Navy Copters Ready For Night Action
ABOARD THE USS NASSAU IN THE NORTHERN PERSIAN GULF (AP) _ Sam Widhalm banked the chopper to the right at the last moment, hugging the water as he passed over his target, dead ahead, right on schedule.
″There it is at 12 o’clock,″ the Marine captain told a visitor in his UH- 1N Huey helicopter.
To the naked eye, there was nothing there but a tiny light, barely visible on the cloudy, pitch-black night.
But to Widhalm and his crew, the target was crystal clear - a giant oil platform off Kuwait being used on this night as a target for Marine helicopter crews practicing for a nighttime amphibious assault on Iraqi troops in Kuwait.
With night-vision goggles mounted to their helmets, helicopter crews can see clearly for miles, needing only a sliver of moon to provide the tiny bit of illumination the goggles require. On Friday night, the moon was perfect, sending just a glimmer of light through a low cloud cover.
″I’d be real comfortable going in tonight,″ said Widhalm, of Kandiyohi, Minn. ″The conditions are just about perfect.″
In an amphibious assault, Marine Hueys, Vietnam-vintage choppers, would provide air support for troops landing in amphibious vessels and perhaps transport helicopters. The Hueys have 50mm machine guns mounted to them, as well as rockets.
″It’s our job to make sure they keep their heads down,″ said Lance Cpl. Michael Vranich, of Canal Fulton, Ohio.
Vranich, along with Sgt. Michael Baccus, an Atlanta native, flew in the rear of the Huey to provide two extra sets of of eyes for Widhalm and his co- pilot, Capt. Jim Davidson of Weatherford, Texas.
For the training run, Widhalm lifted the Huey off from the deck of the USS Nassau just after dusk and, with another chopper on his tail, plotted a vector that took him toward the Kuwaiti coastline.
Without the goggles, even the nearby helicopter was just a murky silhouette. With them, it could clearly be seen trailing Widhalm’s Huey, as could the Nassau and several other ships in the amphibious force now edging north in the Persian Gulf.
With the goggles flipped down and switched on, a visitor could see the tiny white caps of the waves even from 500 feet, and count ship after ship in the crowded gulf waters, including minesweepers and supply ships of the growing U.S. naval force massing in the northern gulf.
Dozens of oil platforms, a couple with flaming vents, were visible as well, as were traces of the giant oil slick the allies say Saddam Hussein’s troops poured into the gulf.
One flaming vent was a tiny yellow speck from 45 miles away without the goggles. With them, it was a huge fireball.
″I feel pretty comfortable going in with the goggles,″ Widhalm said in an interview after the 90-minute mission. ″If there’s just a bit of light out there from the moon, you can easily see them. And if they have lights on on land, you can make them out, no problem.″
The goggles, particularly earlier versions, have been criticized as unsafe, primarily because they limit peripheral vision.
But Widhalm and his crew said training quickly eliminated any troubles, and gave U.S. forces another major technological edge over the Iraqis.
During landings, the ship is just a shadow even from 50 feet above the deck, the crowded flight deck and its crew indistinguishable. But with the goggles, the crew is easy to see and the view so clear that the Huey could be put down just behind another chopper and not far from a row of AV-8 Harrier jets.
Without the goggles, the crew said the Marines would not have the night option available.
″I wouldn’t want to do it,″ Widhalm said. ″The survivability rate would be real low.″