Most of us, when we think of Air Force Special Operations helicopters immediately picture the mighty MH-53J/M, the giant Pave Low III/IV used through the 80s and 90s to insert special operation forces at long range and in limited visibility into denied territory. The Pave Low is retired now, replaced in Air Force service by the CV-22B.
Here’s the thing- the Air Force didn’t get the MH-53 until well after the Desert One disaster during the Iran hostage crisis. It had operated H-53s for many years prior to that, all the way back to the Vietnam war, but used it in the Combat Search and Rescue role, picking up downed pilots in enemy territory. But the Desert One fiasco convinced both the Army and the Air Force they needed dedicated aircraft and crews to support special operations forces.
Of course, the H-53 wouldn’t be the first Air Force helicopter focused on support to special operations. During the Vietnam War, it quickly became apparent that the North Vietnamese were supplying their forces and the Vietcong in the south via what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex of roads and trails moving from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. This web of trails was dispersed so that finding individual units and convoys on it was extremely challenging. A great deal of effort went into developing technologies that could find traffic on the trail. But for most of the war, the most effective means of finding traffic was to insert small reconnaissance teams of 3-6 men in the area. These small teams, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, or LLRPs (pronounced “Lurps”) would be inserted into an operational area via helicopter, walk to an objective area, and quietly observe. Intelligence gathered would be used to generated targeting for airstrikes, as early warning for ground commanders, and generally help generate an order of battle of enemy forces. Similar patrols inside South Vietnam would detect, locate and target NVA forces operating against the US and our South Vietnamese allies.
Tasked with supporting this mission, the Air Force actually bought their own variant of the ubiquitous UH-1 Huey, the UH-1F. Given that they were primarily inserting very small teams, the Air Force chose the original short cabin configuration. And observing the trouble the Army had with gunship versions of the short cabin UH-1B due to lack of power, the Air Force Hueys were powered by the General Electric 1500hp T-58 turbine engine, unlike virtually every other Huey that used variants of the Lycoming T-53 turbine.*
The Air Force also developed a bolt on kit to convert a “slick” Huey into a gunship variant, with two 7-round 2.75” rocket launchers, and two M134 miniguns mounted in the cabin. Where the army external forward firing mounts for M60s and later M134s, the cabin mounted miniguns of the Air Force could be used either in a forward firing mode, or as flexible guns aimed by the crew chief and gunner.
On November 26, 1968, then 1st LT James P. Fleming, USAF of the 20th Special Operations Squadron was flying a UH-1F when a call for an emergency extraction of a six man MACV-SOG recon team came over the air.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Fleming (then 1st Lt.) distinguished himself as the Aircraft Commander of a UH-1F transport Helicopter. Capt. Fleming went to the aid of a 6-man special forces long range reconnaissance patrol that was in danger of being overrun by a large, heavily armed hostile force. Despite the knowledge that 1 helicopter had been downed by intense hostile fire, Capt. Fleming descended, and balanced his helicopter on a river bank with the tail boom hanging over open water. The patrol could not penetrate to the landing site and he was forced to withdraw. Dangerously low on fuel, Capt. Fleming repeated his original landing maneuver. Disregarding his own safety, he remained in this exposed position. Hostile fire crashed through his windscreen as the patrol boarded his helicopter. Capt. Fleming made a successful takeoff through a barrage of hostile fire and recovered safely at a forward base. Capt. Fleming’s profound concern for his fellowmen, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
As the Air Force learned lessons in Vietnam about the tactics, techniques and procedures best suited for this mission, they produced a film to share with new pilots and crews to keep this institutional knowledge alive.
Also, there’s some pretty good shooty/splodey in there.
*The T-53 also was adapted to become the 1500 hp turbine that powers todays M1 tank series.