Operation Mount Hope: How the CIA stole a Russian Hind-D gunship in the dead of night
When you want something done in the name of American interest and you don’t mind if someone gets their hands dirty, you call the operatives of the CIA. If you want to get in and out by air without any issue, you call the men and women of the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment which is better known as the “Night Stalkers.”
Sometimes, the moon and stars align in such a way that you can have the best of both- and shenanigans are almost always guaranteed.
Operation Mount Hope III was such an epic “Chad” tale, that it deserves to be dug from the archives of history.
1987 and 1988 were interesting years in the Cold War. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union being a few years away, which some intelligence officials refused to believe, the Cold War was still pretty warm. President Reagan had challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, the Iran-Contra affair was still fresh in everyone’s memories, the USSR was pulling out of Afghanistan, and little proxy wars were popping up all over Africa.
One such conflict took place between Chad and the nation of Libya in 1987, the latter of which had been bombed by America the year prior.
During the Libya-Chad conflict, a Soviet-made Mi-25 “Hind-D” gunship (the export model of the Mi-24) with Libyan markings had been left behind in a hasty Libyan retreat from the Ouadi Doum, as well as a treasure trove of other vehicles and equipment.
The Hind was of great interest to the United States, as it was the heaviest gunship on earth at that time and had capabilities U.S. gunship pilots could only dream of. While the much more capable AH-64 Apache helicopter had entered service in the mid-1980s, the Hind could carry up to eight troops while performing the same role- a real kicker for getting special operations teams into places and providing them support, all with one aircraft.
In short, the U.S. and other Westen nations wanted to get their hands on a Hind. They craved to know more about it and were willing to do some dirty dealings to get one.
Enter the Chadians, who were more than happy to negotiate with the cash-flush Yankees, and allowed the CIA to grab the Hind for analysis.
Unfortunately, such a mission would not be simple- Libyan forces were still operating nearby and public transport of a Hind would no doubt have led to international publicity, bloodshed, and diplomatic migraines. The bottom line: the Americans had to be sneaky, and they needed helicopter pilots crazy enough to pull off a stealthy stunt that had never been tried before.
How fortunate, it seems, that the United States has the market cornered when it comes to daring helicopter pilots who don’t shy away from the limelight: the “black helicopter-flying” boys of the 160th SOAR, the world’s premier special operations rotary aviation unit.
Dubbing the mission “Operation Mount Hope,” the mission would take on three phases: a preliminary run with USAF and Army personnel to take items of lesser value, a practice run in the New Mexico Desert to steal the Hind, and the real-deal heist.
Training to haul the 17,000 to 18,000-pound helicopter the 160th utilized water tanks and their venerable special-mission variants of the CH-47 Chinook to train, ultimately determining that the MH-47s chosen would be sufficient to do the job.
The mission was as planned: the 47s (which at the time, did not appear capable of mid-air refuelling) would offload from a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane, fly low in the dead of night to avoid detection, strap up to the Hind, make two stops on the trip to refuel along the way, and drop the Hind off at a forward base. During the mission, the French Air Force would provide fighter cover and a C-130 with the USAF would keep the Chinooks refreshed with fuel.
Keep in mind, the devastating loss of C-130s and helicopters during Operation Eagle Claw in Iran a few years prior were still fresh in everyone’s minds, so safety and attention to detail were crucial- and it paid off.
During the operation, the Chinooks left to grab their loot, flying over 500 miles without detection before picking the Hind up around dawn. Libyan military forces, mere miles from their position, had no idea what was going on and never fired a shot.
At one of the refueling points, a 3,000-foot sandstorm picked up- the same kind of weather conditions that doomed Eagle Claw. Less than 45 minutes from home plate, the well-trained CH-47 pilots put the throttle down and pushed through, all while dragging a giant Hind beneath their belly.
Arriving at their forward base, the Chinook pilots celebrated their first-ever major operation, which was a stunning success. The Hind was handed over to the powers-at-be, who loaded it onto a C-5 and had it stateside within 36 hours.
The mission, while historical and worthy of notoriety, was not highly publicized, though that doesn’t bother the 160th SOAR one bit: after all, the best work is done in the dark.
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