know about the 41-foot long craft, technically known as the CCA Mk. 1, it is low-observable design with a composite material hull and a pair of high performance engines that could operate with a low likelihood of detection even close to shore. It is reportedly small enough that U.S. Air Force C-17s can air drop it directly into a given body of water.”

A close look at a CCA Mk1 high speed boat.

Following a few days of managing to get some rare photos of these secretive aircraft, boats and special operations teams in training Riegle said, “It’s interesting that these guys do this every day around the world but nobody ever sees them including us Americans.” Thanks to Lance’s interesting photos, we get a rare glimpse at these exotic aircraft, boats and men in action.

All images: Lance Riegle.

Top image: A grainy close-up of an MH-60M Blackhawk of the U.S. Army’s 160th SOAR, the “Night Stalkers” flies just off the coast of Dam Neck. The numerous sensors, the night vision goggles on the helmets of operators and their unusual uniforms with knee pads can barely be seen in this enlargement. (Photo: Lance Riegle)

New “Bulge” On Top Of U.S. Marine Corps and AFSOC’s V-22 Osprey Tilt-Rotor Aircraft Is A Radome That Houses A SATCOM Antenna

The new “bulge” is a radome for the Ku Ka antenna used to interconnect the CV-22s and MV-22s to a complex system providing secure voice and chat, classified network access and much more.

If you browse through the huge amount of photographs regularly released by the DoD, you’ll notice that some of the Air Force Special Operation Command’s CV-22 and U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys have been modified. The tilt-rotor aircraft now sport a new “bulge” on the upper fuselage between the wings and the tail. After a quick investigation we have found that the “bulge” is actually a radome hosting a SATCOM antenna quite similar to the one used aboard airliners to give passengers the ability to stream Prime Video or Netflix live on their mobile devices while airborne.

The antenna is aimed to give the Ospreys the ability to interconnect to classified (and unclassified) networks with increased bandwidth and transparent transitions among multiple satellite beams in process: this significantly improves Situational Awareness, as the Osprey can get tactical details and access secure channels in a reliable way while enroute. The problem faced by the V-22s (both the U.S. Air Force CV-22s and the U.S. Marine Corps MV-22s) as well as other assets, is the changes occurring during a long air transit to the target area. The battlefield is a extremely dynamic scenario with forces in continuous movement. A Special Operations aircraft launching from a Forward Operating Base located at 1-hour flight time from the area of operations may find a completely changed tactical situation than the one briefed before departure by the time it gets there. Describing the need to be constantly updated, the commanding officer of a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force said in a news release: “As an infantryman, it’s very frustrating when you’ve fully planned a mission. Then after a long air transit to the objective area you get off the plane and find out everything is different … rules of engagement, enemy locations, even the objective itself.”

For instance, during the civil war in South Sudan, Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys flew a Marine response force from Spain to Djibouti in a non-stop flight of 3,200 nautical miles – the distance from Alaska to Florida. But U.S. Marine Corps crisis response units for U.S. Africa and U.S. Central Commands aboard MV-22 Osprey and KC-130J aircraft were typically disconnected from intelligence updates, tactical data sources and each other while flying to a crisis hot spot. This means that  but needed a capability to conduct mission planning, and command and control when flying to distant objective areas.

For this reason, it is extremely important that the aircraft is constantly fed with relevant updates while enroute .

Dealing with the MV-22s, the antenna is part of the Networking On-The-Move-Airborne Increment 2 (NOTM-A Inc 2) initiative launched in 2016. It includes a suite that can be fitted to the KC-130J and MV-22 to provide an airborne en route mission planning and over-the-horizon/beyond-line-of-sight (OTH/BLOS) communication and collaboration capability. Noteworthy, the NOTM-A is capable of installation/configuration within 60 minutes, and rapid disembarkation from its host airframe in preparation for future missions. The Quick-Release-Antenna-System for the satellite communications system varies depending on host aircraft but features network management equipment and C2 components that are airframe agnostic. The system provides internal secure wireless LAN access point for staff personnel to perform digital C2 functions in the SATCOM host aircraft: in other words the NOTM-A provides connectivity for the aircrew through secure WiFi network. Interestingly, access to the global information grid and Marine Corps enterprise network can be accomplished via commercial network access.

