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Chinook Pilot Goes from Facing Enemy Fire to Firefighting

Chinook Pilot Goes from Facing Enemy Fire to Firefighting

Whether he’s facing enemy fire over the mountains of Afghanistan or fighting wildfires in the parched American West, you can usually find Roger Capps right where he belongs – in the cockpit of a CH-47 helicopter.

“I’ve been fascinated with aviation and helicopters in particular since I was a kid,” said Capps, who flies the legendary Chinook for both the Nevada Army National Guard and Columbia Helicopters. “After high school, I walked into the Army recruiters’ office and said, ‘I want to fly helicopters.’ They got a good laugh out of that, but they pointed me in the right direction.”

In 1990, Capps joined the National Guard and enrolled in the ROTC program at the University of Nevada, Reno. After graduation, he was commissioned, went to flight school, earned his wings as a warrant officer and began his first assignment as a Chinook pilot.

On his day job with Columbia Helicopters, Capp flies a specially-equipped CH-47D on firefighting missions. “This is the first CH-47D ever outfitted as a helitanker,” he said. “The aircraft is equipped with a 2,800-gallon internal tank and a 140-gallon retardant reservoir, so we can drop a combination of water, retardant or foam. We can drop a full load in four seconds, which makes this particular helicopter an amazing tool for fighting wildfires.”

Not so long ago, Capp was more concerned with taking fire than putting it out. While flying as a civilian employee of Columbia on a military transport mission in Afghanistan in 2013, he was struck by a round from an insurgent’s AK-47. The bullet somehow managed to find its way through the CH-47’s bulletproof flooring, shattering Capp’s femur and pelvis.

“I was really fortunate,” he said. “The shot missed my femoral artery. I received immediate first aid in the back of the helicopter, and we were only 15 minutes away from the Army trauma center, which is where we were headed in the first place.”

As a military aviator, Capps served several combat tours in the Middle East, logging hundreds of hours in combat and flying missions to support soldiers in the field. “The CH-47 is an extremely versatile helicopter,” he pointed out. “One day you may be on an air assault mission. The next day you’re ‘driving the bus,’ picking up people, ammunition, supplies – anything really – and taking it from one place to another.”

Even when he’s not dodging bullets or putting out fires, flying the CH-47 is a unique experience, Capp said. “It’s the Army’s only twin-engine, heavy-lift helicopter and, even though it’s been around since the Vietnam War, the Army and Boeing continue to make upgrades to improve the helicopter and make sure it can fulfill all its mission requirements. That includes carrying up to 33 soldiers and lifting payloads of 16,000 pounds even in high and hot conditions.”

“The Honeywell T55-714A engines have been the biggest difference,” he continued. “The T55-714A is a powerhouse of an engine that enables the aircraft to get the job done under the most demanding conditions imaginable.”

A pair of T55 turboshaft engines has powered every CH-47 flight since the first in 1961, but the engine has changed a lot since then, according to Honeywell’s T.J. Pope, Sr. Director for Military Turboshaft Engines.

“The newest version – designated the T55-714C – is a 6,000 SHP class engine, which is a four-fold improvement from the original T55 engine Honeywell introduced 60 years ago,” Pope said. “Compared to the T55-714A flying on most Chinooks now in the field, the new “C” version will deliver 20% more horsepower, burn 8% less fuel, lift 16% more gross weight in hot and heavy conditions, and fly further – all with greater reliability and ease of maintenance.”

The T55-714C upgrade will be available in 2024, he added. “Operators will be able to convert the engine quickly and economically at overhaul, either at the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas or Honeywell’s new state-of-the-art T55 Center of Excellence in Phoenix.”

Pope, a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot with the U.S. Army Reserve, has nothing but respect for the Chinook, which the Army hopes to fly for another 30-40 years. “To that end, Boeing is fielding the new and improved Chinook Block II helicopters with Army Special Forces and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force. Honeywell is continuing to modernize our T55 family of engines ahead of need to help enhance the increased performance of the modernized airframe.”

With no replacement heavy-lift rotorcraft on the Army’s drawing board, Capps agrees that the Chinook has a secure future with its dozens of civilian and military operators around the world. While he recently filed his papers to retire from the Nevada Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel, he plans to keep flying Chinooks for Columbia helicopters.

After more than a quarter of a century in the cockpit, he still feels a thrill every time he buckles in. “My fulltime job is more fun than your last vacation,” he tells anyone who will listen. 

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