That Others May Live
Erik Roelofs visited Moody Air Force Base in the US recently, where he spent some time with the 23rd Wing, and the selfless men and women of the USAF’s combat search and rescue (CSAR) community.
“That Others May Live” is the motto of the United States Air Force combat search and rescue (CSAR) community. Pacific Wings joined the 23rd Wing at Moody AFB to learn more about modern day CSAR operations.
The Real Deal
The rescue squadrons at Moody AFB belong to the 347th Rescue Group, which, in turn, falls under the 23rd Wing. The 23rd Wing also commands the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, making this the largest CSAR force within the Air Force.
Since July 2010, the 347th Rescue Group has been commanded by Colonel Chad Franks. During his career, Colonel Franks has accumulated more than 3,200 flying hours in the T-37, UH-1H, UH-1N, MH-60G and HH-60G while serving with the 55th Special Operations Squadron, the 84th Flying Training Squadron and the 512th Rescue Squadron. Before taking command of the 347th Rescue Group, Colonel Franks commanded the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada. But Colonel Franks is more than just an experienced pilot and accomplished commander. He was directly involved in one of the most challenging combat search and rescue missions in Air Force history.
It was during Operation Allied Force, the NATO air campaign to halt Serbian aggression in Kosovo, that the unimaginable happened. At 08:38 p.m. on 27 March 1999, an F-117A Nighthawk (82-0806/HO) of the 7th Fighter Squadron was struck by a Serbian SA-3 surface-to-air missile (SAM), not far from Belgrade. Major Zelko—“Vega 31”—had just released his laser-guided weapons when the SA-3 detonated in close proximity, forcing him to eject from the crippled “stealth fighter” less than 25 miles from Belgrade, in an area teeming with Serbian military activity.
At Tusla Air Base in neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina, the CSAR force immediately spring into action. This force consisted of two MH-53H Pave Low helicopters and a single MH-60G Pave Hawk, piloted by then Captain Franks. The helicopters had to be refuelled in the air by a MC-130P Combat Shadow before crossing into enemy territory. But to avoid alerting the Serbs of the pending rescue mission, the refuelling was conducted at very low altitude, in the dark and just three miles from the border.
The three helicopters penetrated the Serbian airspace at a mere 100 feet, assisted only by their night vision goggles (NVG), having switched off their terrain-following radars to prevent detection. After evading various towers and power lines, the formation made their way to the area where the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft providing “Sandy” coverage had established radio contact with the downed pilot.
With Serbian forces closing in on Major Zelko, Captain Franks landed his MH-60G within 100 yards of the pilot’s hideout. The pararescuemen or “PJs” quickly jumped out of the helicopter and secured Major Zelko, ensuring that he was, indeed, the missing F-117A pilot and not a Serbian imposter. Following the successful recovery, the two MH-53Ms and the single MH-60G made their escape while avoiding the now fully alert Serbian air defence network. For his bravery during the rescue of “Vega 31”, Captain Franks was awarded the Silver Star. Throughout his career, Colonel Franks has also seen action in Iraq and has earned numerous awards and decorations, including the Bronze Star, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal and the Air Force Aerial Achievement Medal.
The 23rd Wing is the largest CSAR unit in the United States Air Force and oversees units located at three airbases across the United States. The 347th Rescue Group is located at Moody AFB with its HH-60G helicopters, HC-130P aircraft and pararescuemen. But the 23rd Wing also oversees the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, and both the 58th Rescue Squadron and 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
The 347th Rescue Group’s mission is CSAR but it also performs a peacetime rescue role. The rescue squadrons of the Air Force have not only been saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan but also much closer to home. Directly after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the 347th deployed 15 HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to the area, rescuing 211 people within the first 24 hours of operations.
“Our people are out saving lives every day,” says Colonel Franks. “Our main focus is our combat mission but we also perform humanitarian and peacetime rescue missions, and we will respond to any type of disaster. During the last few years, we have responded to several peacetime missions. At Nellis AFB, [the 66th RQS] often performed rescue missions in the national parks, where climbers were hurt and we were the only rescue assets available. All of our combat rescue skills apply to such peacetime missions.”