Ground communications specialist Marines train on configuring and operating the Networking On-the-Move-Airborne Increment II. This month, Marine Corps Systems Command fielded the first NOTM-A Inc. II System to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit to enhance their ability to communicate in the air. (U.S. Marine Corps photo courtesy of Chris Wagner)

According to the U.S. Marine Corps, in May 2015, the first NOTM-Airborne Increment I (also known as the Hatch-Mounted Satellite Communication Antenna System) was fielded to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces. It gave embarked ground personnel real-time access to networks during airborne operations aboard KC-130 aircraft. As a consequence of the success with the Super Hercules, the Marine Corps decided to install NOTM-A Inc. II on the MV-22 and, in June 2018, the first of the systems was fielded to the 22nd MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit).

“It can take hours to fly to a location to complete a mission, and during that time, the situation on the ground can change significantly,” said Chris Wagner, NOTM lead engineer in MCSC’s Command Element Systems in an official news release. “The NOTM capability provides Marines with real time command, control and collaborative mission planning while airborne.”

An MV-22 Avionics technician installs the Quick-Release-Antenna-System which is part of the Networking On-the-Move-Airborne Increment II. This month, Marine Corps Systems Command fielded the first NOTM-A Inc. II System to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit to enhance their ability to communicate in the air. (U.S. Marine Corps photo courtesy of Chris Wagner)

In order to accommodate the new system, the Naval Air Systems Command and MCSC had to modify the Osprey: “This involved modifications such as replacing the rear overhead hatch, installing a SATCOM radome, and installing system interface cables. Mission ready, the system is capable of providing communications access for up to five users, including networks, voice, email, video and text.

With the new equipment, the MV-22 aircrews can get accurate and up-to-date en route information: “If the situation on the ground changes, we can get updates to the Common Operating Picture, from reconnaissance assets to the commander enabling mission changes while en route.”

Testing with the MV-22 took place November through December 2017 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. Marine Expeditionary Forces I and II will receive the NOTM-A Inc. II System when fielding continues in 2019.

When it deals with the modification to the U.S. Air Force CV-22, little details are available. Most of the information comes from Powerpoint deck (in .pdf format) that you can find online. The slides, dated 2016, are part of a presentation on Airborne Mobile Broadband Communications by ViaSat Inc. a global broadband services and technology company based in California that provides satellite communications service for government, defense and military applications.

U.S. Army Special Operations Soldiers exfiltrate from a training area, via a U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey, March 1, 2018, at Melrose Air Force Range, New Mexico. This CV-22 is not equipped with the new SATCOM system. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sam Weaver)

The presentation includes interesting details about the SATCOM antennae used to connect to ViaSat services by C-17 airlifters, AC-130U gunships, Air Force One and VIP aircraft (including C-40 and C-32), RC-135 Rivet Joint spyplanes (both the U.S. and UK ones) as well as MV-22 and CV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. Dealing with the latter ones, the presentation states that at least 6 shipsets had already been delivered to AFSOC for the CV-22 Satcom System and Service whilst the initial 4 shipsets for the MV-22 Satcom Systems had been contracted. Based on this, it looks like the system used by the U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 and CV-22 is the same (as one might expect): it offers a kit with easy roll on/roll off capability, maintenance and upgrades.

Soldiers from the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command and 3rd Special Forces Group move toward U.S. Air Force CV-22 Ospreys Feb. 26, 2018, at Melrose Training Range. The CV-22 in the foreground has the SATCOM radome, the one in the background does not sport any “bulge” (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Clayton Cupit)

Watch Night Stalkers’ MH-60 Black Hawk and MH-6 Little Bird Helicopters Fly Underneath The Brooklyn Bridge in NYC

The footage, showing U.S. Army’s elite unit’s helicopters was filmed during the exercises carried out by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) last April.

Last April, some MH-60s and MH-6s helicopters belonging to the 160th SOAR “Night Stalkers” carried out a series of exercises in New York City. As reported by Tyler Rogoway at the War Zone back then, between April 17 and 18, the U.S. Army choppers flying over Lower Manhattan during flights that saw the helicopters, likely carrying special operators, flying between skyscrapers.

The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment is a highly-specialized combat aviation unit headquartered at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky that supports elite U.S. and coalition combat units like Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare (SEALs) and other special operations units. They fly MH-47G Chinooks, MH-60L/M/K Black Hawks, A/MH-6M Little Birds and, since Nov. 19, 2013, the  MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone, advanced derivative of the Predator  specialized in providing direct operation control by Army field commanders. It can fly Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA); convoy protection; Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detection as well as providing live aerial imagery to ground patrols carrying also PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions).

