Air Force Special Operations Helicopters in Vietnam

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.

James_P_Fleming

Airforce_moh

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNJ1-RUIVuQ]

 

*The T-53 also was adapted to become the 1500 hp turbine that powers todays M1 tank series.

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.*

XBradTC:

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.

Crash- Or, sometimes, the Air Force is pretty badass.

Not often. But the PJs and rescue helicopter crews are some tough, brave folks. Back in 2002, called to assist with the recovery of dead and injured climbers on Mt. Hood, OR, an Air Force Reserve Pavehawk helicopter crashed and rolled 1000 feet down the mountain.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG3wbqvaYkk]

Incredibly, none of the helicopter crew were killed. Two crewmen were ejected and actually had the helicopter roll over them, but the soft snow meant they survived.

**waves to PaveLow John.**

160th SOAR helicopters damage building in downtown Port Huron

Via the Times Herald:

A U.S. Military helicopter caused damage to the historic Sperry’s building in downtown Port Huron early Monday morning.

Around 1:30 a.m., during a military training operation, a helicopter approached the building from the east and the wind from the helicopter caused damage to the brick parapet above the building.

Randee Farrell, U.S. Army spokeswoman, said engineers have already reviewed the accident and found that the structure of the building was not damaged.

“Rotor wash from a helicopter caused damage to the brick veneer along the roof line which fell and caused damage to the awning,” Farrell said in a press release.

No one was hurt during the incident.

“The U.S. Army is responsible for the damage and will work with the property owner,” Farrell said.

There’s video embedded in the article that pretty clearly shows MH-60 helicopters operating at a nearby location.

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

Of course, the tin-foil hat crowd that is certain that #JadeHelm15 is going to result in martial law in Texas sees this as further preparation for the coming Obama takeover of the country.

Less nutty comments such as this one raise a point:

They have no buisness training in civilian areas. They have there own training areas to train. What is really going on here?

Yes, the Army does have its own training areas. The problem is, we all realize that vast amounts of future warfare will, perforce, take place in urban areas. And the military can only build so much urban terrain, that is, mock cities.  The problem is, if you only have a couple of places to train, very quickly you end up gaming the system. You learn not the techniques you need to apply in the real world, but the specific techniques for those couple of particular locations.

For instance, my unit would routinely travel to Pinion Canyon for training. And we’d perform the same mission, reinforced platoon in the defense. Now, the same terrain meant the same defense was used. Literally. The same fighting positions were dug time and again.  So where was the training value for the new 2nd LT platoon leader in learning how to site his resources? Yes, he saw a very good example of a well planned defense, but critically, he didn’t go through the process of actually having to make decisions on emplacing that defense.

Similarly, the pilots of the Nightstalkers can practice the fundamentals of their business at Ft. Campbell, their home base. But the reality of their mission is that they will have to land, at night or in bad weather, in dense terrain, on objectives they’ve never seen before. And they have to cope with hazards that exist in the real world, such as powerlines and flagpoles, that aren’t normally present at their home station.

And while most US based conventional units do the majority of their training on post, I was reminded last night that units in Germany routinely did almost all of their local training in the civilian community. And remember, after 1955, when West Germany regained its sovereignty, US forces were guests of the Germans, not an army of occupation. Somehow we managed to not impose martial law upon them.

It is more than passing strange that the US military is the most trusted government institution, and many worry about a growing divide between the services and the citizenry, but as soon as the military leaves post, so many instantly presume it is on a mission to oppress.

Marine Helos- Why so big?

TimActual had a comment on the Marine air assault on Hawaii:

I have never understood why the Marines like to use BIG targets to carry troops.
And that air assault looked pretty casual to me. We were always taught to get everything off the LZ ASAP, birds and men.

As to why the Marines tend to choose somewhat larger helicopters than the Army, I alluded to that years ago in a post on the Chinook.

The Army, as it evolved its air assault doctrine, saw infantry troops (as part of a combined arms team with artillery and aerial fire support) delivered directly upon the objective. One key doctrinal issue that wanted to address was unit integrity. They wanted to ensure that the basic unit, the rifle squad, was delivered intact. That meant the optimal assault helicopter would carry an 11 man rifle squad, which, from the UH-1D on through to today’s UH-60M, is just what seating is provided, if not always the actual lifting capacity. Between three rifle squads, a weapons squad, and the platoon headquarters, four helicopters could lift a single assault platoon.

