Pictures of helicopters evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have already become an iconic image of the NATO withdrawal from the country. Among them were CH-46 Sea Knights – affectionately known as “Phrogs” – operated by the U.S. Department of State.
The Vietnam-era helicopters originated with the U.S. Marine Corps, and some of the ones used in the recent evacuation may have even been used in Saigon. But their final resting place will be Kabul.
What Is “Embassy Air”
Known in Iraq and Afghanistan as Embassy Air, the Department of State Air Wing flies a variety of airframes. The Air Wing’s official title is Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ Office of Aviation. The Air Wing began operations in 1978 by hamstringing drug production in South and Central America. The mission expanded to include pretty much anything the State Department wanted, from humanitarian missions to VIP transport.
Throughout the majority of its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Embassy Air was operated by Dyncorp. After litigation over contract awards, the contract for maintenance and operation went to AAR Airlift. The State Department confirmed by email that AAR Airlift is the Air Wing’s current Worldwide Aviation Support Services contractor.
AAR Airlift first announced that they had taken over the State Department contract in 2017. As for Dyncorp, the longtime military aviation contractor later became a part of defense contractor Amentum.
In 2009, the Air Wing first began transporting Chief of Mission personnel around Afghanistan, the State Department said. The regular flights between the airport and embassy in Kabul started in December 2014 in response to a change in the threat level.
Phrogs and Chinooks in the Kabul sky
Following the Afghanistan visit of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Air Wing’s Phrogs got a little more attention. During the recent evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, a Stars and Stripes photographer tweeted a Phrog photo. But he also caught a shot of a U.S. military CH-47 Chinook.
Staff being evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul overnight. pic.twitter.com/Q652sWFSkN
— Phillip Walter Wellman (@pwwellman) August 15, 2021
The helicopter on the left is a Phrog. On the right is a Chinook.
In fact, many of the photos and videos that surfaced from the evacuation were Chinooks. There hasn’t been confirmation who was flying the Chinooks, though the 10th Mountain Division had soldiers on the ground.
Telling Phrogs From Chinooks
Without having them side-by-side for comparison – the Chinook is larger – the easiest way to tell a CH-46 from a CH-47 is the shape. A Phrog is named so for a reason: it looks a little like a frog. It has a bulge on either side at the rear, called a sponson, where the wheels attach.
The 46’s larger and slightly younger cousin, the CH-47, bulges along most of its body. If you’re close enough, you can also just count the wheels. A Phrog has three and a Chinook has four.
Both airframes have been in service since the 1960s, though the first Phrog flew in 1958, while the Chinook waited until 1961.
The Embassy Air airframes also tend to be painted a tell-tale blue-and-white, though there are photos with original paint jobs as well. Even in Kabul, a CH-46 without the State Department paint job was spotted in the background of photos as recently as 2020.
From Saigon to Kabul
The CH-46 entered State Department service, much like many contractors, as it left military service. After serving Marines through the initial operations of the War on Terror, the Phrogs were replaced by the MV-22 Osprey.
But that long lineage was on display during the evacuation of the Kabul Embassy. One Twitter user even spotted a bit of serendipity. One of the CH-46s in the Kabul evacuation had also, purportedly, evacuated the U.S. ambassador from Saigon some 46 years prior.
The US State Dept CH-46 currently evacuating people to Kabul airport is ex-USMC 154038.
By a quirk of fate, the CH-46 that evac’d the US ambassador from Saigon was 154803. pic.twitter.com/Xw4MBI4HZx
— Sticky (@stickybloke) August 15, 2021
The CH-46 wasn’t as iconic to the Vietnam War as the Bell UH-1 “Huey” Iroquois. Still, it played a big role, including during the 1975 Saigon evacuation.
A lot of different airframes participated in the evacuation of Saigon and many of them were Republic of Vietnam aircraft. The rush to exit Vietnam even saw Hueys dumped into the ocean to make room on ship decks.
With U.S. carriers playing a central role in that evacuation, it’s no surprise the Marines were front-and-center with the Phrog.
Yet, in land-locked Afghanistan, with the airport as the only way out, Phrogs were once again central to the evacuation. And, given how many contractors have military service, there’s a good chance some crewmembers had prior service with the airframes.
A Final Resting Place for the Phrogs of Kabul
Through decades of service, the CH-46 flew Marines from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq. Anyone who ever rode in one knows there was no better way to travel.
They carried Marines into, and out of, the Battle of Baghdad and had very competent aircrews. This author helped look over some of the relevant awards recommendations and remembers enough to still hold the Marine aircrews in high regard.
As the Marines transitioned to the Osprey, the Phrog continued to serve. For more than a decade Phrogs flew across the skies of Afghanistan, carrying State Department personnel in their new role.
That ended in more ways than one with the evacuation of Kabul.
The U.S. State Department confirmed by email that it had seven Phrogs operating in Afghanistan during the evacuation. But the Air Wing stopped operating aircraft in Afghanistan after the embassy evacuation ended on August 15.
And that is where the story of those Phrogs ended as well. The State Department stated that the seven CH-46s in Air Wing service in Afghanistan were “rendered inoperable and left in Afghanistan.”
It seems, maybe, a little wrong, with all the other tragedy of the withdrawal, to get emotional about a helicopter. Still, this author has to take a moment for the seven Phrogs that will never leave Afghanistan.