Shadow warriors stalk at night


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice
Since its creation in 1981, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has operated around the globe. Thriving in the cover of darkness, the "Night Stalkers" pride themselves on striking anywhere undetected. (War On Terrorism).

For U.S. special operations troops, staying alive often depends on how fast they can get into and, more important, out of incredibly dangerous situations.

The men they rely on to "pull their bacon out of the fire" are members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the only unit of its kind in the Army. Because of its expertise, SOAR's highly trained pilots and crewmembers work with special ops troops from all service branches.

"Give me the guns from the 160th any day," said a SEAL commander who worked with the unit in the Persian Gulf War. "They just look at you and say, `When do you want to go?' They're not playing at special ops."

Indeed, they aren't. Based at Fort Campbell, Ky., along with the 5th Special Forces Group and the 101st Airborne Division, they share common experiences with the ground troops who hitch rides on their aircraft.

"The people we support know we volunteered for special operations, just as they did," said Col. Joseph Fucci, commander of the 160th from 1991-93. "We live in the field with them, train alongside them, get dirty and tired and worn-out, just like they do. We're not `pretty boys' with fancy scarves. Our customers know we'll come and get them, regardless of the situation."

Aces With Flair

Members of the 160th are known as the "Night Stalkers" for their ability to fly in near total darkness with the aid of night vision equipment. They have been described as "special people with special talents," and they are exactly the type of individuals the Army was looking for when it needed pilots to transport its elite counter-terrorism unit, Delta Force.

"We wanted aces," said Col. Charles Beckwith, the first commander of Delta Force. "Daredevils, barnstormers, hot rodders, guys who could pick it up, turn it around on a dime and put it back down with flair."

As with all special ops troops, Night Stalkers must be versatile. They fly armed-escort, reconnaissance and surveillance missions. They can provide covering fire, engage in direct combat or wage electronic warfare. Sometimes they play a supporting role in peacetime operations. But the 160th's most frequent mission is inserting and extracting special ops troops.

The Army formed the 160th shortly after Desert One, the failed special operations mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980. Army leaders staffed the new unit with top-notch Army aviators from the 101st, 158th, 159th and 229th Aviation battalions. It was during this period, when the soldiers trained intensively in low-level night operations, that they first earned their nickname.

The unit became a battalion itself on Oct. 16, 1981. It first came to public attention in 1983 when 16 members were killed in several training accidents. Unwanted publicity followed in 1984 with media accounts claiming the unit was waging a clandestine war against Marxist Sandinistas. Operation Prime Chance in 1987-88 saw the unit's helicopters protecting oil tankers in the Gulf.

On May 16, 1990, the unit was reorganized as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) and assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

Today, the unit comprises four battalions. The 1st, 2nd and 4th (Support) battalions are located at Fort Campbell. The 3rd Battalion is at Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, Ga. The 160th's D Company is based at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. Total strength is some 1,400 soldiers.

Because of the expanding use of special ops troops, the Army plans to add another battalion and 900 more troops to the 160th by 2009.

`Death Waits in the Dark'

Beginning with Operation Desert Shield in August 1990 and lasting through the end of the Gulf War in April 1991, the 160th saw extensive duty in the Persian Gulf region. Night Stalkers searched for and rescued downed pilots, provided close-air support, engaged in direct combat and flew special ops troops deep behind enemy lines.

Meticulous planning, timely execution and lethal surprise devastated the befuddled Iraqis. The Night Stalkers lived up to their slogan, "Death Waits in the Dark."

The 160th sustained its only fatalities of the war when an MH-60 helicopter hit a sand dune while flying back to its base. The four Night Stalkers aboard were returning three Delta operators from a Scud-hunting mission. All seven GIs were killed.

Overall, though, the 160th's performance during the Gulf War was nearly flawless.

"This unit did some incredible things over the desert, things no one will ever hear about," said a 160th pilot involved in "black" or covert operations. "They were missions no other special ops aviation asset could fly."

`Ignore the Chaos'

Probably the Night Stalkers' most publicized mission was the Battle of Mogadishu on Oct. 3-4, 1993, in Somalia. Made famous by the book and movie Black Hawk Down, the battle claimed the lives of five Night Stalkers.