The Marines, while they might have liked to embrace the same philosophy, faced two challenges the Army did not. First, they were far more constrained in terms of manpower. Unlike the Army, with the majority of its aviators being warrant officers, the Marines aviators are all commissioned officers. Given that the total number of commissioned officers available to the Marines was set by Congress, they couldn’t afford as many helicopter pilots as the Army, especially considering the numbers needed to fly the Marines fixed wing aircraft.

The other, bigger issue was simply one of space. The Marines are a seagoing force. That means they have to be embarked on ships, and even the largest of ships for amphibious operations have severe constraints on the total numbers of aircraft they can operate.

http://www.msc.navy.mil/sealift/2013/July/images/Kearsarge.jpg

The carrying capacity, both in weight and in volume, increase faster than the actual size of an aircraft. That is, an aircraft twice as large as another can reasonably be expected to carry not twice as much, but three times as much.  It didn’t take long for the Marines to realize that two CH-46s, carrying 25 troops each –that is, a Marine rifle platoon- took up a lot less deck space than the 4 or 5 UH-1s it would take to lift a platoon. As an added bonus, it would take only half as many pilots, not to mention the numbers of enlisted aircrew, and maintenance personnel.

File:Ch-46e.jpg

The Marines did understand the risk involved, namely that losing one aircraft had a much greater impact, particularly in terms of lives potentially lost, and also in terms of unit integrity. If a platoon loses a squad, it might theoretically still be able to function. But losing half a platoon most certainly renders it combat ineffective. 

That same size issue, known as the spot factor, also influenced the size of the MV-22B, which accomodates 24 troops, in a spot factor little bigger than a CH-46. In that case, you’re trading an increase in size for an increase in performance, rather than capacity. It’s a tradeoff.

As to TimActual’s comment on using the CH-53E itself, that’s also somewhat influenced by the confines of amphibious shipping.  The MV-22 is fine for landing the initial waves. But there are only so many available aboard a ship. And the embarked Marines simply must have a certain number of the larger CH-53s aboard to move things like artillery. But they aren’t always doing that, so they are occasionally available for the lift of troops.

As to expeditiously moving off the Landing Zone, it should be remembered that Marine doctrine (and really, Army as well) is to conduct the landings away from known enemy positions. The aerial movement is simply the first stage of maneuver, leading to the dismounted movement to either a defensive position, or the line of departure for the assault. One should not dally on the ground, or disembarking the helos, but neither is tripping off the back ramp a good idea because one was unduly rushing.

Friday Flyby- Part 1

So, I’m stealing the title from OAFS, but I think he’ll forgive me. I get to see quite a few H-60 helicopters overhead here, normally MH-60R or MH-60S from NAS North Island (there’s no way I can see well enough to tell a Romeo from a Sierra from the ground), but today I looked up and saw what is almost certainly an Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk. I suppose it’s just possible it is an MH-60M from the Army, but really, I think it’s more likely the Air Force out of Holloman AFB.

HH-60

It’s the In Flight Refueling Probe on the side that tells us it is a special operations bird.

HH-60W as the Combat Rescue Helicopter

I’m not sure why this older post about the Combat Rescue Helicopter Program has suddenly attracted a lot of traffic today, but it has.

There was a post elsewhere from back in December talking about the HH-60W at DefenseTech.

And here’s a post, undated, from SOFMag. This particular post hits on the same chord I was harping on years ago.

That being said, the HH-47 offered significant improvements in performance over the HH-60 – and beat the competitors by wide margins in some areas as well. It had a range of over 2000 kilometers without aerial refueling, which is significantly higher than the S-92 (just under 1500 kilometers) and the US101 (about 1400 kilometers). The maximum unrefuelled range of an HH-60 is just under 820 kilometers. This means that the HH-47 would be able to search longer than both the present CSAR helicopter and its competitors for a downed pilot, or search further away than the other options without having to refuel. This means that there will be much less risk to the HC-130 tankers (which were first deployed in 1964). The HH-47 would also have had a higher ceiling (18,500 feet) than the HH-60 (14,000 feet), or its competitors (the H-92’s ceiling is 13,780 feet, while the US101’s is 14,000 feet).

