Dust Devils Deactivated - Philip Stevens reports


This news was published on Monday, December 24th, 2007 and is archived under Photography.


Based at RAF Mildenhall, in the UK, the 21st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) with its 250 personnel, as part of the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG) was officially deactivated on October 9, 2007. The 21st SOS, known as the ‘Dust Devils’, flew the Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopter until the last flight from their home base on September 13. All five Pave Lows in the fleet took the air for the final flight, which included aerial refuelling with their 67th SOS stable mates flying a MC-130P Combat Shadow.  Up until deactivation, the 21st SOS were the USAF Special Operations European Command’s only vertical lift unit, their tasks are to be taken over by the US Army. Held on continuous stand-by they can be tasked at a moments notice with a broad range of operations, from Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) to humanitarian relief. For most of the year they will find themselves on Special Operations duties away from Mildenhall.


The term ‘Special Operations’ conjures up thoughts of a secret world where small but highly trained military teams take action behind enemy lines at the dead of night. As publicity can be double-edged sword for Special Ops’ personnel I was grateful and a little surprised to be invited to spend some time with the Dust Devils in their final year. Before we get into our thermal underwear and survival gear and pack our Night Vision Goggles (NVG), I will take a look at AFSOC’s history, structure and their very special aircraft.



The rear aerial gunner fitted with a monkey harness crouches behind ramp mounted rear-facing

General Electric GAU-2B/A Gatling Machine Gun (7.62mm ‘minigun’) at the end of the MH-53M’s ramp.

The start of something special


Back in 1980 Americans saw jubilant Iranians dancing over the bodies of eight dead servicemen who were killed when their H-53 helicopters collided at the ‘Desert One’ Landing Zone (LZ). President Carter had authorised the mission to rescue 53 American hostages held at the US Embassy in Tehran following Ayatollah Khomeni’s Islamic revolution of 1979. The mission had ended in disaster, and the US military were determined that such humiliation would not happen again. The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) followed, combining all the available expertise from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The aim was to produce the best trained and most highly specialised commands in the US military. SOCOM was formed in 1987. In 1990 the air component of SOCOM which had been part of Military Airlift Command as the 23rd Air Force were given their own individual status as AFSOC. This new major command consisted of three wings, the 1st, 39th and 353rd Special Operations Wings (SOW). The 352nd SOG was activated on December 1, 1992 and replaced the 39th SOW. In 1993 the 1st SOW was renumbered the 16th SOW at Hurlburt Field in Florida. However it was announced that 16th SOW would move to the vacant Cannon AFB in New Mexico in October 2007. Cannon AFB is located close to the Melrose Range, which opens up new unrestricted high desert training opportunities. The 1st SOW was reactivated at Hurlburt Field on November 16, 2006.


Currently the 16th SOW consists of the 720th Special Tactics Group, the USAF Special Operations School and the 18th Flight Test Squadron all based at Hurlburt Field. To attain worldwide coverage, there is the 347th Rescue Wing at Moody AFB in Georgia, the 352nd Special Operations Group at RAF Mildenhall in England, the 353rd Special Operations Group at Kadena AB in Japan, the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona.

AFSOC is comprised of almost 20,000 personnel, of those 13,000 are on active duty, including 2,250 officers. The rest of the team are made up of people in the Air Force Reserve (2,900), Air National Guard (2,600) and civilians (1,150). Their mission is; “Provides combat search and rescue, and delivers special operations power anytime, anywhere”. Whether there is a pilot of a downed aircraft over occupied territory or a hostage that needs rescuing the servicemen of AFSOC are prepared to risk their lives to get you home.


Mounted on the sponson above the fuel tank on both sides is the ALQ-157 Infrared (IR) Jammer.



MH-53M descends into a wooded clearing in Norfolk, there is just a few metres clearance for the

large rota-blades.

Specialised aircraft and equipment is required


Using experience which dates back to the Vietnam War and earlier, AFSOC have acquired and impressive range of specialised aircraft and equipment. Special Forces for obvious reason prefer to operate at night and at low level. Aircrew who claim to ‘own the night’ use night-vision goggles, terrain-avoiding/terrain-following radar, Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) and GPS navigation. The aircraft of choice are the reliable Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Sikorsky HH-53. AFSOC aircraft may have been around for a while but they are highly modified to enable them to get the job done.


