When the Navy SEALs or Army Special Forces need a ride, they call the unit with the most elite helicopter pilots in the world — the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR).
So it comes as no surprise that the 160th was involved in the effort to rescue American journalist James Foley and others from ISIS captivity in Syria. While the mission of the pilots — to get operators in and out of the target — was successful, ultimately no hostages were rescued.
“The Nightstalkers” as they are called, are the only special operations aviation unit in the Army, deploying almost continuously since 9/11 to provide drop-off for U.S. military elite at their targets. They also provide close air support — actually shooting at the enemy — while they are on the ground.
“We are a force ready to move at a moment’s notice anytime, anywhere, arriving on target plus or minus 30 seconds,” Col. Clayton Hutmacher told Special Operations Technology.
It was only after serious issues were found during the disastrous mission to free the hostages in Iran, that the 160th formed in 1981.
Since then, the program has selected very few applicants. The standards are high -- they like to have aviators with at least 500 flight hours, or at the top of their class at flight school.
They are experts with the Black Hawk helicopter, which transports operators and can be armed with machine guns.
The light 'Little Bird' can bring soldiers in on the skids, and is ideal for landing on roofs of target buildings.
And the MH-47 Chinook, a larger bird that can bring in troops and cargo -- typical for insertions at a distance from the target.
They live up to their 'Nightstalker' name by conducting many of their missions under cover of darkness.
The pilots need to trust their crew chiefs on the sides of the helicopter -- they relay how close they may be to the ground.
They fly fast and sometimes drop troops off at very low altitude, where they can make an amphibious assault on coastline targets.
Much like the Bin Laden raid, the 160th used specially modified helicopters in the Foley rescue mission with an 'advanced suite of aircraft survivability equipment,' The Washington Post reported.
The 160th provides crucial air cover for the men on the ground, especially because they're often outnumbered.
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