Developed from the OH-6 Cayuse light reconnaissance helicopter, the Boeing/Hughes MH-6 is a small, versatile helicopter used primarily for special operations. It also has a number of variants, including the AH-6, a small but immensely capable attack helicopter. More recent models are based on the MD-530 civilian helicopter.
In 1960, the U.S. Army issued a requirement for a light helicopter suitable for observation, transport, and even attack roles. The 1966 OH-6 Cayuse was the result. The MH-6 is an improved model, incorporating more passenger space and an increased capability to add armament, among other changes. Although the “Little Bird” was originally developed as a recon helicopter for armored units, it was almost immediately transferred to the special operations world.
The MH-6 utilizes an “egg-shaped” design. The front houses a large glass, high-visibility bubble cockpit, capable of seating two crew members. The fuselage sides house the passenger seating. In order to reduce weight, this seating consists of simply two benches, one on each side of the helicopter, where 6 (3 on each side) soldiers can be placed. Although it may look dangerous, the upshot of this design allows the soldiers to be able to quickly exit the helicopter. Finally, the rear is the home of the engine, which develops about 375 shp, powering the “Little Bird” to a maximum speed of 282 km/h. With 235 liters (62 gallons) of internal fuel, the MH-6 has a max range of 430 kilometers.
The MH-6 has a number of features that have made it the U.S. Special Forces’ primary light helicopter to this day. Despite lacking armor, it is reasonably tough and leaves the pilots a good chance of survival in a crash. It is very quiet, and when painted black, has a good degree of stealth. This light helicopter is also immensely proficient at difficult, fast, and dangerous maneuvers, making it suitable for both urban and rural environments, especially at low altitudes. It can land fast in narrow steers or even on the roofs of buildings. The MH-6 is a smaller alternative to the MH-60 helicopters.
Contrary to popular belief, the MH-6, unless modified, does not carry any armament, as it is an observation and transport helicopter, although its AH-6 variant can carry a wide variety of guns, missiles, and rockets. However, the MH-6 can play a crucial role in the ground attack missions of the AH-6, acting as a sensor system. AH-6s normally carry their own sensor suites, unless operating with a MH-6, which takes over the sensor role. This allows the AH-6 to carry more armament.
The MH-6 has a distinguished combat history. After the 1980 failure in the Eagle Claw hostage-rescue operation, the United States needed a special operation helicopter unit. It quickly formed the 160th Special Operations Aviation Brigade (SOAR), more commonly known as the Night Stalkers. This unit has provided and continues to provide ceaseless close air support and transportation for special forces units, particularly the elite troops of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
The MH-6 first saw combat (although of a limited amount) in Grenada and, later, Nicaragua. However, the MH-6 really proved itself in Operation Prime Chance, a mission for protecting merchant shipping. Here, MH-6s first helped guide AH-6s to targets, typically small Iranian boats.
In Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama, MH-6s played a critical role. The first and most interesting mission for the Little Birds and their operators was to rescue Kurt Muse, a captured CIA operative. After getting Muse, the helicopter attempted to take off, but was immediately shot down. However, all personnel survived the crash. The Little Birds later participated in the hunt for Manuel Noriega. Four years later, in the much publicized Battle for Mogadishu, a MH-6 succeeded in rescuing two of the downed operatives from one of the downed Blackhawks.
The MH-6 saw much combat first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. They ferried JSOC personnel all over both countries and provided sensor support for AH-6 missions. In Iraq, at the height of the US w4r there, JSOC launched many missions a day to eliminate insurgents. These missions typically consisted of two AH-6s for interdiction, two MH-6s with snipers for pinpoint shooting, and two MH-60 Black Hawks full of operators for assault.
One interesting capability that operatives in the 160th SOAR know how to exploit is known as “Smokey and the Bandit”. The operatives fold the Little Bird’s rotors and pack as many as two of them into a large commercial transport truck. This allows the operatives to bring the helicopters close to the target without attracting attention. Once they are ready to use the helicopters, operatives can reassemble the MH-6s in about three minutes.
Other operators of the MH-6 (besides the United States) are Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
AH-6: the attack helicopter variant of the Little Bird. It is known as the Little Bird, or Little Bird Gun. This helicopter is used for numerous special missions, its design is essentially the same as the MH-6, except that it lacks the troop benches and carries two mounting stations instead. These can hold a blend of 30 mm chain guns, 12.7 mm Gatling guns, 7.62 mm miniguns, pods with 70 mm unguided Hyrda rocket, Hellfire anti-tank missiles, TOW anti-tank missiles, and AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles. The AH-6 has a large number of variants.
EH-6E: a mobile command post and electronic ωλɾʄλɾɛ platform.
MH-6E: an improved transport model of the original Little Bird.
MH-6H: a dedicated Special Forces transport.
MH-6J: updated version based on the civilian MD-530MG. Improvements include a better engine, Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) technology, and an internal navigation system.
MH-6M: is the newest version. It is also known as the Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB). This is an upgrade program that introduces a number of improvements, including a new 6-bladed main rotor (which further reduces noise), a Rolls-Royce 250-C30R/3M 650 shp engine, improved folding benches, racks for carrying up to 2 motorcycles, and fuel tanks that are supposedly resistant to crashes and heavy machine gun fire.
MH-6X: an Unmanned Ariel Vehicle (UAV) model. It is marketed primarily at other countries. Can also be manned.
KUS-VH: a Korean UAV project using the Little Bird’s airframe.