MH-53J/M Pave Low III/IV


The MH-53J is based on the HH-53C which was extensively used during the Vietnam War for special operations and combat recovery rescue. The MH-53J Pave Low III is the largest, most powerful and most technologically advanced helicopter in the US Air Force. The Pave Low’s mission is to fly undetected at low-level over long ranges. They can fly in day or night and in adverse weather conditions for insertion, extraction and re-supply of Special Forces. Crew have the following available to them; terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radar, FLIR, Doppler navigational system with inertial GPS with a projected map display to enable them to follow at low level the contours of the ground and to avoid obstacles. The MH-53M Pave Low IV is a modified J-model and fitted with the Interactive Defensive Avionics System (IDAS) and the Multi-Mission Advanced Tactical Terminal (MATT). These advanced systems enhance the Pave Low’s defensive capabilities and provides instant access to the total battlefield situation, with real-time Electronic Order of Battle updates. Near real-time broadcasts from over-the-horizon can now be received, enabling crew to avoid detection by re-routing if necessary.


The Pave Low can be heavily armed with two side and one ramp mounted guns. Mission specific crew will set up combinations of General Electric GAU-2B/A Gatling Machine Gun (7.62mm ‘miniguns’) and/or .50 calibre (12.7mm) machine-guns. The ‘minigun’ was designed for the B-17 and B-25, its only modification being a flash suppresser. It has a minimum range of engagement of 300 feet (120m) and range of 6,000 feet (2,362m); “well beyond the range of an AK-47” we were told. It fires 2000 rounds per minute on low rate, 4000 rounds on high rate. 4,500 rounds are routinely carried in three cans of 1,500 each. Aerial gunner TSgt Art Kennedy explained that the “tactics have changed since the Vietnam War; we no longer shoot our way in and shoot our way out. It’s a bad day if you have to use more than 4,500 rounds”. 1 inch (25mm) thick Kevlar is fitted around the front of the aircraft to protect the pilots the engine and also around the tail rotor.


Two jettisonable fuel tanks are carried below the sponson each can carry 500 US gallons (1,893 litres).

The MH-53M has adopted a low-IR signature overall-grey finish.

“What are we trying to accomplish tonight?”


Special Operations by their nature are very varied, constant training for every possible mission is essential. The 21st SOS ‘Dust Devils’ briefings are usually during the afternoon, as their missions tend to be at night, their training exercises start later afternoon and go well in to the night. A small box is positioned outside the briefing room for mobile phones, as security is treated very seriously for all missions.


The Squadron Commander addresses the meeting weather, detailing; visibility, turbulence, wind speeds and direction, cloud cover with heights and icing heights. He asked the assembled MH-53M crews, “What are we trying to accomplish tonight?” To start we were to depart Mildenhall as ‘Helo 51’ and ‘Helo 52’ at 700 feet, descending down to 150 feet (275m) to the first landing zone (LZ) or drop zone (DZ). A white board diagram revealed that this was a woodland clearing. The surrounding trees were 30 feet (12m) in height. Various hazards were discussed, such as the trees lacked foliage and so were hard to see, particularly at night. A field to the north-west was ploughed, so was likely to bring up dust during hovering.


The pair of MH-53M’s had to coordinate a series of manoeuvres, including ‘air landings’ where the helicopter hovers at 30 feet (12m) to transfer crew using the hoist. The 15 foot (6m) rope ladder was also to be used in the repeated manoeuvres, scheduled to last 35 minutes.


The next location for manoeuvres was the seldom used Sculthorpe airfield for Low Visibility Approach (LVA) training. Again detailed procedures were detailed, pilots were to call their base turns, so they knew where each was at all times. Sculthorpe’s runway would mark the dividing line between to two helicopters operating zones to ensure separation. At this point there was an open discussion between the Commander and the pilots regarding operating procedures and manoeuvres to ensure safety. Eventually an instruction manual is consulted and quoted and a decision made. Other locations and hazards were detailed until the evening’s mission was perfected and understood.


