Gordon Jones brings us a blogGAR from RAF Mildenhall, where the 352nd Special Operation Group practises fast roping from the CV-22B Osprey.
After visiting the 352nd Special Operation Group in July when they allowed me to get up close to the first two CV-22B Ospreys to be operated by the 7th Special Operations Squadron, they have continued to train on them. Most of the operations the Ospreys will conduct will be at night and their training programme reflects this, with night time visits to Sculthorpe and STANTA being common. This has limited my chances to see them flying but earlier this month I managed to catch them as they conducted fast-rope training.
Fast-roping, or Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES) to give it its official name, is used to facilitate rapid infiltration and exfiltration by small, lightly armed teams using rotary-wing or tilt-rotor aircraft in situations where aircraft cannot land, such as dense woodland, boats or built-up areas. The technique, developed by the British and first utilised in combat in the Falklands Conflict, involves the aircraft hovering over a landing zone and a thick, typically 40mm, braided rope is attached to the aircraft and allowed to fall to the ground with at least 15 feet of rope on the ground to prevent too much movement. The personnel (I use the term personnel to cover the soldiers, airmen and Marines who all use the technique) then descend the rope using the friction between protective gloves, boots and the braided surface of the rope to give them a controlled descent. Depending on the height of the aircraft, multiple personnel can use the same rope, whilst maintaining a three metre gap, and multiple ropes can be used at the same time. This allows a quick build-up of forces in a short period of time. The extraction technique uses a hoist on the helicopter and a steel smooth cable to pull up personnel to the aircraft.
Fast-roping is not approved for regular personnel and is reserved for Special Forces, long range reconnaissance, pararescue and other special role units which have also become FRIES qualified. The aircrew who are operating the aircraft being used for fast-roping are also required to be FRIES qualified. To remain current, the qualified personnel have to carry out proficiency training, including the FRIES trainers. Whilst the technique is faster that using abseil, or repelling to use the US term, it is more dangerous and the training is built up in stages and has to be conducted with dedicated medical support.
The CV-22B Osprey from the 7th SOS being used for fast-rope training may have been training the aircrew, the personnel, a trainer or a combination of them. The first fast-rope descent was conducted at roughly 25ft. A single rope was lowered from the rear loading ramp of the aircraft and the personnel descended in quick order with the first man on the ground holding the rope to prevent it moving around in the downwash. The downwash is a particular problem for the Osprey with its large and powerful engines and is the reason fast-roping can’t be done from the side door.
With this complete the Osprey repeated the process but this time closer to 75ft which would be a more typical altitude used in operations to reduce the impact the downwash has on the personnel and ‘brown-out’ effects that may disorient the pilots or risk damage to the aircraft from sand being ingested into the aircraft.
With the personnel deployed, the Osprey then practised extracting them using the rescue winch located on the rear cargo ramp. The remote-controlled winch has a 250ft cable made of high-tensile steel which allows it to lift 272kg at a variable speed between 25 and 250ft per minute. This means the Osprey is cable of lifting either a single or multiple people, including kit, at the same time with ease.
With night training, a pair (one as a backup) of chemlights are attached to the both ends of the rope and also 15ft from the end to allow the aircrew to determine when they have the required amount of rope on the ground. Further chemlights are attached to the helmets of the personnel to allow the aircrew to keep track of them as they descend.
With all personnel off the aircraft the rope is either pulled up into the aircraft or jettisoned. Following an “ALL CLEAR” call from the loadmaster the handling pilot then clears the landing zone. The Osprey pictured here carried on to Sculthrope to continue training.
Pictured above is the rescue winch on the CV-22B Osprey with a steel hook fitted and next to it is the rope used for fast-roping with braided construction clearly visible.