When asked if the CSAR mission had changed in the absence of aerial threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colonel Franks said that in Iraq and Afghanistan, they fly casevac (casualty evacuation) as well as CSAR missions and that the two are quite different. “But there are still situations where aircraft go down,” he says. “In these cases, the recovery of airmen can still be very difficult and involve coordinating many different assets—especially when facing an enemy that is so persistent in trying to inflict casualties among our personnel.” Colonel Franks said there had been instances where, while providing casevac, aircraft would go down, and they would have to roll right into a CSAR mission, coordinate overhead assets and rescue downed aviators. “I would say that the mission has not changed, but perhaps the threat has.”
According to Colonel Franks, flying the HH-60G in Iraq was a challenging experience and very different from flying during “Allied Force”. He said the biggest challenge was the environment—particularly the heat and the dust. “When operating at altitude in Iraq, the heat directly affects the performance of the helicopter. It affects the load you can carry and the power you have available. Brownouts—being blinded by dust when landing or taking off—are also very dangerous. When training for Iraq and Afghanistan, we spend a lot of time training for brownouts, which are probably worst in Afghanistan. I think the guys today are much better at brownout landings than we were back in the day. Now, the training is constant here at Moody. Every time they go out with the HH-60, they practise landings at a ‘sandpit’ that was specifically constructed to train for brownout landings. Our pilots have come a long way in dealing with these.”
Ever since the Korean War, the US Air Force has been using helicopters to rescue downed airmen from behind enemy lines. However, it was not until the war in Vietnam that the Air Force finally received dedicated CSAR aircraft and helicopters. The arrival of the HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, with its aerial refuelling capability, armour and defensive weapons, finally allowed rescue squadrons to penetrate deep into North Vietnam to rescue American aircrews. However, this was not without a cost and many Jolly Green crews paid the ultimate price during their attempts to recover their fellow countrymen.
The Jolly Green heritage is very apparent when one walks into the squadron building of the 41st Rescue Squadron (RQS). The walls contain descriptions of many of the CSAR missions conducted over Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq and former Yugoslavia. The Green Giant portrayed on the squadron patch has been the iconic image of the Air Force CSAR community since Vietnam. It was originally designed by the Green Giant company in 1928 to market their green peas. A 55-foot tall statue of the Green Giant still exists in Blue Earth, Minnesota.
Today, the Jolly Green legacy is still strong within the 41st RQS, which operates Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks. The Air Force received its first Pave Hawk helicopters in 1981, after cancellation of the original Sikorsky HH-60D Night Hawk. Although the Pave Hawk is based on the UH-60A Black Hawk, it is an entirely different helicopter with very different capabilities. It has extensive computerised navigation systems, HAVE QUICK secure communication equipment, an automatic flight control system and colour weather radar. With a cockpit adapted for NVG, a FLIR pod under the nose and anti-icing systems for both engine and rotor blades, the Pave Hawk is not only fully night capable but can also operate in the most adverse weather conditions.
Captain William “Bill” Gugelman of the 41st RQS says that in Afghanistan, they fly CSAR operations both in daytime and at night, but that a lot of their medical or casevac missions are flown during the day. “It all depends on how critically injured someone is and how quickly we need to get there. If they are not injured badly then we wait for the most opportune time—which might be after the weather clears—to give us the greatest chance of getting them out safely.”
The most noticeable difference between the Pave Hawk and the original Black Hawk is the large in-flight refuelling boom. Without aerial refuelling, the HH-60G has an endurance of approximately two hours. When fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks at the rear of the cabin, this can be increased to about four and a half hours. However, when using aerial refuelling, the Pave Hawk’s endurance is only limited by pilot fatigue. Under normal circumstances, pilots are limited to a flying duty of 12 hours but this can be extended when required.