MH-53M missions can go deep into enemy or hostile territory, and so there is regular night time in-flight refuelling training. Our two MH-53M were to rendezvous with the Combat Shadow after sunset for some gas. ‘Helo 51’ was to use the left hose, ‘Helo 52’ the right hose. The Combat Shadow was due to take off an hour before us.  Late in to the evening we were to make our way to a coastal firing range. Finally as single ships we were to recover to Mildenhall with a land time of 23:00.


Risk assessment information was read out regarding hot refuelling. ‘Topic of the day’ was a good personal health reminder. “Senses should be sharp, mentally, physically and I guess spiritually prepared for the mission to maintain standards throughout the flight. To be fully proficient aviators you must practice manoeuvres periodically and consistently”.


Our aircraft commander in the left seat was Capt. Matt Shrull. Tonight we should expect the flight to be “uncomfortable”; we will be ‘jinking’ when on the firing range. ‘Jinking’ is when the aircraft banks to the left, then to the right and then lift the nose, this repeated manoeuvre allows each of the three aerial gunners in turn to shoot down beneath the aircraft.


“I have been around”


The MH-53M’s had been set up with three 7.62mm ‘miniguns’ specifically for use on the firing range later. After the briefing we were able to talk to our ‘minder’, Aerial Gunner TSgt Art Kennedy. We were told that he had quote, “been around”.  Kennedy had been in maintenance for the first ten years of service in the Air Force. “So why did you join Special Operations ten years ago?”, “I just wanted to fly”. At this point I thought there was perhaps easier ways to fly. “What was your most memorable mission?” Kennedy was a little reticent or circumspect, reluctant to discuss the missions that they had participated in around the world. “Pretty well every mission is memorable”, I was told. “Come on, there must be a mission that is your most memorable?” “Well there is one from ten years ago, when I was with 58th SOW at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico (58th SOW are part of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and tasked to provide lead-in training for special operations aircrew) I was doing my check ride to graduate out of school house. There were two evaluators and one said that blood will be spilled tonight, obviously referring to the hard effort that was required. Out on the range, half way through the check ride, my gun jammed and I tried to clear it, but in vain. The evaluator stepped in with a power tool and pliers to remove one of the pins from the repeater. In his effort to remove the pin the tool slipped and he struck me with his, between my NVG’s and my lip mike. It was December 12 and it was very cold and my nose was running. When I put my glove to my nose it was covered in blood and also running down my clothes. I went to the front of the Helicopter sat down, blocked up my nose and in ten minutes I was back in the game. Everyone saw the incident, even the Commander. At the end of the check ride the Commander said I had graduated and was ready to go. I have been an aerial gunner ever since.


When I asked what his most memorable mission was, I was expecting it to one from Iraq or Afghanistan. “So what was the most dangerous mission you have been on“? ”Oh Jesus, that was just last month down in Iraq. Flying around in the dark, you don’t know who or what is trying to get you. There are a lot of bad people out there. The most frightening thing is the not knowing. We fly to certain areas where the threat is high. It is something you have to prepare yourself for you just do your job. Your biggest fear is ground to air missiles, you just have to watch them and trust in our defensive equipment. I have had a couple of missiles fired at our helicopter, which we managed to evade and they missed us and we got away to fly another day”.


Equipment issued included; a helmet with two visors (clear and tinted) and lip mike, jacket, gloves, harness, life jacket. We were warned it was going to be cold and possibly wet. At way point 14 we were to conduct a series of night water landings, four miles (6 km) off-shore for 30 minutes. When inflatable rubber craft are launched the helicopter hovers just above the waves at a height of one foot (300mm), expected to be no more than three feet (1m) that night, out of the rear loading door. It is not uncommon for an amount of water to wash into the helicopter itself.  I was told that on one occasion the water was knee deep in the cabin at one point.

We went out to the aircraft two hours before we were due to depart. During this time the aerial gunners prepare for the mission, by the stowing of equipment, including rope ladder, eight signal distress flares and gun ammunition. Everything is checked.


