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Iconic AFSOC Aircraft

 

 

Carter Harman took the job to be near his mother.

The R-4B Hoverfly was built in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Harman was a newly minted second lieutenant, a pilot and a Connecticut boy to the core, eager to snap up a proffered assignment to the Sikorsky factory. He was just another Army pilot, Harman thought, but as soon as he wrote “R-4B” in his logbook, they told him he was going to be an Air Commando.

A common characteristic of many special operations aircraft is the ability to sneak in and out of tight places in a hurry – often called short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability. No aircraft does STOL better than a helicopter.

“I didn’t know what that meant,” said Harman. “And can you guess what they told me next?”

They told Harman they were sending him to Burma.

“I can’t say I ‘got’ the significance of rotary-wing immediately,” said Harman. He was interviewed a decade ago after not talking with anyone about his experience since immediately after the war.

A common characteristic of many special operations aircraft is the ability to sneak in and out of tight places in a hurry – often called short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability. No aircraft does STOL better than a helicopter.

The voices of airmen in Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) history make up the bedrock of this narrative about iconic flying machines operated by the command and its predecessors. This will be a quick look only, and will by necessity leave out many other iconic aircraft others will argue should have been included. The World War II Air Commandos in Burma alone, however, had almost enough unusual aircraft types to fill a volume of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft. Think of the bloated C-46 Commando cargo ship touching down on a semi-paved strip and being swallowed up by surrounding elephant grass. Or a UC-64 Norseman utility plane touching down near enemy troops where there’s no pavement at all.

The first special operations gunships might arguably be these B-25H Mitchells of the 1st Air Commando Group, armed with .50-caliber machine guns, 75 mm cannon, and bombs. U.S. Air Force photo

The first special operations gunships might arguably be these B-25H Mitchells of the 1st Air Commando Group, armed with .50-caliber machine guns, 75 mm cannon, and bombs. U.S. Air Force photo

The 1st Air Commando Group, led by Philip G. Cochran and John Alison, both lieutenant colonels, flew C-47 Skytrains, P-51A Mustangs, B-25 Mitchells, and other heavy iron. They introduced the L-1 Vigilant liaison plane. All of the wartime aircraft were tailored for unorthodox missions, carried out by special operators with extraordinary courage. From that point of view, Harman’s ungainly R-4B helicopter was just one more odd bird in an unconventional flock.

The Hoverfly and the First Helicopter Rescue

The Sikorsky R-4B was a box-shaped machine with a 180-horsepower engine and a 38-foot main rotor. Former Staff Sgt. Jim Phelan, who was Harman’s crew chief, described it this way: “Imagine a jungle gym on a children’s playground. Now, cover it up with canvas. Now, take your kitchen eggbeater and attach it to the top. You have some metal, some fabric, and a lot of motion as the thing tries to tear itself apart.” The metal frame of the R-4B was actually covered with a layer of thin linen, but crews routinely called it canvas.

In 1944, arrangements were made to send four R-4Bs to Burma to assist in rescue efforts.

The helicopters were to augment L-1 Vigilant and L-5 Sentinel light planes that frequently landed behind the lines to rescue troops separated from their units.

On April 24, Harman reached the downed quartet and began hauling the men to safety. Since the R-4B could carry only its pilot and one other, it took Harman most of a day to evacuate the three Britons.

On April 21, 1944, an L-1 rescued three British soldiers behind Japanese lines but crashed, still behind the lines. Pilot Sgt. Ed Hladovcak, known as “Murphy,” and the three soldiers sought cover in a rice paddy. An L-5 found them but could not land in vegetated terrain crisscrossed by paddy fields and surrounded by slopes. The L-5 made a low-level pass and dropped a handwritten message to Hladovcak: “MOVE UP MOUNTAIN. JAPANESE NEARBY.” A radio call went out for Harman.

The toughest part of the rescue for Harman was the 600-mile solo trip from Lalaghat to “Aberdeen,” a temporary airstrip in Burma deep inside Japanese territory. Part of the journey involved crossing over high mountain peaks, a challenge for the underpowered helicopter. The YR-4B had a range of only about 150 miles, so Harman had to carry a supply of gas in jerry cans and stop several times to refuel.

Once at Aberdeen, Harman was guided to “Murphy” by an L-5.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...