The HH-60G has a crew of four: a pilot and a co-pilot, a flight engineer and an aerial gunner. For self-protection, the Pave Hawk is fitted with an APR-39A(V)1 radar warning receiver, an ALQ-144A infra-red jammer and an M130 dispensing system for both chaff and flares. The HH-60G is also far from toothless, as it can be fitted with either GUA-17/A 7.62 mm miniguns or GAU-21 .50-calibre heavy machine-guns. With these weapons, the Pave Hawk is capable of unleashing devastating cover fire during rescue operations.
All these modifications have added weight to the Pave Hawk, which provides an additional challenge to its pilot when operating in hot and high environments such as Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the mountainous terrain and associated weather provide numerous challenges. “There is a lot to keep in mind when mountain flying and wind is a huge factor,” says Capt. Gegelman. “In Afghanistan, there are plenty of mountains a helicopter cannot climb over. That really forces you to think about where you are flying, and always consider the updrafts and downdrafts. The heat and altitude affect the performance of the helicopter and we reconfigure the aircraft to different mission requirements. For example, we might take off with less fuel and refuel in the air, or reduce the number of crew members or equipment onboard.”
Most combat rescue missions in Afghanistan are very dangerous and demand a high degree of airmanship from the entire HH-60G crew. It requires both of the pilots, the flight engineer and the gunner to manoeuvre the Pave Hawk through the hostile mountainous landscape, avoiding steep cliffs and maintaining control in the unstable and turbulent air while executing hovering manoeuvres with pinpoint accuracy. And all this while taking fire from Taliban fighters armed with machineguns and RPGs.
On 27 June 2010, Captain Thaddeus Ronnau of the 41st RQS faced exactly these circumstances while operating from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. In a sequence of eight non-stop rescue missions, Captain Ronnau and his Pave Hawk crew rescued 13 American and coalition forces while facing extremely challenging circumstances. In one case, he had to perform a one-wheel hover landing in very difficult terrain while being shot at by Taliban fighters. For his heroism and extraordinary skill, Captain Ronnau was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valour.
The 38th RQS is the only rescue squadron at Moody that has no aircraft or pilots and occupies no parking spots on the vast flight line. As a Guardian Angel squadron, the 38th RQS is a very special kind of unit. The Guardian Angel is a human and equipment-based weapon system that forms the vital link between the aerial extraction and the rescue activities on the ground. Called PJs (short for pararescue jumpers), these are the people who seek out, identify and rescue downed aircrew or apply their combat medical skills to save severely injured soldiers and civilians. But regarding PJs as combat medics is a gross understatement of their capabilities.
The Air Force pararescue training takes two years and is brutal from start to finish, with a dropout rate of 90%. The training begins with the indoctrination course at Lackland AFB, Texas. Designed to select the best students, this nine-week course combines medical, diving and pararescue theory with weapon qualifications and extreme physical training. The handful of students who manage to graduate from the indoctrination course are then ready to attend the Army Airborne School, Air Force Combat Diver School, Air Force Survival School and the Army Military Free Fall Parachutist School. This extensive physical and academic training transforms these students into capable combat divers, expert high altitude–low opening (HALO) parachutists and extreme survival specialists.
Approximately a year after starting their indoctrination course, the students report to Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, where they will spend another year undergoing specialised EMT-pararescue training and attend the Recovery Specialist Course. Besides emergency medical technician training, the students are also taught field surgery, pharmacology and combat trauma management, and gain hands-on experience with the Tucson Fire Department and local hospitals. After two gruelling years, the students finally receive their much-coveted maroon berets and consider themselves part of an elite group of Air Force pararescuemen. To illustrate how special that maroon beret really is, consider that the Army’s Special Forces or Green Berets number more than 10,000 and there are approximately 1,000 Navy SEALs. However, there are only 300 Air Force pararescuemen.
