I got an interesting email yesterday from a combat veteran CSAR pilot. He makes some good points on the whole debate over the current CSAR-X requirements and protest, and I'd like to share them with DT readers with his permission:
(From retired Lt. Col. Charles D. Brown, former CSAR HH-53 pilot and veteran of the Vietnam evacuation and Mayaguez rescue)
The major issue in the contract comes from in the change from 'mission' ready to 'flight' ready. As a retired Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) pilot I can tell you that the seemingly insignificant difference between 'flight ready' and 'mission ready' is anything but insignificant. So, a bit of explanation. Boeing's Chinook can be 'flight' ready in the 3 hours it takes to put the helicopter back together after being off loaded from a C-17. But, 'flight ready' simply means that it can be flown on a formal maintenance check flight to verify that all the flight controls work exactly as necessary. To get the heavy-lift, Chinook into a C-17, you have to disconnect flight controls and remove major flight components. When you put it back together, you have to have a specially qualified flight crew take the aircraft up on a functional check flight before the aircraft can be used for a mission.
This maintenance check flight is supposed to happen in daylight and in good visual flight weather. Off load the Chinook at night or in bad weather, or have something go amiss during reassembly, and you might wait a day or two to have a 'mission ready' aircraft.
The Chinook is a good cargo helicopter. We need its heavy lift capability in our helicopter fleet. A CSAR helicopter must carry survivors, a basic crew and weapons but heavy lift and large size is not a requirement for CSAR. Its all about not being shot down. CSAR is about flying low over hostile enemy territory. You are there to 'sneak in, grab survivors fast, and get the hell out' before the enemy knows you have been there. Thats will be more difficult to achieve with a larger, noisier helicopter. Then theres the challenge of finding a landing zone big enough to accommodate a helicopter the size of the Chinook, landing being preferable to using a hoist, especially if there are multiple people to pick up.
In short, the difference between flight ready and mission ready is a major issue. Anyone who has flown helicopters knows that they are maintenance intensive. The helicopter that meets mission requirements with the fewest maintenance and check flight requirements is a winner. Speed counts in getting CSAR on scene. Less time for the enemy to search for survivors and prepare anti aircraft fire for the CSAR they know is coming. It's a big deal to the squadron and the pilots trying to fly the mission, and a really big deal to the downed, possibly injured warfighter caught behind enemy lines.
Survivors are in a life-or-death situation where every minute counts, and any delays that might be required to get a Chinook 'mission ready' from 'flight ready' are unacceptable. If the military requirements are for a helicopter that can be airlifted by cargo aircraft to a theater and be rapidly mission ready, I'm happy the Air Force didn't opt to overlook this 'technicality' and I suspect families, like mine, with loved ones in Iraq are too.