The OBVIOUS choice for a CSAR platform was a variant of the MH-47. Common sense, however, is not the metrics by which weapons procurement programs are run.

Matt Udkow- Someone You Should Know

Weird thing about internet friends. You think you know someone… and then you learn something new about them. In this case, it was nice to learn that Matt was not just the kind of man I thought he was, but very much the kind of man one can admire.

Matt is currently an MH-65C helicopter pilot for the United States Coast Guard. But he started his aviation career with the US Navy, flying the big old H-3 Sea King. And so it came to pass that when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Matt, then stationed at Pensacola, Florida, was flying a logistical support mission from P’cola to Louisiana.

You may recall the scenes of helicopters of all sorts hoisting stranded New Orleans residents from rooftops to safety. Guess what? Matt was one of those aviators engaged in rescuing our fellow Americans.

In Matt’s own words:

I was blessed to serve as the SAR officer and pilot with the NAS Pensacola SAR Unit (renamed Helicopter Support Unit) from 2003 ?to 2005. During this period, my crew and I had the opportunity to assist with the SAR efforts in the New Orleans area following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. Out first SAR mission was on 30 August (27 persons hoisted), and the second one was conducted on 2 September 2005 (20 persons hoisted). In my opinion, these two missions were the pinnacle of my naval flight career.

Here’s the caption to this picture from Naval Aviation News:

Twenty survivors were happy to be off the flooded ground. The seated man on the right wearing a white t-shirt had a heart-attack on the way to Louis Armstrong Airport. I informed the tower, and we received permission to land in front of a huge line of helos and fly right over the terminal to drop him off first to waiting paramedics. AO3 Danny Smith, the crewman at the door, did a great job hoisting and managing the passengers, plus the three crew members and one photographer in the back. (Photo by Gary Nichols)

Now, being the military is a team sport. We love the image of the gallant individual, but no one man does great things. They all work together. So it is right and proper to share the credit with his crew:

My crew: (left to right): Myself (pilot), AW2 Jake Mclaughlin (rescue swimmer), AW2 Justin Crane (rescue swimmer), AW1 Kevin Maul (crew chief), Lt. Bryce Kammeyer (co-pilot). This was taken after landing after the first day, with two SAR sorties complete and 27 survivors hoisted. All of our crew and the civilian maintainers were very excited and proud of the work we had done.

Matt’s efforts were not without some controversy, however.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Two Navy helicopter pilots were “counseled” about the importance of supply missions after they rescued 110 New Orleans hurricane victims before returning to base from a cargo delivery, the military said Wednesday.

One pilot was temporarily assigned to a kennel, but that was not punishment, said Patrick Nichols, a civilian public affairs officer at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

“They were not reprimanded,” Nichols said. “They were counseled.”

The pilots, Lt. Matt Udkow and Lt. David Shand, met with Cmdr. Michael Holdener, who praised their Aug. 30 actions but reminded them their orders had been to return to Pensacola after flying water and other supplies to three destinations in Mississippi — the Stennis Space Center, Pascagoula and Gulfport.

Matt made a decision. In this case, the right one. As I mentioned in an earlier post, that’s a skill that junior officers need to learn. Make. A. Decision. Yes, every decision has consequences. But so does failing to make a decision.

47 American citizens today were spared from possible death or injury by Matt’s actions. That’s something a man can hang his hat on.

Post World War II Amphibious Operations. BJ Armstrong on the evolution of vertical enevelopment.

I’m not an outside the box thinker. I’m very much a color inside the lines guy. On the other hand, I used to be pretty damn good at knowing exactly what was in the box. Hours and hours pouring over various field and technical manuals and regulations taught me that very few problems I would face in the Army hadn’t been addressed at some previous point, and usually by someone a good deal smarter and more experienced than myself.

On the other hand, sometimes, there are truly game-changing events, and organizations need to blaze new trails to address  them. BJ Armstrong, author of 21 Century Mahan, spoke recently at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. Here he looks at the challenge to amphibious warfare in the post World War II environment, and how the Marines, both as individuals, and as an organization, actively sought innovation to address the threat of nuclear warfare.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plKvTTJfX8I]