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Kiowas Take Farewell Flight over Fort Bragg, Fayetteville

OH-58D Kiowa Warrior

Slow. Small. Underpowered.

For much of its nearly 50-year history, the OH-58 has been the runt of Army aviation.

But its pilots have developed a reputation for being fearless. Its maintainers, tireless.

And the aircraft itself has become a beloved protector of America's ground forces.

But the Army's use of the Kiowa Warrior is coming to an end.

On Friday, the last U.S.-based Kiowa squadron took to the skies over Fort Bragg and Fayetteville for one last goodbye.

The 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment will deploy to Korea this summer, then transition to the AH-64 Apache and unmanned aerial systems upon its return.

Friday's flight was meant as a tribute to the unit and to the community and those who have worked with the Kiowa in the past.

"Today, we are not flying for ourselves," Lt. Col. Adam Frederick, the squadron commander, told aviators before the flight. "Today, like never before, we are flying for every 58D pilot, crew chief, maintainer, fueler, cook. Everybody."

That includes, he said, the 42 people from Kiowa squadrons killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Today, we're flying for each and every one of them," Frederick said.

In taking 32 OH-58Ds into the sky at one time, as well as one UH-60 Black Hawk, officials believe the squadron set a new world record for largest helicopter formation.

That would need to be verified by Guinness World Records.

Regardless, the flight was a noteworthy spectacle, watched by roughly 800 spectators at the downtown Airborne & Special Operations Museum, along with countless others online and across Fayetteville and Fort Bragg.

Kevin Palush was among those watching at the museum. His first tour as a helicopter pilot was with the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment.

"It was excellent. It was very emotional," said Palush, 56, of Fayetteville, who works as a helicopter pilot contractor after piloting helicopters during his 34 years in the Army. "It was visual as they went over the trees out of sight. They went off in history, if you will."

Fourteen minutes after schedule, the helicopters whirled overhead the downtown area, flying southeast, in what Palush called a custom formation. "World War II vets would call it 'the ruptured ducks,'" quipped an older veteran with a grin.

People were scattered around the museum's grounds near the Iron Mike statue, their necks arched upward, snapping photographs, shooting cellphone video, waving small U.S. flags and holding "Thank You" signs for the pilots who had a bird's-eye view of the city's gratitude.

"I wouldn't have missed it for anything," said Palush, who was wearing a Cavalry Stetson, the traditional headgear of the U.S. Cavalry. "Being a member of this unit was fundamental in my development. It's the end of an era, but every ending starts a new beginning. We'll see a return of the light observation helicopter at some point. There are certain things that eyes in a 'copter can do."

A contingent of 42 third-graders from Village Christian Academy and another 46 students, in this case, fifth- and sixth-graders from Capitol Encore Academy, gathered to see the flyover. Rachel Dorf-Caine, a school counselor at Capitol Encore Academy, said the significance of the rare OH-58 Kiowa flight formation had been discussed in some classes.

"This was really amazing how they're going from helping us to helping them," said 11-year-old Nalani Alston, one of the school's sixth-graders. "This was really amazing for everyone to see."

The Fayetteville Fire Department parked a ladder truck in front of the museum, flying the colors below the raised aerial platform. "We're basically here to show some support for the battalion (unit) being transferred out of here," said Assistant Chief Kevin Morgan.

Among those helicopter pilots putting on the aerial show was Linda Labnongsang's boyfriend, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Denico Woode.

"That was pretty awesome," she said. "There were so many helicopters and in perfect form. It was awesome to see."

Labnongsang, 33, was in the crowd to watch Woode and a good friend she has known for a long time. "I'm excited to see both of them doing their thing. I never get to see it," she said.

Both pilots, she added, are headed for Korea for a nine-month deployment.

"There's a patriotic side to me," Labnongsang said. "It's cool to me and part of our history."

The squadron, part of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, is one of only two Kiowa units remaining in the force.

When it deploys to Korea this summer, it will become the last to fly the unique helicopter, which began as an unarmed scout before gaining an offensive punch in the late 1980s.

The change, anticipated for years, is hard for some who have spent much of their careers flying the Kiowa.

"It's like losing a part of me," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael Eckhardt.

Eckhardt, who spent the last 23 years in the Army and the last 15 flying the OH-58, chose to retire rather than move to another aircraft.

Friday's flight was his last.

At Simmons Army Airfield the day before, he and others spoke of the significance of the aircraft to those who fly it.

Always an underdog, the helicopter has long exceeded expectations, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, where some cautioned it could never be deployed.

But it was. Eckhardt was part of that first deployment, early in the war. And he was part of the last for the helicopter, too, when the 82nd Airborne aviators flew the OH-58 for the last time in Afghanistan in late 2014.

"It's the end of a legacy," he said.

Eckhardt has spent 4,500 hours flying in OH-58s.