160th SOAR mainly operate at night (hence their name) in attack, assault, reconnaissance, infiltration and exfiltration, and any kind of known or unknown special operations you may imagine. Indeed, the “Night Stalkers” are quite famous for the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, Operation Neptune’s Spear, on May 1, 2011. During that raid, the unit flew a classified, low-observable variant of the Blackhawk helicopter that has since been popularly referred to in speculation as the “MH-X Stealth Black Hawk” or “Silent Hawk”. Images of part of the secret helicopter were seen around the world when one of them crashed inside Bin Laden’s compound during the raid, leaving the tail section visible. Books and media accounts suggest only two of the aircraft were ever produced. During the years we have also speculated about the existence of stealthy Little Birds and stealthy Chinooks as well.

Anyway, just the Little Birds and Black Hawks can be seen in the footage filmed during the New York training last April.

The helicopters flying low over the East River were probably carrying special operators involved in a simulated terrorist attack on a vessel as reported by Rogoway who wrote that along with reports and videos of the choppers flying low level at night, there “were also reports that a Staten Island Ferry went sailing down the Hudson River flanked by police boats. It is possible that the special operators rappelled onto the vessel in response to a mock terrorist attack or hostage scenario.”

If you can’t see the video click here.

Not only are the Night Stalkers involved in urban training even though most units carry out such training far from residential zones: in 2017 we took part in “Realistic Urban Training” (RUT), a live fire assault on an “urban complex” on the ranges at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in Twentynine Palms, CA. The activity was part of 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) workups to the deployment to the Pacific on the U.S.S. America (LHA-6) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) The MEUs, the smallest Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) numbering about 2,200 Marines, are “broadly capable, forward deployed forces prepared to quickly respond to a global crisis of a humanitarian or military nature”. That’s why they conduct RUT to assess the combat capabilities of the MEUs to exfiltrate forces or secure and hold ground, even when the contested space is a large city.

Kinetic “urban operations” are carried out using live armament in “fake towns” specifically built to practice firing rockets, guns and laser-guided training rounds. Such as  “Yodaville” near Yuma, Arizona, within the Urban Target Complex or R-2013-West, an isolated town built in 1999 and surrounded by terrain similar to that you can find in the Middle East or Asia. Yodaville provides the most realistic target environment for pilot and ground controllers to improve their skills in CAS (Close Air Support) conducted in urban areas – aka UCAS (Urban CAS). UCAS sorties are also launched as part of MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) to assist civilians during NEOs (Non-combatant Evacuation Operations), as happened in the past, in Saigon or Tirana.

H/T to @thenewarea51 for sharing this on Twitter!

Questions Remain Surrounding Special Operations Blackhawk Crash in Iraq

Veteran Helicopter Pilot Killed in Crash Was in Ninth Combat Deployment.

Late Tuesday, August 21, 2018, U.S. military officials identified the Army helicopter pilot who died on Monday as a result of wounds received in a crash in Iraq on Sunday, August 19, 2018 during an undisclosed operation. Official news releases report three additional wounded U.S. personnel have been evacuated to treatment facilities.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Taylor J. Galvin, 34, from Spokane, Washington, died Aug. 20, in Baghdad as a result of injuries sustained when his helicopter crashed in Sinjar, Ninevah Province, according to a Department of Defense news release.

CW3 Galvin was assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) as an MH-60M Blackhawk helicopter pilot. He was flying in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Galvin was originally from Phoenix, Arizona. He was 34 years old. Galvin was a combat veteran special operations pilot with nine deployments including two during Iraqi Freedom, three in Operation Enduring Freedom and four more during Operation Inherent Resolve. He was the recipient of the U.S. Army Air Medal (C device) and Air Medal (30LC) for heroism or meritorious achievement while flying in addition to numerous other awards.

A file photo of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Taylor J. Galvin, 34, of Spokane, Washington. Galvin died Monday from injuries received in the crash of his MH-60K Blackhawk special operations helicopter. (Photo: US Army)

In an August 20, 2018 article on Newsweek.com about the fatal crash, journalist James LaPorta reported that, “It is unclear why the MH-60 Blackhawk went down, but U.S. military sources with knowledge of the crash said the helicopter was returning to base after conducting a partnered small-scale raid on Islamic State militants in an undisclosed region as part of ongoing counterterrorism operations.” LaPorta went on to write, “Ten U.S. military personnel were onboard the aircraft being flown by U.S. Army pilots from the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers.”

The region near Sinjar (Shingal), Iraq where the crash occurred had been active in supporting cross-border anti-ISIS operations into neighboring Syria for more than a month until U.S. troops were withdrawn from the area in the middle of July, 2018 according to a report by Wladimir van Wilgenburg published in the regional Kurdistan 24 online news source. This is also the region where Iraqi Air Force F-16s have conducted their first airstrikes against insurgents during cross-border strikes into Syria.