Although often associated with helicopter operations, the pararescuemen actually predate the use of helicopters in military service. The PJs originate from the US Forest Service “smokejumpers”—the fire-fighters who parachute into remote areas to combat wildfires. Captain Leo P. Martin became the first Army paramedic to be trained by the US Forest Service in 1940. During WWII, PJs would jump from C-47s to rescue allied aircrew that had been forced to bail out over China or Burma. After WWII, the PJs became an integral part of the helicopter crews of the Air Rescue Service. This remained unchanged until the 38th RQS became the first Guardian Angel Squadron in the Air Force on 7 May 2001. By forming their own squadron, the PJs of the 38th RQS can operate completely independently of the helicopter squadrons they were previously associated with. This allows the Air Force to deploy the Guardian Angel squadrons with greater flexibility, operating not only from helicopters and fixed wing aircraft but also ships and vehicles. The Air Force is currently developing the Guardian Angel air-droppable rescue vehicle (GAARV), a light truck that can be parachuted into combat zones to recover wounded personnel and rendezvous with a HC-130 at a pick-up zone.
Staff Sergeant George Reed explains how he became a PJ with the 38th RQS: “When I was in high school, I really wanted to join the military and become a Navy SEAL. But then I heard about pararescue, where you get paid to jump out of planes, fly helicopters and save lives. I first went through the indoctrination course, where at least 75% of the guys washed out. It is a pretty heinous course. Then came all the airborne, free fall and diving training before you started with the medical portion. Although most washed out during the first indoctrination course, we did have guys dropping out during the other courses as well.”
“As PJs, we are nationally qualified rescue paramedics, and we do both civilian and military rescue but the latter is our main mission of course. The basic mission is the same, though: our primary goal is to find and stabilise patients, and get them to a hospital as soon as possible. We carry enough supplies to treat a patient for up to 48 hours without a medevac. Our training is very close to the real thing so when I first went to Afghanistan, it was not very different. But even in Afghanistan, it is usually a case of sitting around, waiting for a call, then going out and finding our patients and getting them to a hospital. As pararescuemen, we are combatants, although we mostly carry our weapons to protect our team and patients. But when we do make enemy contact, we know exactly what to do,” said SSgt Reed, tapping his desert-camouflaged M4A1 rifle.
The Lockheed HC-130P Combat Kings of the 71st RQS are not hard to miss as they are, by far, the largest aircraft at Moody AFB. From a distance, the HC-130P can be easily mistaken for its cargo-hauling cousin, the C-130E Hercules. But the FLIR pod underneath the nose and the large refuelling pods under each wing are giveaways that the Combat King does far more than transporting goods. The HC-130P is a versatile CSAR aircraft that has the ability to refuel the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and act as an airborne command and control platform during rescue operations. The Combat King also airdrops PJs and rescue equipment into hostile areas, or lands at remote strips to evacuate wounded personnel and civilians.
When the HC-130P first entered service in 1964, it looked nothing like the C-130E Hercules on which it was based. Fitted with a large bump on the fuselage and a bulky, angular nose, the original Combat King was a most peculiar looking aircraft. The strange nose was part of the Fulton Surface to Air Recovery System (STARS), which was predominantly used by the Special Operations community to retrieve personnel from behind enemy lines. The operative would let up a balloon with a long wire and attach himself to this wire while awaiting the arrival of the HC-130P. The strange nose on the Combat King was designed to carry a large, V-shaped fork which was used to snatch a wire dangling from the balloon and lift the attached operative into the air, allowing the aircrew to to pull the person into the aircraft via the open ramp. The large radome just behind the cockpit housed the AN/ARD-17 Cook Aerial Tracking antenna, which was originally designed to track re-entering satellites but was also used to track the radio beacons of downed airmen during the Vietnam War.
The HC-130N, which entered service a few years later, was the result of a follow-up order for more Combat King aircraft but without the Fulton STARS equipment. The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) retired the Fulton system in 1996, after which all HC-130Ps were retrofitted with the more familiar Hercules nose. Advances in GPS technology, real-time data links and digital communication have made the AN/ARD-17 system redundant and the large radome started to disappear from the Combat King fleet.
