“My gut tells me the copter crash was no accident.”

Writer delves into several fascinating scenarios

This photo shows excellent detail of a Bell 212 Helicopter, on display at a park in Italy. (Photo credit Richard Vandervord)

Last week, writer Drago Bosnic posited the use of some type of ‘kill switch’ to bring down Iranian President Raisi’s Bell 212 helicopter, one of several of the 212 owned by Iran. What is a Bell 212 helicopter? Many people who lived through the Vietnam War era are familiar with the popular Bell UH-1 Huey workhorse.

Bell’s 212 helicopter was developed three years after the UH-1 because Canadian forces wanted a Huey with twin engines for safety and redundancy (unlike the single engine US Hueys). 

Neither the single engine Bell UH-1 nor the twin engine Bell 212 helicopters had computerized flight control systems, which are known as ‘fly-by-wire’ but did contain hydraulic boosted flight controls required by the 11,200 lbs gross weight of these aircraft.

Fly-by-wire control systems cut down on aircraft empty weight and makes an unstable aircraft flyable.  A Bell 212 with an autopilot is not a fly-by-wire aircraft but it can be married to today’s digital avionics, which respond to satellite navigation systems such as GPS.

Fly-by-wire is a type of flight control system based on having at least one computer between the pilot and the flight controls, but it is not a system that can be added to an existing copter inexpensively.  Bell helicopters pioneered fly-by-wire flight controls for civilian helicopters in the past 5 years with its ‘Model 515 Relentless.’ 

There are two worldwide Global Positioning Systems (GPS) available.  GPS is the one most everyone uses, and USA taxpayers paid for its satellites, maintenance, and operations. The other system built by the Russians is called Global Navigation Satellite System, or GLONASS.   Both systems operate in the 1.2 GHz to 1.6 GHz band.  However, each system uses a different modulation scheme so they are not compatible.

I have not been able to determine if the Russian system provides the height measurement capability, which is available in GPS.  Recently, Apple has offered a smartphone that allows you to select either system. The GPS system had a property called selective availability, or SA. This property caused the GPS coordinates to range over an area that made the GPS inaccurate when GPS guided munitions attempted to hit a target.

The military could switch the SA off unless and until the USA came under attack. When selective availability was switched on, fishermen found their favorite fishing hole was the size of a football field.  Back in 2000, President Clinton supposedly stopped the use of SA by the military. Frankly, I doubt the military actually gave up being able to use SA when needed. Without SA, position accuracy is around 10 feet.  Our satellites actually broadcast two sets of signals, one for civilians and the other with greater precision for military munitions guidance.

If the Bell 212 had retrofitted a GPS navigation system (which is a high probability), then enabling SA would seem to be an option (by U.S. intelligence officials) that could possibly bring down the Iranian copter. The mountains in the area of Iranian President Raisi’s helicopter crash are in the range of 6,000 to 8,000 feet. The typical ground elevation is about 5,200 feet. The rainy and foggy weather could make flying in the area somewhat hazardous, but the Bell 212 has a service ceiling of 17,400 feet, well above the local terrain.

Another possible degrading effect for GPS is something I dealt with in the late 1990s. At the time, I was an engineering consultant for clients needing FCC licenses for low power FM radio and TV (LPTV) stations. Our client in Idaho had a LPTV construction permit, but needed a microwave link to connect the valley studio to the mountain top TV station. The client needed to supply the studio location for filing the microwave link FCC application, but could not determine the site’s GPS coordinates with his GPS receiver. Nearby, there was an RV park with saucer-shaped TV antennas that RVers mounted on their roof to get over-the-air TV stations. One of the most popular models had a transistor amplifier that radiated RF in the GPS band!  I suggested to our client that he wait until about 2 or 3 AM (fewer TVs on)  to try his GPS unit to get the coordinates we needed.  Bingo!

For sabotage purposes, one would want the helicopter to crash where getting all the pieces of the aircraft for post-wreck examination would not be possible.  Well, a mountain crash is conducive to that condition. If the Bell 212 avionics were upgraded to computerized digital displays, then aircraft GPS guidance is possible. Modifications to the flight controls, engines, and electronics risk being discovered during pre-flight examinations or maintenance checks.  It is hard to predict when the sabotage act will occur. When you do a covert operation, the best option is the one with the least chance of failure.  If it doesn’t perform as expected, the target could live to tell the story. The wreckage may tell the story and embarrass the covert operator/country.

My research has found an Arizona company with an FAA certificate for modifying a Bell 212 helicopter so that a Garmin digital display (glass cockpit) system can be used with a helicopter autopilot. This would make it possible for an ‘RF jamming pod’ flown on a C-130 to jam the GPS receiver in the Iranian helicopter. Assuming the autopilot was engaged, the helicopter crash would depend on how fast its pilot recognized the problem and disengaged the autopilot. 

The clue Drago Bosnic (last week’s reporter) gave us is that a US C-130H/J Hercules cargo airplane (Herky Bird} was nearby. The Herky Bird has radar on board that would detect and track (“paint”) the Bell 212. There are two special ops models of the C-130 that fit the bill for this mission.  One is the AC-130J Ghostrider II and the other is the HC-130J Combat King II.  Guess what? Both have search radar and missile launch capability, with four missile/bomb systems available.

My top pick from the four weapons available is the AGM-176 Griffin A for these reasons: It is small at 33 lbs; its warhead is only 13 lbs so damage is limited; but, packs sufficient punch to bring down the Bell 212, while the Hercules is about three times faster than the Bell 212 copter. In theory, easy for the C-130 to catch up to the Bell helicopter!?

Boom! Figure on lots of wreckage and debris to be lost or not recovered. As I learn more, I will certainly update The County Compass readers!