Capt. Gerry Izzo, who piloted Black Hawk Super 65 during the battle, remembered the grim situation after Task Force Ranger had lost five aircraft to rocket-propelled grenades.

"My friends had all gone in and taken their licks, and now I figured it was our turn," said Izzo, who flew with Capt. Richard Williams. "I really thought that we were at best going to get shot down; at worst I figured we were going to be killed."

Amid a hail of bullets and grenades, Izzo and his fellow pilots were forced to draw on all aspects of their training to get their jobs done.

"You have to ignore all of the chaos that is going on around you and completely concentrate on the tasks at hand," Izzo said. "That is holding the aircraft as steady as possible so the Rangers can slide down the ropes as quickly and safely as possible."

`Payback at Its Best'

In America's current anti-terrorist war, special ops troops are shouldering the biggest load, which means the 160th has been in the thick of the fighting. A total of nine Night Stalkers have been killed.

Eight serving in the Philippines with E Co., 160th SOAR, died on Feb. 22 when their MH-47E Chinook (call sign "Wild 42") crashed in the Mindanao Sea about 150 miles northwest of Zamboanga City. The Chinook was returning to the U.S. operating base on Mactan Island after ferrying Green Berets and supplies to Basilan Island.

The only Night Stalker to be KIA was Sgt. Philip J. Svitak on March 4 in Afghanistan during the intense battle at Shah-i-kot. He was a door gunner serving with 2nd Battalion aboard a Chinook that was inserting special ops troops into an extremely hot landing zone.

As Svitak laid down a base of fire from his 7.62 mm minigun, commanders watching live video of the action via an unmanned recon plane saw him get shot. He fell from the Chinook and lay motionless in the snow.

"He's a black dot on the ground," said a senior NCO who watched part of the tape. "He's dead. You just keep looking at him, and a minute's gone, and another minute's gone. You sit there [watching] and your heart sinks."

Night Stalkers in Afghanistan also honored a request from the father of an American Airlines stewardess killed Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew her plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Mike Low asked the Night Stalkers to wear the flight wings of his daughter, Sara Elizabeth Low, into combat.

"As soon as I heard of the letter, I knew I wanted to wear them," said Staff Sgt. Mark Baker, an MH-47E Chinook crew chief who wore the wings on 20 missions. "I thought it would be an honor. I thought this would not only be justice for her, but justice for all American people."

In a framed black-and-white drawing of the 160th that the Night Stalkers presented to Low when they returned his daughter's wings, one soldier wrote, "Payback at its best."

Legacy of the Fallen Night Stalkers

Since Operation Urgent Fury on Grenada in 1983, the 160th has lost 21 men killed during combat operations. They and their unit are immortalized in museums at their home post at Fort Campbell, at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, N.C., and at Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

The museum at Fort Campbell is located on the 160th's compound. Called the Memorial Stone, it honors the 57 Night Stalkers who have died in training or on missions since the unit was created. At the two-year-old Airborne and Special Operations Museum, the 160th is represented with an AH-6 "Little Bird" helicopter.

As part of the Special Operations Forces Memorial Plaza at Fort Bragg, the Memorial Wall lists the names of all Army special ops troops killed since the beginning of the Vietnam War. The wall includes the names of 20 Night Stalkers. On Aug. 7, the names of the nine Night Stalkers killed this year in the Philippines and Afghanistan were added.

All are fitting tributes to the fallen members of the 160th. Their commitment to the motto "Night Stalkers Don't Quit" is the legacy they leave for young aviators and a characteristic that America's elite special ops troops depend upon.

As one veteran Night Stalker said, "No one can touch us when we fly at night. At night, we rule the air."


1983 Grenada Op. Urgent Fury 1
1989 Panama Op. Just Cause 2
1991 Iraq Op. Desert Storm 4
1993 Somalia Op. Gothic Serpent 5
2002 Afghanistan Op. Enduring Freedom 1
2002 Philippines Op. Freedom Eagle 8