Czech helicopter pilots will strengthen the defence of NATO's eastern flank
The Czech Army recently deployed a roughly 100-strong helicopter unit "Task Force HIPPO" with upgraded Mi-171Š helicopters from the 22nd Helicopter Air Base Náměšt' nad Oslavou to Poland, where the unit will support the allies for a full year. In Poland, Task Force HIPPO members will most often work with a similar Polish special operations unit, PJOS (Powietrzna Jednostka Operacji Specjalnych), which uses Mi-17-1V helicopters.
The team consists of flying personnel as well as specialists in aviation engineering, logistics and other specialties. In addition to the upgraded Mi-171Š helicopters, the unit is also equipped with ground equipment.
Members of the unit are trained to deploy airdrops, conduct aerial reconnaissance and perform tasks of transporting people and material. "The main task of the helicopter unit will be to cooperate with the Polish Armed Forces and allied units integrated into NATO structures," said the commander of the group, Maj.
The construction of the facilities for the whole group started in Poland in December last year. Now that the entire unit has been redeployed, the soldiers are continuing their logistical and operational preparations in order to be able to start the operational task in the near future.
According to the official information portal of the Polish Armed Forces "Polska Zbrojna", the operational area of the Czech contingent will be the 33rd Transport Air Base in Powidz. Back in the Warsaw Pact times, it was a first-line airfield, where the 7th Bombardment and Reconnaissance Aviation Regiment operated with Sukhoi Su-20 aircraft, and the Września motorway section was located nearby, from where the Polish Air Force often practiced take-offs and landings from the motorway section in the past.
Today, the Powidz base is home primarily to the 3rd Transport Air Wing (3. Skrzydło Lotnictwa Transportowego), whose 14th Squadron (Eskadra Lotnicza) is armed with C-130E/H Hercules and M-28TD transport aircraft, and more recently, US Army Air Forces helicopter units with AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters have also been stationed here. At the same time, a brand new unit of the Polish Air Force, the Powietrzna Jednostka Operacji Specjalnych (Special Operations Air Unit), is stationed in Powidz. It was created in February 2023 from the former 7th Special Purpose Squadron (7 Eskadra Działań Specjalnych) and uses Mi-17-1V helicopters to support Polish special forces.
National unit assessment for a foreign operation according to NATO standards
The departure of the unit itself was preceded by a long preparation with a number of military exercises, which culminated in a national assessment of the unit according to the NATO TACEVAL standard at the end of last year. This national readiness assessment was managed by the ACR Operations Command and the whole process was supervised by a national representative from the Force Development Section of the MoD. Soldiers dealt with a number of incidents in the operational and intelligence areas, as well as in the areas of force protection and logistics.
"The aim was to verify that the unit is able to fully operate in the deployment site, deal with contingencies, communicate and cooperate with the superior level, alliance partners and the host country," summarised Colonel Martin Janatka, Chief of Staff of the Operations Command.
Helicopter pilots have operated abroad in the past
The current mission in Poland is certainly not the first foreign deployment for the Czech "flying hippos". Back in the 1990s, Czech helicopter pilots with Mi-17s operated in SFOR, IFOR and KFOR operations in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. In the modern history of the Czech Air Force, however, the deployment of a compact helicopter unit with modernised Mi-171ŠM is only the second foreign deployment. The first ever "Task Force HIPPO" unit operated in 2010-2011 in far away Afghanistan, where it provided transport of people and material from the Sharana base near the Pakistani border, as well as evacuation of wounded NATO and Afghan government security forces soldiers. At that time, crews transported over 9,000 personnel and 334 tonnes of materiel for Regional Command East (RC-E). In two years, seven contingents rotated through the area.
Teams were also deployed to Afghanistan between 2008 and 2019 to train members of the local air force on Mi-series helicopters. Thirty-one groups from the Czech Republic rotated with this task.