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Operation Mount Hope III: When America Stole a Russian Attack Helicopter

In the early morning hours of June 11,1988, two French Mirage fighters and two 4-engine C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft from America’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Group known as the the “Night Stalkers” thundered over the desert toward N’djamena Airfield in southern Chad.

Inside the C-5’s cavernous cargo areas, two stripped down MH-47 Chinook helicopters and more than 70 soldiers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky – rumored to be Delta Force – waited patiently for the more dangerous and clandestine portion of the mission to get underway.  

Descending toward the airfield below, the silence was shattered by the C-5’s tires slamming into the tarmac as the engine’s powerful thrust-reversers sent plumes of dust and sand billowing into the desert air. 

Then at remote hangars away from the prying eyes of Chadian soldiers, the crews began unloading and reassembling the Chinooks and making last-minute preparations. 

Operation Mount Hope III had officially begun, and if everything went according to plan, in less than 70 hours the Americans would have one of the Soviet Union’s most prized and enigmatic military machines in their possession – a Mil Mi-25 Hind attack helicopter. 

Soviet Foreign Policy 

Though the Soviet Union would officially cease to exist in December of 1991, between the ‘50s and ‘80s the communist superpower diligently courted relationships with dozens of relatively undeveloped nations in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. 

Whether the intent was to spread communism for the good of all or simply to unload surplus assault rifles, tanks, jets, rocket launchers and helicopters for hard cash, over nearly four decades the Soviets lavished these countries with billions of dollars in military, economic and humanitarian aid.

Oftentimes this largess came with stipulations, like that the recipient nation use some of its newfound wealth to buy Soviet military hardware.  

Ultimately, much of the aid money found its way back into the USSR’s coffers as proceeds from the sale of weapons, of which Libya and its former strongman leader Muammar Ghadafi were among the biggest buyers. 

For years Ghadaffi’s army had been stocking up on cheap and reliable Soviet tanks, small arms and RPGs, and the air force was equipped with MiG and Sukhoi fighters and ground attack aircraft. 

Cutting edge attack helicopters weren’t yet in the arsenal, but that would change. 

The Mi-24 Hind

Mi-24 helicopter
Mi-24. By Cezary Piwowarski, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Though its first flight was in September of 1969, the revolutionary new Mi-24 didn’t officially enter Soviet service until 1976 after a tedious and expensive development period that began almost a decade before. 

Many of the Soviet’s foreign customers expressed interest in buying Hinds, because the new multi-role helicopters were exactly what they needed to neutralize pesky foreign invaders and homegrown insurgents, both of which tended to congregate in remote border areas inaccessible to tanks and fixed-wing aircraft. 

Sensing huge sales potential, the Soviets got to work on a less expensive export variant dubbed the Mil Mi-25 Hind-D.

Like the original Mi-24, the Hind-D was unique in that it was a lethal gunship and a troop transport in one, and unlike many other hopelessly overdesigned multi-role aircraft, it actually excelled at each of the jobs for which it was built. 

In addition, it was a lethal tank killer, a flying ambulance and an unbeatable reconnaissance platform.  

In short, there wasn’t much it couldn’t do. 

Each Hind could carry eight battle-ready soldiers and their gear or four stretchers and attending medics, albeit in a cramped but armored compartment below the engines and behind the cockpit. 

This made it perfect for medical evacuations, and more importantly, for ferrying infantry and special-ops teams to out-of-the-way hotspots, after which it could loiter overhead for hours, provide accurate ground support fire, then whisk the soldiers home safely after their mission was wrapped up.  

Since low flying helicopters are susceptible to ground fire, Mi-24 and 25 cockpits, fuselages and engines were heavily armored to resist 12.7 mm (.50 cal) rounds from the sides and below, and their 5-blade titanium main rotors were nearly impervious to small arms fire as well.  

Specs

Though usually manned by a pilot and weapons systems officer, Hind-D crews sometimes included an in-flight technician when every inch of available space wasn’t already being used by cargo or troops. 

