When you think of “special operations” and “aviation”, perhaps the number one name that comes to mind is the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment of the US Army. Born in the 1980s of a need for a well-equipped spec ops aviation element that could ferry and support American special operations forces (SOF), the legendary Night Stalkers of the 160th might just be the most well-known dark operations unit centered around aviation in history. Their pilots are without a doubt the best in the world, capable of doing the impossible with their fleet of MH-60 Black Hawks, AH/MH-6 Little Birds, and MH-47 Chinooks. Their exploits, from Panama to the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Afghanistan, and beyond, are only somewhat known to the public; the majority of what they do rightfully classified. But what if I was to tell you that there’s an even cooler dark ops aviation outfit buried in the print of the US Army’s history records? That’s where the legend of SEASPRAY begins.
SEASPRAY’s origin story remains highly classified to this day, but a few details have come to light over the years. It was founded in the early 1980s, along with Task Force 160, the predecessor to the 160th SOAR, in the wake of the abject failure of Operation Eagle Claw. A mission quickly crafted to rescue American hostages held at the captured US embassy in Tehran, Eagle Claw was the first-ever complex joint special operations mission featuring operators from the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment D, more popularly known as “Delta Force”, US Air Force and Marine Corps EC-130 Hercules and RH-53 Sea Stallion pilots respectively, US Navy fighters, Air Force AC-130 gunships, and a large contingent of Army Rangers of the 75th Ranger Regiment. Bad weather and equipment malfunctions forced the mission to be aborted, and in a sandstorm, aircraft were lost along with the lives of eight aircrew when an RH-53 collided with an EC-130, causing a massive explosion. Helicopters were abandoned, and the operational force left the desert.
Part of what made Eagle Claw such a dismal failure was the fact that none of the aircraft nor pilots involved in the mission (specifically the helicopter aircrew) were suitably geared towards special operations. The pilots were not trained in low-level adverse condition flight, and the communication between units was sub par at best. To account for the communications woes, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was stood up, bringing together a number of black operations forces, known as special missions units (or SMUs) under its umbrella, including Delta Force, and the US Navy’s SEAL Team 6. A versatile air wing would be needed to fly and support these SMUs around the world in a diverse range of environments and circumstances. They would have to be highly trained, well-equipped, and extremely capable.
Task Force 160 (TF 160) was, outwardly, the initial step taken by JSOC to check the box off this particular requirement. Originally known as Task Force 158, and functionally a part of the 101st Airborne Division, TF 160 was cemented as the Army’s go-to special ops aviation outfit, fielding the (at the time brand-new) Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, the Boeing-Vertol CH-47 Chinook, and the Vietnam-era Hughes OH-6 Cayuse which was actually on its way out of the Army, but was surreptitiously brought back exclusively for TF 160. Stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, TF 160 was separated from the 101st Airborne and was stood up as its own unique battalion – now the 160th Special Operations Aviation Battalion.
The 160th’s hotshot pilots were well known for deflecting grooming standards, and for having the best equipment in the Army. If they could justify the need for any newfangled high-tech gear that would help them accomplish their mission to an even greater degree of success, JSOC saw to the funding and purchase of said gear. Though the legend of the 160th, the badasses who routinely flew Delta Force operators and SEAL Team 6 ninjas all over, floated around the Army, little was really known about the missions they actually flew. But the powers that be had already decided that an even darker counterpart outfit was needed.
In March, 1981, the US Army banded together with the Central Intelligence Agency to create such a unit. Funding from the Army was diverted towards this new joint outfit, which would be granted a number of well-developed covers and fronts to ensure it was completely out of the public eye. In fact, the very existence of the unit was a secret not told to the majority of the US Army’s top officers. Branded SEASPRAY, but officially known as the 1st Rotary Wing Test Activity, it was based out of Fort Eustis, Virginia; within commuting distance of Camp Peary, home to “The Farm – a CIA facility. One of SEASPRAY’s first “fronts” (civilian covers) was Aviation Tech Services; the name designed to draw away attention from the unit’s true purpose. A secondary base of operations was formed at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida as a staging point for missions that would prong into Central and South America.
SEASPRAY’s pilots were handpicked by a small panel of Army and CIA officers, all of whom were involved in aviation or black operations in some way or another. They knew exactly who they wanted for this new outfit. Approximately 4,000 US Army pilots were interviewed, none of them aware of unit they were auditioning to join. Heavy vetting by the CIA coupled with rigorous psychological evaluations narrowed down the selection to just 10 aviators of that 4,000. These 10 would go on to form the core of SEASPRAY. The aircraft they would fly were carefully bought and registered through civilian channels, removing the connection between them and the Army and CIA. Hughes 500D helicopters, similar to the OH-6 Cayuse (and MH-6 Little Bird) were quietly picked up and extensively modified. By the end of their retrofit cycles, these 500Ds could be quickly refitted with rocket and gun pods, or benches to carry operators in and out of areas of operation (AORs) as needed. Within a short period of time, the hangars allocated to 1st Rotary Wing Test Activity played host to fixed wing planes as well – Beechcraft King Airs and Cessna light aircraft, also highly modified.
The CIA’s famed Special Activities Division (SAD), their covert operations sector, as well as Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, made extensive use of SEASPRAY in the years following its creation. The unit was ushered into JSOC, and also worked closely with another Army SMU, known as the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA or “The Activity”). Not a whisper was heard of the unit’s very existence nor its undertakings, while operations expanded deeper into Central and South America. Counter-drug ops, signals intelligence (SIGINT) missions, and secret extractions and ferry flights, were all part of SEASPRAY’s repertoire. Pilots from SEASPRAY were also rumored to be involved in the study, testing and evaluation of foreign military aircraft; just how they got their hands on those aircraft is anyone’s guess. SEASPRAY pilots were checked out in a considerable variety of aircraft, as was evidenced by a fairly famous story in the US special operations community where the unit’s pilots fulfilled a JSOC request for a Boeing 737 airliner for training purposes. JSOC operators needed the 737, presumably to practice ingression techniques during hijackings. The US Air Force was originally contacted to find JSOC any available 737, but responded that the earliest they could deliver would be months from the day the request was made. SEASPRAY took the mission instead, delivering the 737 in just three days with nary a word spoken on how they did it. However, just as quickly as it appeared out of the darkness, this secret unit faded away.
In the mid-1980s, a scandal proved to be SEASPRAY’s undoing. The Army quickly moved to disestablish and disperse the unit’s assets. By this point, it had grown in size with new aircraft and newly recruited pilots brought into the fold. Some of its best aviators and a number of its aircraft were transfered over to Delta Force to stand up Echo (E) Squadron, affording the unit its own aviation capability. Others were ushered into the Army’s top secret Flight Concepts Division, another black ops aviation unit, more commonly known as “Quasar Talent”. The rest of outfit formerly known as SEASPRAY were brought into the CIA, the ISA or outright retired. Today, we known little to nothing about the current status of dark ops aviation units, outside of the 160th SOAR. We do know that they more than likely “exist” today, likely under the auspices of JSOC as individual SMUs, and that they still fly today, hidden in plain sight with unexceptionally vague names. Flight Concepts Division/Quasar Talent is still apparently active as an Army unit, also based out of Fort Eustis, but absolutely nothing else seems to be known about what they do, and for good reason. In fact, it’s all too possible that a “black” helicopter might’ve flown over your house as you read this…
Spooky, isn’t it?