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If working through a global viral pandemic was not enough of a challenge, Boeing’s Philadelphia plant in August was struck by a tropical storm while assembling the first MH-47G Block II Chinook for U.S. Special Operations Command.
Through scourge and storm, employees at the company’s Philadelphia plant managed to keep the highly-modified, performance-boosted aircraft on schedule for a formal, socially distanced delivery ceremony on Sept. 1. Col. Phil Ryan, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (USASOAC), accepted the aircraft, which will be assigned to the famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), also called the “Night Stalkers.”
Ryan said the 160th’s current fleet of Mh-47s is “aging and weary” and in need of replacement with the Block II aircraft. The unit’s oldest Chinook was delivered in 1966, has 11,000 hours on it and is still flying, he said.
“Our maintainers and crews have done a great job keeping our Chinooks operating at peak performance, despite their age,” Ryan said. “But they truly do need replacing.”
The MH-47 is a workhorse and favorite helicopter of the Special Operations community, Ryans said. Often asked how many people they can carry in the back on a Chinook, 160th crew members will answer “at least one more,” he said.
Special Operations MH-47s have been deployed since October 2001 and have been fighting “day and night for nearing 19 years” with the 160th. The helicopters flew 14-hour missions from aircraft carriers during the initial entry of U.S. forces into Afghanistan, medical evacuation missions atop 10,000-foot mountains and raids the captured and killed most-wanted terrorists, and many other missions “some of which you have heard of and many which you have not,” Ryan said.
“These MH-47s have been put through the ringer,” Ryan said. “They’ve been shot up and shot down. They’ve limped back from missions missing landing gear or with significant structural damage and unfortunately, even with the best training and maintenance, we have lost multiple teammates and aircraft.”
In the 30-year history of the unit, it has lost 49 crew members and 17 chinooks in training and combat, he said.
Aircraft 2909, as it’s called, was loaded into final assembly in October, and was well on its way to completion when Covid-19 struck in March, forcing a two-week closure of most operations.
“The storm clouds rolled in around March and things got tough for everyone,” Andy Builta, Boeing vice president and H-47 program manager, said during the delivery ceremony. “There was uncertainty, risk, disruption, trepidation … and a whole lot of hand sanitizer. The team washed up, donned masks, and doubled down on getting her to where we are today. Seven days per week, for months and months, we built this aircraft through the pandemic.”
Just a few weeks prior to delivery, Philadelphia took a direct hit from a tropical storm that rampaged up the U.S. East Coast.
Boeing’s Chinook team rode out the storm in the company’s delivery center “while their basements were filling with water … in the off chance they’d be able to get back to work,” Builta said.
Aircraft 2909 is both the first MH-47G Block II and the first Block II aircraft ever delivered to the U.S. Army. The company is on contract for 23 more MH-47G Block II Chinooks, having signed a contract with SOCOM in July.
Block II introduces a lighter, more structurally rigid airframe, a beefed-up drivetrain and Boeing’s advanced composite rotor blades (ACRBs) designed to provide a 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) increase in lift. Three engineering and manufacturing development CH-47F Block II aircraft are in flight test at Boeing’s Mesa, Arizona, facility.