He's seen Army aviators say goodbye before.

In 1999, before he attended flight school, Eckhardt was a crew chief in Hawaii, serving in the last unit to fly the AH-1 Cobra.

Looking back on that day, Eckhardt said he could remember the "old men" watching with tears in their eyes as the Army bid farewell to the aircraft they loved.

"Now I am that old man, standing around getting ready to cry," Eckhardt said. "I just cannot believe how fast that happened."

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matt Steele had already said goodbye to the OH-58 before Friday.

He spent his final day with the helicopter last week, on his final flight in an Army uniform.

A 20-year career, the last 17 of which were spent flying the Kiowa, is ending.

Like Eckhardt, he describes the helicopter as an extension of the pilot.

"It's an incredible feeling," he said. "This is a very agile aircraft."

For his last flight, Steele led a formation of five OH-58s from Simmons to Stanly County and back.

For the first half of the flight, he said he didn't think much about leaving the helicopter behind.

But that changed on the return to Fort Bragg, as the pilots spoke on their radios.

In the skies above the Little River, he said he and the other pilots laughed at old memories and looked back on fonder times.

Steele has logged roughly 5,600 hours in the Kiowa.

He said he couldn't think of a better way or time to end his service.

"It's a great steed," he said. "I'm honored that I'm here to ride to the pasture with it."

Once he landed, Steele said he sat in the helicopter longer than usual.

Turning the battery switch off wasn't as easy as he thought it would be.

"It hit me harder than I anticipated," Steele said.

But with his wife and children waiting, Steele stepped out of the aircraft, where he was promptly sprayed with a fire hose.

It's an aviation tradition for a last flight, he said, followed by a celebration with champagne or beer.

The squadron worked tirelessly to prepare for Friday's flight, officials said.

At the same time, they continued to prepare for their upcoming deployment, and ready the helicopters and spare parts to be shipped from Fort Bragg to either be sold, displayed or parked in the deserts of Arizona.

Maj. Gen. Richard Clarke, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne, rode in one of the Kiowas for the formation.

Before the flight, he told the squadron he was honored to be part of the historic flight.

Clarke said the Kiowa, and the squadron in particular, had an outstanding history of service on behalf of the nation's defense.

Frederick agreed. And said he was humbled to be in a position to lead the squadron at this time.

In a nod to its service flying over paratroopers and other forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Kiowas flew over Ardennes Street, home to the 82nd Airborne, during its last flight.

But Frederick said the squadron would return. With new aircraft, but the same mission to protect troops.

"They've heard the sound of our hooves coming and they'll hear them again," he said. "Be proud. Be proud of what you're doing."

As part of the final flight, soldiers and familiar members gathered to say goodbye to the Kiowa.

They included Spc. Jon-Michael Chance, who has spent his Army career working on the Kiowa.

He explained how the helicopter was more finicky than a car or motorcycle, how everything needed to be exact, down to the torque on a single bolt, for the aircraft to work properly.

As he spoke, he proudly pointed to a Kiowa sitting on the flightline, No. 344.

"That is my aircraft. It has my name on it," he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Nathaniel Cooper has worked with the airframe since 2000.

He joined a Kiowa unit, he said, in part because he was impressed seeing it in action during training at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

"It's the end of the era of the Kiowa," Cooper said. "But the Kiowa is just a machine. We're cavalry all the way and we'll be cavalry in whatever machine they put us in."

But while others are ready to move on, Eckhardt and Steele won't.

They are, however, sure of the legacy of the aircraft they spent their careers flying, including four combat deployments each.

The helicopter's wartime service, and its pilots' willingness to put themselves in harm's way to protect ground forces, make it unique in Army aviation, Eckhardt said.

Whereas other helicopters can protect troops from miles away, the Kiowa was known for being up close.

"We get down in the weeds with ground forces in a way no other aircraft can," Steele said. "We aren't very fast. We aren't very big, but we see our job as being over the shoulders of the guys on the ground."

"When the guys on the ground need us, we're there," he said.

That endeared the helicopters, their pilots and maintainers to the infantry like no others.

"A 58 is in the fight with you, as opposed to any other aircraft," Eckhardt said, likening piloting the helicopter in combat to "a knife fight in a phone booth."

A Kiowa pilot can make eye contact with the troops he's there to protect, Eckhardt said.

And bonds form in those glances. Bonds strong enough to send strangers onto flight lines in Iraq and Afghanistan to seek out the pilots.

Eckhardt has shaken their hands. He's heard them say that "Today, I wouldn't be here," if it wasn't for the efforts of the squadron.

There's no greater satisfaction for a Kiowa pilot, he said.

"That is what I'm going to miss the most," Eckhardt said. "That is what's hardest to let go of."

"What I'm really dreading. is the fact that these aircraft have been in battle and every time somebody's needed help, they have been there," he said. "I dread when the time comes and they aren't there."

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