I was given my safety briefing. “Should we ditch, wait until everything has stopped moving before attempting top leave. Moving rotor blades are the obvious hazard”. The helicopter may even turn over during this period. With chemical lights marking the sides of the cabin you should follow yellow cords strung along the inside of the cabin and leave by the large rear open door. Thin Perspex windows 3mm (1/8”) think can easily be kicked out offering an alternative exit point. If the pilots are still in the cockpit don’t attempt to leave that way, you won’t get passed them! The two side aerial gunners have there own opening to climb out from, if they have gone only then can you follow them.


Following comm. checks, engine start up is 30 minutes before departure to clean out the engines with cleaning agent. We taxi out for a ten foot hover check and with everything in order we were away……..or so we thought!

Keeping these Viet Nam era work horses flying is a major challenge, which ultimately ended in September 2007 for the Dust Devils ground crew. Unfortunately on this evening one of the Pave Lows had technical problems which forced our mission in part to be aborted. To make the most of the situation we continued our flight to Thetford forest to conduct some practice landings amongst trees combined with a search and rescue operation. Our sortie had been cut short on this occasion but the experience and value of the exercise had been exceeded my expectations.`


The Future


The 352nd SOG will continue to fly its MC-130H/P’s from Mildenhall, aerial refuelling nearby RAF Lakenheath’s recently arrived 56th RQS flying HH-60’s. The 21st SOS’s MH-53M Pave Low IV’s were shipped out of Mildenhall by C-5 Galaxy bound for open storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Montan AFB in Arizona. The rest of the Pave Low IV’s of 20th SOS are expected to be phased out in 2008. On March 30, Senior Airman Evan Pinkerton became the last Pave Low student to graduate in the final class at 58th SOW/551st SOS at Kirtland, New Mexico. Pave Lows of the 58th SOW at Kirtland were retired in April and flown to AMARG.


The first operational CV-22B Osprey was received by 8th SOS at Hurlburt Field in December 2006 to replace their MC-130E Talons.  50 Ospreys will be delivered to AFSOC by 2017.


The first AC-130U Spooky gunship was armed with the 30mm Bushmaster cannon which has replaces the 25mm and 40mm guns, a 105mm cannon is retained. “We are buying increased lethality at the same time we’re improving reliability” said Lt. Col. Mike Gottstine, AFSOC’s chief of strike/intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements. The aging 40mm Bofors cannon have been around in various forms since World War II. The 25mm cannon has continually suffered from a poor maintenance record. The Bushmaster fires 200 rounds a minute and is faster than the 40mm cannon it replaces. Flight testing with the 4th SOS of the AC-130U started in January 2007 and should be complete by July. Three more AC-130U should join the fleet by December 2007. It is hoped when funding allows that AFSOC’s AC-130H Spectre fleet will have the 30mm cannons installed.


Announced in October 2006, AFSOC are looking at the feasibility of using lighter transport aircraft than the MC-130’s. Some missions don’t require the full capabilities of the MC-130. AFSOC sometimes will send small teams of personnel into a nation to assist the government with some kind of mission or clandestine task. A MC-130 sitting on the ramp in American markings can be a little too conspicuous. The Alenia C-27J and the CASA C-295 are two aircraft that are being considered.




While the photography itself was not very challenging, the time spent with the 21st SOS was awesome. The day started with a medical, to check I was fit for flight. The approval to fly lasts for 72 hours. As the 21st SOS crew are virtually nocturnal the rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent with the helicopters and maintenance teams only. On meeting the flying crew mid-afternoon we were invited to attend the mission briefing. All mobile phones are left in a box outside the room, and the Commander warned attendees not to speak of classified subjects.


Following interviews and kitting-out, we went out to the helicopters for an eye-opening safety briefing. When in the MH-53M your harness is used to clip a karabiner locking device to rings on the helicopter’s floor at all times. If you want to move then you should signal your intention or speak on the intercom before moving. At all times I felt that I was being totally looked after and my personal safety was paramount to my minder for the flight. 


Source: Target Aviation Photography - Philip Stevens

Pictures provided and copyrighted by Target Aviation Photography - Philip Stevens