Earlier this year, Dan Moore, who owns a farm in North Carolina, had unusual visits by not one, but two secretive aircraft. After a Russian-made Mi-17 Hip-type helicopter made an emergency landing, a dark gray Bell 407 arrived with replacement parts. The Bell 407 may well have been one of a trio that flew around the greater Los Angeles area in California earlier this year, something The War Zone
covered extensively, and both of these helicopters may belong to an especially shadowy U.S. military aviation unit.
Moore, who is currently a member of the Civil Air Patrol, among other things, and has been a pilot for many years, had his encounter with these helicopters in May. However, he shared this story in more detail in a piece that the Air Facts aviation journal published this week.
"I received a call from my neighbor saying, 'Hey, did you know there is a helicopter in your front yard?'" Moore wrote of the event. "Wait, what? A helicopter? In my yard? I was confused, but also primed and ready to return the favor when I figured out somebody had made an emergency landing at my farm."
"Living in North Carolina, there is a lot of military activity in the airspace around me... So my answer to my neighbor was, 'Huh? No. No idea what is going on. What kind of helicopter?'" he continued. "My neighbor, who is in the special forces at Ft. Bragg [a major U.S. Army base in North Carolina] said, 'I don’t know. I’ve never seen one like it. Some big military thing.'"
The helicopter in question was an Mi-17-type with a tan-and-brown camouflage scheme, as well as a big black-painted section on at least the right side of the fuselage behind the exhaust for one of its two turboshaft engines. The pictures and videos that Moore took of this helicopter don't show any clearly obvious markings to identify who the operator is.
However, it did have a host of military features, including a sensor ball turret under the right side of the cockpit, as well as supplemental armor panels on either side. A large particle separator, useful for operations in sandy or otherwise dusty environments, was fitted to the front of the helicopter's two engine intakes. Its tail boom was covered in antennas, including a platter-type one typically associated with high-frequency satellite communications (SATCOM) systems.
Moore said he had his neighbor give his phone number to the helicopter's crew and soon got a call from the crew chief, who explained the situation. The Mi-17 would need to stay on his property until it could be repaired.
"My answer?" Moore recounted. "At the barn there is a white truck. The keys are in it. Go into town to get what you need. In the barn there is a full machine shop with all the tooling and supplies. The shop is open, go get what tools you need. I’ll be there in two hours.”
He said that the crew chief was a bit caught off guard by this show of hospitality. They didn't take him up on his offer, either. When Moore got to his farm he found the helicopter's crew pulling out a hydraulic oil cooler, which was apparently the root cause of the incident.
"I found the pilot and we chatted about what was going on. I explained that he’d landed at the single best place to put down he could have," Moore said. "He seemed pretty non-plussed till I explained that the pasture where he was sitting had power lines running through it till about a year before when I’d moved them to make the runway. And that all the other areas along his route of flight were either swamp or trees or houses. He turned a touch green when he realized what I was saying. He was in the only safe place he could put down."
Moore and his son, who "wants to fly helicopters in the Army and has been working towards that end for several years now," talked with the helicopter crew for a bit longer. He says when they finally got a stopping conversation and were about to leave, that's when they learned spare parts were on the way.
“Driving from where?” Moore asked.
“Oh no, they are flying in,” he got in response.
The Bell 407 subsequently arrived with what the crew needed to get the Hip up and running around. It also has a serial number on the tail, but it is not visible in the video Moore took of it.
This dark gray helicopter is a dead ringer for a trio of others that were spotted flying around Los Angeles and other nearby locales in January. If it is not one of those same three aircraft it has an identical configuration. Among other features, it has the same "egg-beater" or "O Wing" type ultra-high-frequency (UHF) SATCOM antenna on the tail boom and a pair of blade-type antennas under the forward fuselage that are generally associated with high-frequency radios or other communications systems. It also has the same type of high landing skids, which are mo commonly found on helicopters used for utility work, as well as law enforcement and military duties.
This smaller helicopter unloaded its cargo and left relatively quickly. By the next morning, the Mi-17 was good to go and had taken off, headed again for wherever its destination might have been.
As for what organization these helicopters belong to and who is flying them, not surprisingly, they didn't say, according to Moore. "These guys were all former military and they were doing some sort of REDACTED for REDACTED. It was all very hush hush," he said, adding that they told him they "were visiting from out of state."
It's also unclear whether it's a typo in the Air Facts story or if the crew of the Mi-17 deliberately gave him bad information, but Moore said they told him that helicopter "was an MI-24, the export version of another common helicopter in the Soviet Union." It is definitely not an Mi-24 Hind, which is a distinctly different helicopter gunship.
When the dark gray Bell 407s appeared over Los Angeles earlier this year, The War Zone
explored a number of possibilities as to who might own them. A highly secretive U.S. Army element known as the Aviation Technology Office (ATO), which is based at Felker Army Airfield, part of Fort Eustis, in Virginia, remains the most likely operator of those helicopters – and, by extension, these ones.
This likelihood is further bolstered by the fact that ATO, which was previously known as the Flight Concepts Division (FCD) and, along with its own predecessor organizations, has long-standing ties to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is also understood to operate foreign-made types, including Mi-17 variants.
Satellite imagery of Felker regularly shows Bell 407s sharing the ramp with Mi-17s near ATO/FCD's main hangar. One image, available through Bing Maps, is high resolution enough that you can clearly see an Mi-17-type helicopter in very similar, if not identical configurations to the one that touched down on Moore's farm.
Pictures have been floating around online for years of another Hip, an Mi-171E variant with the serial number 15-5207 on its tail boom, with many of the same features. This helicopter is also widely understood to be operated by some element of the U.S. military, or some other arm of the U.S. government, such as the CIA. The CIA has its own long history of operating Mi-17-type helicopters, especially in support of its activities in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Hips associated with the agency were notably spotted and otherwise tracked flying in and around Kabul, helping its people and Afghans who had worked with them get to Hamid Karzai International Airport to evacuate, in the weeks leading up to the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country last month.
You can read more about ATO/FDC, which is one of the most secretive U.S. military aviation units known to be in existence today, in these past War Zone pieces. From what is publicly known, this unit provides very specialized, as well as discreet aviation support for special operations forces during covert and clandestine missions. It also has a bleeding-edge developmental role, helping to craft what's next in Army aviation, which sometimes aligns with its operational mission sets. For instance, it is understood to have led the development of the stealthy derivatives of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that were used in the raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011 that led to the death of then-Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Altogether, Dan Moore's tale about how his farm briefly turned into a small heliport is certainly unique in its most basic details. It is only made more so when one considers just how rare an opportunity he and his son were given to be so close to these shy helicopters and their crews.
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