The crash was reported to have occurred at approximately 10:00 PM local time (2200 hrs, GMT+3). Sunset in the region on August 19, the date of the accident, occurred at 6:40 PM local time. Weather in the area was hot, 101 degrees Fahrenheit, with light winds and clear skies. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning told reporters Monday that the crash was not caused by enemy fire.

Reports about the aircraft and the personnel on board may contradict official assertions that the U.S. role in the region is predominantly in an advisory capacity. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Night Stalkers”, is a highly-specialized combat aviation unit headquartered at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky that supports elite U.S. and coalition combat units like Army Special Forces, Naval Special Warfare (SEALs) and other special operations units.

This latest crash brings the total of serious U.S. military aircraft accidents this year to at least 14.

The 160th SOAR, the “Night Stalkers”, are most famous for the raid to capture Osama bin Laden, Operation Neptune’s Spear, on May 1, 2011. During that raid, the unit flew a classified, low-observable variant of the Blackhawk helicopter that has since been popularly referred to in speculation as the “MH-X Stealth Black Hawk” or “Silent Hawk”. Images of part of the secret helicopter were seen around the world when one of them crashed inside Bin Laden’s compound during the raid, leaving the tail section visible. Books and media accounts suggest only two of the aircraft were ever produced.

In 2015, a MH-60M Black Hawk crashed on the deck of a U.S. Navy ship near Okinawa, Japan, injuring seven; more recently, in August 2017, a 160th SOAR’s MH-60 crashed off Yemen killing one soldier.

Top image credit: U.S. Army

Viral Fog Landing Video Likely Shows UK’s Special “Blue Thunder” Dauphin Helicopter At Work

Video of Heli Landing in Dense Fog Likely Shows Elite Joint 658 Squadron Helicopter Unit.

A video of a helicopter flying incredibly low over a fog shrouded road that was shot two days ago in Kirkstone Pass in the English Lake District of County Cumbria has been featured in nearly every European news media. It will likely make the rounds in the U.S. also as the time zone catches up. But most media sharing the viral video have likely identified the aircraft and its operators incorrectly.

Most news media who have shared the video have said the blue helicopter may be a British “SAS” or Special Air Service helicopter. And while there may be some degree of accuracy to the assumption that the SAS is involved in the flight, it is more likely the helicopter flying in unbelievably bad weather through the mountains belongs to someone else entirely.

The video appears to have been shot from a family car dash cam since the camera is static and very close to the vehicle windshield. It may also have been a smartphone video since, remember U.S. readers, in UK the passenger sits on the left side of the vehicle and the driver on the right.

Whichever way the video was shot, the videographer, identified in the BBC North West use of the video as “Brian Weatherall”, sees the aircraft emerge out of the fog on his left near a stone wall and appear to begin to flare for a landing next to the road. It’s pretty dramatic, and one can only imagine it is even more dramatic from the helicopter pilot’s perspective.

It’s likely the helicopter in the video is a Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphin II, nicknamed “Blue Thunder” by the British tabloids, that belongs to the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW). Specifically, the unit flying the aircraft is probably the 658 Squadron based at SAS HQ at Credenhill, near Hereford. The elite aviation unit was previously known as 8 Flight AAC until September 2013. This unit supports the British 22nd Special Air Service (22 SAS).

The helicopter in the viral fog video is likely a special operations AS365N3 Dauphin II like this one. (Photo: Mark Harkin/Wiki)

The 658 Squadron is roughly comparable in mission to the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR). The 160th SOAR support U.S. special operations for the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Army Special Forces. They are commonly assumed to have flown the still secret “stealth hawk” helicopter used in Operation Neptune Spear, the 2011 raid to capture Osama Bin Laden.

If the helicopter is an AS365N3 from 658 Squadron, the more interesting question is, what was it doing flying so low so close to a public road? In general, special operations helicopters maintain a low profile and avoid exercises where they may wind up in a viral social media video. Some factors that may cause one to operate close to civilian roads may include things like a rescue flight for personnel injured during training or participation in a civilian emergency mission. It’s also possible the aircraft is conducting an insertion or extraction of forces on a training exercise in the area, possibly even on the road as we’ve seen with videos of special forces helicopters stopping vehicles on roads in the Middle East.

Whatever the case may be with the aircraft in the video, the color livery of the helicopter, the fact that it is flying in very difficult conditions and the proximity to special forces training areas all support the argument that it is a 658 Squadron aircraft. That makes this video very special, and a truly marvelous catch for Mr. Brian Weatherall.

Top image: screenshot from Brian Weatherall video via BBC