At 57 feet (17.5 m) long, 21 feet tall (6.5 m), and more than 65 feet (19.8 m) wide from blade tip to blade tip, Hinds were far bigger than their western attack helicopter counterparts.  

Powered by two 2,200 horsepower turboshaft engines that drove the main rotor through a hulking gearbox, Hind-Ds were capable of exceeding 200 mph (330 km/h) and flying nearly 300 miles (482 km) between refuelings. 

That said, in addition to speed, versatility and survivability, they packed a serious punch. 

Up front in an inverted turret under the nose was a .50 caliber (12.7 mm) Gatling gun along with either a 20 or 30 mm coaxially-mounted autocannon depending on model year and variant. 

Hinds also had stubby wings with multiple hardpoints that could collectively accommodate more than 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) of bombs, rockets and self-contained machine gun pods.  

Green with Envy

The United States’ military doesn’t like it when its rivals have better stuff than it does. 

To do what the Hind did, America needed multiple machines like Bell UH-1 “Hueys” and UH-60 Blackhawks as utility helicopters, and aging Cobras and newer Apaches in the attack niche.

UH-1H Huey (Bell 205) with registration G-HUEY – Fly Navy 2017. By Airwolfhound, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Utility helicopters like Hueys could be fitted with door guns and externally mounted rockets, but no matter how many weapons systems were bolted on they were always just transports masquerading as gunships. 

As for American attack helicopters, they could typically only accommodate a pilot and gunner/ navigator, which meant that transporting troops and their gear or evacuating wounded soldiers were strictly out of the question. 

So when Hinds burst onto the scene in the ‘70s in Afghanistan and other smaller warzones around the world, the Army and the CIA took notice. 

And later, when they learned that some had entered service with a number of African nations like Ethiopia and Libya, bells and whistles began going off in Washington and Langley. 

If the rumors were true, Hinds were wonder weapons, but as the CIA knew all too well, second-hand intelligence wasn’t always accurate. 

They needed to get their hands on one for themselves, and therein lay the problem, because though Hind-Ds were officially on sale around the world, they were off-limits to America and its allies. 

But as luck would have it, an opportunity to take possession of (as in steal) a Libyan Hind presented itself when Ghadaffi’s retreating army abandoned one in Chadian territory after a one-sided border skirmish in 1987. 

Cha-ching. 

The Chadian-Libyan Conflict

Located in north-central Africa, Libya shares much of its expansive southern border with Chad, and their relationship hasn’t always been particularly friendly. 

In fact, a bloody border conflict began in the late ‘70s and raged for nearly a decade, during which forces from both sides attempted to overthrow the other country’s government and permanently occupy perpetually disputed land. 

Though the fighting was largely back and forth, Chadian troops finally expelled Libyan soldiers from the border region in 1987. 

The resulting retreat was so rushed and poorly coordinated, that the fleeing Libyans abandoned much of the equipment they’d brought with them.  

The military detritus left at the airfield at Ouadi Doum included everything from artillery pieces and armored vehicles, to crates of RPGs, and surprisingly, one Hind-D in surprisingly good if not altogether flightworthy condition. 

After confirming intelligence reports, the CIA began planning and coordinating an ultra-sensitive mission to recover the valuable machine before the Libyans returned to reclaim it. 

The Army and CIA were officially granted permission to carry out the mission from the Chadian government, because as everybody knows, the Americans always do things “by the book.”

If they could pull off the brash raid, it would be one of the biggest and most memorable military heists in recent memory, and a huge case of “egg on the face” for the Russians and Libyans. 

Mission Training

Training began in New Mexico in the spring of 1987, where the hot and arid desert conditions resembled what the operators would face in Chad. 

Two CH-47 Chinooks were stripped down and modified to bear the weight of the Hind-D, which was judged to be nearly 18,000 pounds (8,165 kg). 

Standard Chinooks were equipped with hardpoints capable of carrying sling-loaded cargo, but even with their powerful twin turboshaft engines that together pumped out nearly 6,000 horsepower, each had a maximum payload of only about 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg). 

