Can a fighter jet destroy a helicopter? Let’s Find Out


The Lima Incident

Here is a fascinating CIA account of crewman Glenn Woods leaning outside of a Huey and shooting down two NVAF AN-2 biplanes with an AK-47. I shit thee not.

“Hey Ted, hold my beer…”

Oh, right, we’re talking about fighter jets. Back in 1979, the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force collaborated on a program called J-CATCH – ‘Joint Countering Attack Helicopters’.

The J-CATCH Program

Three UH-1N Iroquois from the 20th Special Operations Squadron (‘Green Hornets’) participating in J-CATCH

Strategic Context

From the USAF Helicopter Pilot Association’s history of the 20th Special Operations Squadron:
“Concern over the increased helicopter firepower and numbers in potential adversary nations led Tactical Air Command to outfit 20th UH-1Ns and CH-3Es as aggressors, creating a force that simulated Soviet attack helicopter capabilities and tactics. Scenarios included helicopter-to-helicopter tactics, and helicopter-to-fighter tactics. The J-CATCH helicopters were painted with special camouflage schemes and configured with Mini-TAT chain guns mounted under the fuselage, which were aimed by the co-pilot’s hand controlled sight. The weapon system was loaned to the Air Force by the Canadian government. The 20th’s aggressor force was known as “Red Force” and adopted a red scarf, which is still worn by the unit today. The red star on the unit patch today is a reminder of the J-CATCH mission, which successfully concluded in 1979.”

A flight mechanic from the 20th inspecting a tape player during J-CATCH

Now I’d heard of this exercise before – it’s almost mythical in some circles – but I’ve had a hard time finding solid information on it, and some of the links used to construct the Wikipedia article are now dead. But today I came across Air Superiority At The Treetops, written by Lt. Col. Miller (U.S. Army) after the conclusion of the exercise, which discusses it extensively.

J-CATCH was a defensive exercise simulating a U.S. mechanized division defending against an overwhelming Soviet assault – typical Fulda Gap stuff. Attack helicopters were critical to the defense plan. American planners were worried about Soviet helicopters armed with air-to-air missiles that could counter-attack the American helicopters; in this exercise, the 20th Special Operations squadron played the role of the Soviets.

“Recent simulator studies imply that the most efficient counter-system to an attack helicopter is another attack helicopter…air-to-air engagements between helicopters are inevitable on any future European battlefield involving NATO and Warsaw Pact armies. Based on preliminary in-vestigations, it also can be expected that helicopter air-to-air engagements at the treetop level will be fleeting, violent, intense and of short duration.” – Lt. Col. Miller

Cross-referencing Miller’s article with the article on page 25 of this PDF backs up my impression that J-CATCH was chiefly intended to find a counter to Soviet attack helicopters rather than specifically oriented at jet vs. helicopter combat. However, according to Cpt. Vallimont (the author of the article in question), J-CATCH was also designed to answer questions raised by the USAF in their Air Combat Engagement (ACE) program which included one-on-one jet vs. helicopter simulated combat.

Results of the exercise

“Sometimes you eat bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.” – Unnamed Cobra pilot

UH-1Ns and CH-3Es from the 20th Special Operations Squadron (‘Green Hornets’) in their Aggressor paint scheme.

In the helicopter-on-helicopter phase of the exercise, the Green Hornets coined the term HAAM (Helicopter Air to Air Maneuvers) in mock battle against Army HueysCobras, and Kiowas. In later phases, the Green Hornets flew against F-4E Phantoms and F-15A Eagles from the 57th Tactical Training Wing, A-7D Corsair IIs from the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing. They flew over 1000 missions – apparently this was a very thorough exercise!

Gun camera used to evaluate kills during the exercise. It’s attached to the chin of an unidentified helicopter.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any discussion of the results from this exercise beyond anecdotes on web forums and a Wikipedia article citing sources that I either do not have access to or no longer exist. But my understanding of the exercise is as follows:

  • Even in 1979 with doppler radar, fighter jets had no issues detecting and locking on to helicopters from 60+ kilometers away.
  • No Sparrow missiles were actually fired, and the jets were restricted to fighting ‘within visual range’.
  • When the jets were restricted to guns only, helicopters were able to put up a positive kill to death ratio…
  • …unless they were facing the immortal A-10.
  • The helicopters used in the exercise were likely armed with guns and rockets only, i.e. no Stinger missiles.

My personal opinion / what conclusions can we draw?

The Sparrow missiles used in the exercise probably would have been ineffective against the helicopters; air-to-air missiles have been consistently terrible at shooting down to tree-top level until very recently.

Fighter jets and helicopters operate in two very different ‘spheres’, generally tens of thousands of feet in altitude away from each other. To mangle a cliche, fighters shouldn’t let a helicopter drag them down to their level; they’ll beat ’em with experience.

Most of the kills in the early phase of the exercise probably came from the 20th SOS parking their helicopters behind terrain features near ground targets that the Corsairs and Warthogs were attacking. The aggressor helicopters would pop up and shoot down the jets while they were egressing, often without the jet pilot being aware of the helicopter at all.

The Gulf War pretty conclusively demonstrated that helicopters are a turkey shoot for modern jets and air-to-air missiles.

It is impossible to use helicopters offensively against jets, and ideal to use helicopters offensively against other helicopters.

Metaphorically, helicopters behave similarly to highly mobile AAA systems in HAAM – imagine a Tunguska that can fly.

A short survey of aircraft shot down by helicopters**

In the Lima incident above, a Huey shot down two An-2 Colts.

According to Fire Force by Dr. Wood, a Rhodesian Alouette III gunship conversion shot down a Botswana Defence Force Islander on 9AUG1979.

An Alouette of the type involved in the incident

According to The Iran Iraq War by Pierre Razoux, Iranian Super Cobra pilots shot down two MiG-21s, a MiG-23, and a Su-22 during the Iran-Iraq War (in addition to 25 helicopters).

According to Aviastar and, an Iraqi Mi-24 shot down an Iranian F-4 Phantom with an At-6 ‘Spiral’ anti-tank missile during the same war.

Also, In 1991, an F-15E shot down an Iraqi MD-500 with a laser-guided bomb.

According to this potentially dubious source, an America Cobra pilot tricked a Soviet Mi-24 into destroying itself during a game of cat-and-mouse over the East German border in the 1980s. While following the Cobra, the Hind stalled, and pulled up so violently that its rotor blades touched the tail boom and tore it apart.

According to Falklands: The Air War (page 192) a British Sea Harrier caused an Argentinian Puma to crash by flying over it, about 10 feet away, at high speed.

This detailed answer was written and researched by Matt Alioto on Quora.