Throughout its service life, the Combat King has received regular updates to keep it in frontline service. These have included GPS equipment, AN/ALE-47 chaff and flare dispensers, AN/AAR-47 missile plume detection systems, the aforementioned AN/AAQ-22 FLIR, an AN/APN-241 tactical transport radar, cockpit modifications to support the use of NVG, and the latest secure radios. Despite this modern technology, the Combat King’s cockpit still comprises mostly analogue gauges, with the exception of a large MFD. Flying the HC-130P is a very much hands-on affair, especially when refuelling helicopters. Although the experienced aircrews of the 71st RQS make refuelling seem easy, it requires a great amount of skill and concentration to maintain control of the HC-130P at low altitude and low airspeeds, often ploughing through turbulent air while ensuring the aircraft remains above stall speed at all times.
One of the 71st RQS Combat King pilots, Captain Pena, explained how he became an HC-130P pilot: “I have been with the 71st RQS for more than three years now. During basic flight training, I opted for the C-130 track and went to Corpus Christi in Texas. There, we trained with the US Navy to fly the T-44 (Beechcraft King Air). While at Corpus Christi, each C-130 class was divided into different tracks for different Hercules types and I was selected for one of the very few rescue slots. I then went to Little Rock AFB in Arkansas for the Air Force C-130 School House before going to the 58th SOW at Kirtland AFB, where they taught us everything about the HC-130P Combat King.”
The workload is not just on the shoulders of the aircraft’s two pilots, but is also shared by the two flight engineers. In large tanker aircraft such as the KC-135R and KC-10A, the boom operator is the vital link between the tanker and the receiving aircraft. During refuelling operations aboard the HC-130P, the flight engineer assumes a similar role. Sitting on the lowered ramp, often in very cold conditions, the flight engineer uses coloured lights to signal to the receiving aircraft while continuously monitoring the refuelling operation. When not refuelling, the flight engineers continue to provide additional eyes and ears for the aircraft commander as they continuously inspect the HC-130P, keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, such as oil leaks.
In April 2010, the HC-130Ps of the 71st RQS returned to Afghanistan for the first time in five years. Although equipped for helicopter refuelling, the Combat Kings also operate independently from the HH-60G Pave Hawks. While on aero-medical evacuation alert, the HC-130P can be airborne within 30 minutes. With its ability to use unprepared airfields, the HC-130P is able to rendezvous with the units in the field and quickly evacuate the wounded to medical centres at Camp Bastion and Herat. During these missions, the Combat King also carries a compliment of PJs who can provide immediate medical care once the HC-130P has reached the wounded personnel or civilians. The HC-130P has the advantage of speed and size, and can carry far more wounded and reach medical centres much faster than traditional rescue helicopters. These factors can be the difference between life and death, especially in such a remote country as Afghanistan.
When asked about his experiences in Afghanistan, Captain Pena said the greatest challenge for him was working with the forward controllers and dealing with the volume of traffic. “There are so many aircraft flying around there and we only have very basic radar coverage. The terrain is also challenging but only during low-level operations. The mountains and the heat do not affect us as much as the helicopters, as we usually fly at higher altitudes. In Afghanistan, we not only refuelled the HH-60Gs but also other helicopters like Marine Corps CH-53 Sea Stallions and Army Special Operations MH-47 Chinooks. But I mainly flew medevac missions carrying the wounded from LZs or airstrips after they had been extracted from the field by the Pave Hawks. From there, we flew them to our hospitals, which we could do much faster than the helicopters. We always had a medical team in the back, consisting of PJs and an Army nurse, and they provided medical care during the flight. We also did long-range medical transfers if specialised hospital facilities were needed but not available locally.”
Named after the P-47 Thunderbolt, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II is more commonly referred to as the Warthog or just simply Hog. First flown in 1972, the A-10A was designed to provide close air support (CAS) for ground troops and destroy enemy tanks while surviving in a high threat environment. The Warthog was envisioned to operate over the rolling hills of central Germany, attempting to stop waves of Soviet T-72 main battle tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap at the moment the Cold War turned hot.