Of course, this was just the manufacturer’s “recommended” capacity, and with a little tweaking the twin-rotor birds could conceivably haul another 1,000 pounds (453 kg) or so, but it still wouldn’t be enough, which meant that the Hind would need to be partially disassembled prior to transport. 

One Chinook would carry the airframe slung underneath, while the other would haul the accessory parts like the wings and rotor inside its cargo area. 

In addition, load hooks would have to be reinforced, the engines and transmissions would need to be tuned to absolute perfection, and the correct placement of the Hind underneath the American helicopter would have to be determined.  

To simulate the Hind’s weight, large bladders were filled with water then strapped under the Chinook in various configurations until the load was distributed evenly.  

Then over multiple nights, the Chinooks flew hundreds of miles under the cover of darkness, stopping twice to refuel like they’d do on the real mission. 

Borth dry-runs went off without a hitch, but now the Night Stalkers would need to do it all again when it really counted – thousands miles away from home in unfamiliar and hostile territory. 

The Mission

On May 21st, the order to execute Mount Hope III came directly from the White House. 

Over the next few weeks the Night Stalkers and supporting troops geared up, loaded the two Chinooks aboard the Galaxies and departed for Germany, and from there headed to the N’djamena Airfield in southern Chad approximately 600 miles (965 km) from the Hind’s location at Ouadi Doum.

Then after arriving at N’djamena on June 10th, the Chinooks were unloaded and prepared for the mission that would officially kick-off the following day. 

Along with a contingent of French soldiers, the US Army set up two refueling points in the desert and deployed an advanced reconnaissance team to secure the site and ascertain whether Libyan forces were still in the area.  

The team discovered a relatively large contingent of Libyan troops in the vicinity, and to make matters worse, they thought it highly likely that at some point they’d be ordered to fight their way back in to retrieve the pricy equipment they’d left behind.

In fact just months before, opting to destroy the Hind rather than letting it fall into enemy hands, General Gadaffi had ordered his air force to destroy it and the other abandoned equipment.

But in yet another stroke of good luck, despite strafing and bombing, the enigmatic Soviet attack helicopter survived. 

There was also the added concern of breaking international law, which is admittedly hazy and doesn’t usually apply to America like it does to other countries. 

Either way, the United States wouldn’t technically be stealing the Hind since it was in sovereign Chadian territory, but they didn’t want to make a spectacle of it either. 

All told, the plan had all the makings of a world-class international incident, but once the Night Stalkers arrived at Ouadi Doum, the process of preparing the helicopter for transport began. 

Forward spotters kept watchful eyes on the Libyan troops just a few miles away, but they remained thankfully unaware of what was going on right under their noses. 

Then, with their new Hind loaded up, the Chinooks departed for N’djamena, stopping twice to rendezvous with C-130 tankers on the ground where they took on much-needed fuel before continuing on the last leg of the mission. 

So far everything had gone swimmingly. 

There hadn’t been any crashes, the cargo was safe and sound, and no shots had been fired, but in the homestretch the American copters ran headlong into a raging sandstorm. 

Visibility went to zero in a matter of minutes, and sudden turbulence began swinging the suspended Hind under the first Chinook like a giant pendulum. 

The pilots reduced speed to just 50 mph and flew within sight of one another to avoid colliding, yet miraculously with the storm still raging around them, they managed to land safely at N’djamena less than an hour later with their priceless cargo still intact. 

When the storm abated the Hind was loaded onto a waiting C-5, and approximately 67 hours after the mission began, the Russian super-copter was safely on American soil. 

Post-Mission

Still celebrated as one of the most daring military heists of all time, Operation Mount Hope III was a resounding success.  

Ironically, if the CIA had had a crystal ball they may have held off and let nature run its course, because following the breakup of the Soviet Union just a few years later, tons of military hardware – including Hinds – became available for bargain-basement prices. 

To date nearly 2,700 Hinds have been built, many of which are still in service with more than four dozen countries around the world, and they’ve seen action everywhere from Peru and Sierra Leone to Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan. 

As for the Army and CIA, the Hind must not have been all they thought it would be, because there’s still no similar helicopter in the American inventory.

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