The Air Force Helicopter Fleet-With a bonus look at how the sausage gets made.

I’m always delighted when I get emails from people. A lurker saw Pave Low John’s comment of a recent post, and mentioned that his brother was a Pave Low gunner for many years. I figured that since it’s such a small community, PLJ would almost certainly know him. Turns out, he did. And while putting people in touch with each other, I also asked PLJ for his thoughts on the rotary wing fleet in the Air Force.  I’m going to share a bit of our exchange.*


I’d love to hear your thoughts on the travesty that has been the Air Force’s inability to buy a decent helicopter, both as regards a MH-53M replacement, and more spectacularly the whole CSAR-X fiasco. I understand there are differences in the Special Operations and CSAR missions, but for the life of me I can’t grasp why the MH-47G wouldn’t be a pretty good fit for the Air Force, and capitalize of the economies of scale of buying an in production platform. Instead, now, after somewhere around 15 years of bidding, protesting, suing and whatnot, the Air Force is going to end up buying Sikorsky S-92s. Mind you, this is at a time when their argument is that they must reduce the numbers of types they operate to retire the A-10, and yet they want to introduce a platform virtually no one else in the world operates!

For that matter, the obvious answer for the UH-1N replacement is to simply piggyback on the Army’s UH-60 buy, but they can’t even figure out a way to do that! These aren’t complicated issues. Why is it there is no common sense anymore? Please, let me know your thoughts. I’d love to share them as a guest post on the blog.

Pave Low John:

Yeah, CSAR-X and the missile site support helicopter replacement are a mess and if it makes you feel better, I agree with you 100% on the MH-47G and the Blackhawk option for the missile fields.  Here is my .02 cents, but it may take a while, I got some strong opinions when it comes to these issues.

       Here’s the deal when it comes to CSAR – to really do it right, you need at least three difference kind/sizes of airframes.  Kind of like playing golf, you need the right club for the situation.  You need a long-range heavy-lift platform for high-altitude/vehicles/CRRC/long-range overwater rescues (some version of the H-47 is the best bird for this role, hands down); you need a small platform that can do urban rescues (MH-6s are, and have been, the best at this mission, obviously); finally, you need a medium-sized helo that can fill the gaps between the MH-47 and the MH-6 (lots of possibilities, including newer MH-60s, NH-90s, Super Pumas, S-92s, etc…) 

    Now, that is a perfect world scenario.  With all the usual budget and organizational restrictions, the USAF is going to want to pick just one platform for Rescue.  Which is stupid, but there it is.  So the MH-47G is the best pick, because it covers the most bases (that is also why the MH-53J was originally designed to be a rescue asset until USSOCOM snatched to away from ARS back in the 1980s, thanks mostly to the failed operation at Desert One).  The Army already flies the MH-47E/F, so training, simulator support, etc… is already there, the USAF just has to pull it’s head out of its ass and just buy HH-47s.  I was working in AFSOC HQ back in 2004 and 2005 when AFSOC owned the rescue mission, and if AFSOC hadn’t lost the mission back to ACC in late 2005, I’m absolutely convinced the MH-47G (called the HH-47G at the time) would have been selected.  But the fighter guys got Rescue back and screwed it all up, and it is still screwed up to this day.

    As for the replacement for the UH-1N replacement, the Air Force has neglected the missile security mission for decades and they just don’t want to spend money on the problem.  UH-60s could fill the role of both gunships and security team transport but again, the Air Force has screwed it all up.  They know that they need something to support the missile convoys and launch sites, but they don’t want to spend more money than they are right now (and UH-60s do cost more to fix and fly than UH-1s, but you get more for your dollars, obviously).

     It all boils down to one factor really:  The Air Force, as an organization, does not understand rotary-wing issues and dislikes anything rotary-wing related on a general basis.  It smacks too much of the Army and the Marine Corps and the “fighter mafia”-types that really run the Air Force has let their parochialism cloud their judgment when it comes to Rescue and Missile Site Support.  I was a helicopter pilot my entire career in the Air Force (with the exception of my first year of pilot training flying T-37s and T-38s) and there was no doubt that I was a red-headed stepchild compared to even the tanker toads flying KC-135s and KC-10s.  No matter how many deployments I made overseas or how many hours I logged in combat, I was never treated as a “real” aviator by the fixed-wing crowd that makes up the leadership of the Air Force.  They would say a few nice words now and again, but when it came down to money and where to spend it, helicopters were always at the bottom of the priority list.  Hell, the Air Force even got rid of the rotary-wing half of the only Combat Aviation Advisor squadron in the DoD — just to fund some improvements to the AC-130!  The AFSOC three-star told us right to our face that the five million dollars a year he was spending on Mi-17s and UH-1Ns and UH-1Hs in order to train foreign aviators was simply too much.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some AC-130, those guys do great work, but that was a really stupid move.  The U.S. Army is still having trouble picking up that mission, which they didn’t want in the first place (due to a number of factors, but that is a post for another time) and all that experience was scattered to the wind, never to return.  So when you watch the news and see a story about the U.S. having trouble training Iraqis or Afghans or whoever to defend their own country, just remember that the Air Force deliberately closed down the only part of the entire U.S. military focused on training foreign units in rotary-wing operations.    Just to save 5 million dollars a year. 

    So there you have it.  The USAF doesn’t like helicopters, it doesn’t understand their missions, and just wishes the whole debacle would just go away so they could get back to important issues like the F-35 and….the F-35, I guess.   I could go on but I think that is the simplest way to look at it.  It all comes down to culture and the Air Force “culture” doesn’t include helicopters.  Since no one outside the Air Force is going to make them address this blind spot until something really bad happens, it could be a while before things improve for Air Force rotor-heads. 