Equipped with a 30-mm GAU-8/A Avenger Gatling cannon, the A-10A could slice through Soviet armour like a can opener. Its large wings provide the A-10A not only with great agility but also allow it to carry a large number of different weapons. To allow the aircraft and pilot to survive, the cockpit is protected by titanium armour and the aircraft is fitted with triple redundant flight control systems. Even with the hydraulic systems knocked out, the A-10 remains flyable. The aircraft has been fitted with a forward rotating landing gear so that the pilot can still lower and lock the landing gear using nothing but gravity and wind resistance. Also, the main gear protrudes from the wings when retracted, which minimises damage during belly landings. The engine placement and tail section were deliberately designed to minimize the infra-red signature, making it more difficult for shoulder-launched missiles to hit the aircraft. All these measures resulted in an incredibly tough aircraft that was designed to fly home with just a single engine, a single tail and half a wing missing.
Following its highly successful combat debut during Operation Desert Storm, the A-10A remained a largely analogue and unsophisticated aircraft, despite other fighter aircraft becoming increasingly digitised with GPS-guided JDAM and laser-guided Paveway precision ordnance, large colourful MFDs, information-sharing over data link and helm-mounted targeting systems. Having recognised the Warthog’s potential, and the fact that no replacement aircraft was in sight, the Air Force commissioned the Precision Engagement update in 2005. Under the Precision Engagement programme, the Warthog became a fully digitised aircraft and was redesignated as A-10C.
The A-10C received full colour MFDs, the capability to deliver GPS and laser-guided precision weapons, an improved fire control system and electronic countermeasures, and support for the Situational Awareness Data Link. Additionally, the A-10C is also fitted with a helmet-mounted integrated targeting (HMIT) system, enabling the pilot to target enemy vehicles and troops just by looking at them. To ensure that the A-10C remains serviceable, the Air Force has also contracted Boeing to build 242 new wing sets. Despite these many changes, the only externally visible difference is the appearance of a small T-shaped antenna behind the cockpit. But to the pilots, the A-10C is a major leap forward, making an already great aircraft extraordinarily capable.
The A-10C not only provides close air support but also plays a vital role during CSAR operations, as Captain Tom Harney of the 75th Fighter Squadron explained: “CSAR is something we take a great deal of pride in and requires skills we practice fairly often. It is one of the most difficult and complex missions we do. Our CSAR qualifications are expressed as Sandy 1–4. You will start out as a Sandy 4 initially, as a wingman in whatever squadron you join. When you have learned to lead another jet around and become a flight lead, you can become a Sandy 3. By the time you become an IP (instructor pilot), it is usually around the time you become a Sandy 2 or Sandy 1.” At the time of writing, Capt Harney was a Sandy 3, in charge of RESCORT (rescue escort). This involved him being the lead of two A-10s that escorted the helicopters. “We usually fly a racetrack pattern around the helicopters and, while doing so, Sandy 4 provides mutual support for me and reminds us of how much fuel we have left and those sorts of things.
“The job of Sandy 1 and 2 is to go out and find the survivor. Sandy 1 maintains radio contact with the guy on the ground while Sandy 2 coordinates all supporting assets, calls in air strikes and provides mutual support for his flight lead. Sandy 2 is probably the most difficult upgrade to achieve because you must have a good understanding of all the assets and their exact capabilities, what enemy targets need suppression, and when it is safe to bring the helicopters in because, obviously, they are most vulnerable part of the CSAR task force. Meanwhile, you have to keep track of things like timing and fuel consumption while trying to avoid getting shot down yourself.”
Captain Harney, who previously flew the A-10A before transitioning onto the new A-10C, describes the recent upgrade as “incredible.” He says, “The new moving map display—and especially the data link—gives us so much more capability. Initially, there are a lot more systems and electronics to deal with, but once you get used to it, it really improves your situational awareness. In the A model, you would spend a lot of time trying to coordinate between two aircraft, especially when pointing out targets at night. But now, I can assign a point of interest to my wingman and it is immediately highlighted on his moving map display. During a CSAR mission, I can just point out the survivor on the ground to the rest of our formation without any radio communications. In Afghanistan, it really helps us to integrate with our forces on the ground, who can use the data link to assign points of interest to us.”