Most of this is the Air Force’s fault. Some, however, is Congress and the DoD’s fault.  We’ve set up an insanely complex system to assure that major systems procurement is fair and that the systems bought fulfill the mission the best way possible. Unfortunately, the process has fallen to regulatory capture, wherein the process has become more important than the product. For instance, the missile security mission- every time the Air Force moves a nuclear warhead for a Minuteman missile (for maintenance or what have you) security forces in a UH-1N Huey escort the weapon. But the UH-1N is terribly old. The obvious answer is to replace it with the UH-60M, currently in production for the Army. But even if the Air Force didn’t want that big of a helicopter, it shouldn’t take years to simply decide to buy another utility lift helicopter. There are any number of suitab
le helicopters currently in production, including Huey variants that would do nicely. You and I, being normal people, say, look, the Huey is getting kinda old, let’s buy some new helicopters, maybe the Bell 412. Maybe have a bidding war or competitive fly-off between the UH-60M and the Bell 412, where the contractors compete for our business. Instead, the Air Force pays contractors to study the issue. It’s insane.


*With John’s permission. I treat commenter private information such as email addresses with discretion.

7 thoughts on “The Air Force Helicopter Fleet-With a bonus look at how the sausage gets made.”

  1. Regarding the Novembers, three precautionary landings on my ranch (55 miles southwest of Warren AFB) in the last 18 months. Those helos were manufactured in 1969. Judging from what I’ve observed, a little bigger helo would be a plus. The 90th Security routinely stuffs 8 guys in full battle rattle in the back of those Hueys. Sardines.

    1. The cabin of a UH-1N is not very big, especially if they have a spare fuel bladder back there. I did all my Huey flying on the East Coast (Langley AFB and then Hurlburt Field during my advisor time) but I heard all kinds of ominous stories about how beat up the missile site helos were getting during the last ten years. Some of those birds have been flying since the early late 60s and a few of them flew with the MACV/SOG program in SE Asia. They certainly need a rest after a long and distinguished career like that….

  2. I can testify to the step child attitude of USAF. When I was at Rucker I had been sent up to Battalion to see the CSM for reasons I can’t recall now. he wasn’t in at the time, so I went across to the vendomat to wait where I could watch the door of the Battalion office. While I was waiting a couple of AT 2LTs walked in and we talked a bit. Both were in flight training there for choppers, and neither of them wanted to be there. They could either go into choppers or wait 9 months. Both were AFROTC grads and neither of them wanted to wait that long and so “settled” for rotary wing instead. Both were offended that they had been sent to the Army for flight training as well.

    I think the USAF did something right, for once, in sending their pilots to Rucker for Rotary Wing training. The Navy came close to doing so as well. I met the officer who had been sent to Rucker to evaluate the training program at Rucker. He praised the Army to the havens and thought their program was far better than the Navy’s. Better simulators and used experienced former Army pilots as instructors, all of whom had combat experience and knew what they were doing cold. The only weakness was the TH-55 (also known as the Mattel Messerschmidt as some of the plastic parts had been made by Mattel for Hughes AC). The Army has since gone to the TH-57 for training, but they aren’t running hundreds through the program like they had back in the 60s when they would start a class of 500 hoping to get 250. For comparison, less than half the class I started with graduated.

    The flags shot down the idea of sending pilots to Rucker. The guy I spoke thought it boiled down to the Navy being forced to combine flight training with the USAF and Army if they bought off with rotary wing and the Army. The hide bound attitudes of both USAF and Navy cost us, as a country, a lot of money. I find it strange that USAF and Navy pilots swap back and forth all the time and have no problems adapting to the other services ways of doing things. It could be done with Rotary Wing training as well with no loss to either service.

    1. The strange way in which I stumbled into the rotary-wing world is another epic tale of incompetence that shows how little the Air Force understands helicopters and helicopter crews. Suffice it to say that I started out in fixed-wing training because the Air Force bean-counters had decided that there were enough rotor-heads in the post-Cold War Air Force to meet their future needs, so they just shut down the USAF program at Ft Rucker.

      Therefore, when I was a 2LT down at Laughlin AFB in 1993, there was no Air Force helicopter training program. When I finally graduated from flight school in the spring of 1994, the Air Force suddenly realized that they hadn’t made allowances for retirements, early departures, medical groundings, etc… and that, yes, they DID need new helicopters pilot. In fact, they needed them so badly, they started letting new guys like me select helicopters when it came time to pick what aircraft they wanted to fly.

      So my first stop after getting my shiny new pilot wings was Fort Rucker, the proud home of Army Aviation. That was a life-changing decision that I have never regretted and never will. I’ll have to post some stories from my days at Fort Rucker later on, it was quite an eye-opener for an Air Force butter-bar whose only assignments up to that point was the Air Force Academy and flight school. Granted, I wasn’t completely unprepared (I had volunteered for Jump School at Ft. Benning in the summer of 1990, a decision that really helped me navigate the foreign culture at Rucker 🙂

    2. I think you should post a few stories of your time at Rucker. It was one of the nicer Army posts I’d been on. Reminded me a lot of Lackland, my father’s last duty station (he was USAF).

      When I was at Rucker the only AF I saw were students. My understanding was USAF students were folded into the Army classes. I was not aware that USAF had ended their program there, but that was an act of monumental idiocy. But the Bomber Generals and fighter mafia aren’t known for their intelligence. That type of will idiocy, combined with the history of USAF since ’47, has me coming down on the side of ending the independent existence of USAF. Re-open the AAF, and put NORAD, Mobility, heavy bombers and ICBMs in an independent SAC.

  3. The Key West Conference continues to rear its ugly effing head uselessly…as if it was ever useful.

  4. I almost always enjoyed riding in helicopters. I have a number of fond and/or exciting memories involving them.

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