Changing the Guard
Although the HC-130P has served the Air Force well, this 48-year-old veteran is older than most pilots flying it. Impeccably maintained by the 71st Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU), the Combat Kings of the 71st RQS still soldier on in Afghanistan, where the relentless dust is taking its toll. The dust in Afghanistan has been described by aircraft mechanics as particularly sharp, angular and extremely damaging to engines and other moving parts. The Afghan dust is causing a real headache for the maintenance crews, causing more wear and tear in the already aging aircraft.
After many years of service, retirement is near for the HC-130P. On 29 September 2011, the 58th Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, took delivery of the first new HC-130J Combat King II. Based on the KC-130J tanker in service with the Marine Corps, the HC-130J is fitted not only with a modern glass cockpit but also sports the latest navigation, communications, threat detection and countermeasure systems. Like the current HC-130P, the new Combat King II will also be fitted with FLIR systems and refuelling pods. A new feature is the boom refuelling receptacle, allowing the HC-130J to be refuelled in the air by KC-135R and KC-10A tankers. As the HC-130J is a completely different aircraft from its predecessor, the 58th SOW will provide an eight-month qualification programme for the new Combat King II. In the coming years, the HC-130J will start making its way to the 71st RQS at Moody AFB to allow the aging HC-130P to retire.
Although a much more recent acquisition than the HC-130P, the HH-60G Pave Hawk has been serving the Air Force for nearly 30 years. The first helicopters entered service in 1982 and, in August 2011, two Pave Hawks from the 512th RQS at Kirtland AFB reached 10,000 flight hours, with two more following shortly thereafter. The HH-60G has been in action over Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Mozambique, former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and its service life has been extended beyond the original 8,000 hours.
The Air Force started looking for a replacement of the HH-60G as early as 1999. This evolved into the controversial CSAR-X competition, which Boeing won with its HH-47, a highly modified version of the CH-47 Chinook based on the successful US Army Special Operations version, the MH-47G. Although this would have avoided the cost of developing an entirely new type, the decision was contested and the CSAR-X programme was subsequently cancelled by then Defence Secretary Robert Gates. As a result, the Air Force was left with a hefty bill for the CSAR-X competition—and no replacement helicopters.
In order to keep the Pave Hawk fleet flying, the Air Force was allowed to initiate the HH-60G Operational Loss Replacement programme, which will provide the Air Force with at least 11 newly manufactured Pave Hawks. Recently redesignated from HH-60M to HH-60U, these new Pave Hawks are based on the UH-60M Black Hawk and have more powerful engines, a glass cockpit, a redesigned FLIR mount on the nose and the distinctive looking Upturned Exhaust System. The first three HH-60U helicopters were delivered to the Air Force on 7 September 2011 and will replace Pave Hawks helicopters lost to attrition.
In August 2011, the Air Force stated that under the HH-60 recapitalisation programme, or HH-60 Recap, it would seek to replace an estimated 112 HH-60G Pave Hawks and anticipates that the new rescue helicopter “will be an existing production helicopter with modifications using existing mature technology with only limited integration of existing subsystems as required”. This would make the Sikorsky HH-60U a likely candidate but may also allow Boeing to re-table its HH-47 or MH-47G offering.
The article would not have been possible without the tremendous support of the United States Air Force, the 23rd Wing and the 347th Rescue Group. The author would especially like to thank Colonel Franks, Captains Gugelman (41st RQS), Pena (71st RQS), Harney and Gibson (75th FS), and SSgt Reed (38th RQS). Extraordinary thanks to 1st Lt Garrison, TSgt Griffin and A1C Wiseman of the Public Affairs team and the 71st AMU getting King 15 airborne again.