Eighty years ago, the U.S. Navy bought three XOP-1 autogyros for testing. After three historic landings on the carrier Langley and five months with Marines in Nicaragua, the pioneering rotorcraft was dismissed as short of payload and tough to fly. Follow-on tests ended with orders to fly an XOP-2 from Washington, D.C., to Norfolk, Va., for storage and left an anonymous note on a Bureau of Aeronautics memo: “Fly it, Hell! Better crate the thing and ship it.” The primitive autogyros and helicopters that gave the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard their first taste of rotary-wing flight nevertheless evolved into powerful mission systems essential to seapower today.
Around 1,350 Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard rotorcraft in different operational communities give responsive mobility, firepower, and intelligence to field commanders. A Marine tilt-rotor rescued an Air Force pilot downed in Libya early in Operation Odyssey Dawn. Navy and Marine Corps helicopters in Operation Tomodachi were among the first signs of American aid after the devastating Japan earthquake in March 2011. Vertical lift is relevant in the full spectrum of naval operations. Sub-hunting Seahawks have replaced Viking jets aboard Navy supercarriers, while sling-hauling Knighthawks replenish the fleet day and night. In Operations Enduring Freedom and New Dawn, Marine Ospreys, Super Stallions, and Super Cobras continue to insert and extract warfighters, resupply forward operating bases, and hunt determined enemies. Closer to home, Coast Guard Jayhawks and Dolphins routinely penetrate storms to rescue sailors and track smugglers to interdict drugs.
Though Pitcairn autogyros in 1931 could neither hover nor take off and land vertically, the Navy was intrigued by their very short takeoff and landing (STOL) and low-speed flight characteristics for anti-submarine, casualty evacuation, and observation missions.
Igor Sikorsky’s success with helicopter flight controls in the late 1930s made vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and hovering flight a possibility for rescues at sea and anti-submarine patrols. However, Congress gave responsibility for U.S. military helicopter development to the Army in 1939, and the wartime Navy Bureau of Aeronautics showed no interest when Sikorsky demonstrated his VS-300 in 1942.
The Coast Guard saw helicopters as an alternative to blimps and airplanes in convoy protection and first tried, unsuccessfully, to buy five Sikorsky XR-4s already under an Army contract. A British Royal Navy (RN) order for production R-4s led to a Combined Board for the Evaluation of the Helicopter in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in 1943, including the Coast Guard, Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, and War Shipping Administration.
The board witnessed an Army pilot fly an R-4 to and from the tanker USS Bunker Hill and sponsored two helicopter sea deployments, one by the RN aboard SS Daghiestan and the other by the Coast Guard on the modified passenger ship Governor Cobb. Test pilots found the YR-4Bs were not up to brutal North Atlantic operations, but the board agreed to continue testing.
While the Navy took delivery of three HNS-1s (Navy versions of the Army R-4B), the Coast Guard introduced the HOS (Army R-6) in 1943 and began joint-service helicopter training at Coast Guard Air Station (CGAS) Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, N.Y. The first life-saving hoist rescue took place on Nov. 29, 1945, when a yet-to-be-delivered R-5 flew from the Sikorsky factory to pull two men from a barge adrift in a storm off Bridgeport, Conn. Wartime experiments started the evolution of dipping sonar, and in January 1946, Capt. C.C. Marcy wrote to the Chief of Naval Operations recommending formation of a naval helicopter test squadron. Operational Force Development Squadron VX-3 formed at Floyd Bennett Field with a mix of HNS-1s and HOS-1s.
Later in 1946, the Navy sent four HOS-1s to recover film and otherwise support the fleet around atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. That same year, more powerful HO3Ss (R-5) deployed aboard ships in Antarctic Operation Highjump for ice reconnaissance. The commander of the Highjump Eastern Task Group had to be rescued by boat when his helicopter ditched in severe icing conditions, but the new aircraft logged about 400 flight hours in the frigid environment. Sikorsky Aircraft itself put another HO3S aboard the carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1947 for an extended cruise demonstration. Two company pilots made six rescues, moved mail and people, and sparked fleet demand for helicopters.
Bell Helicopter received a Navy contract in 1946 for HTL-1 trainers and began a dynasty continued today by the TH-57 in schoolhouse squadrons HT-8, -18, and -28 at Whiting Field. In 1947, Bell also gave the Navy its first purpose-built ASW helicopter, the ultimately unsuccessful HSL-1, with tandem rotors and autopilot for a stable hover with dipping sonar. Squadron VX-1 at Key West, Fla., undertook pioneering ASW development.
Squadron VX-3 was decommissioned in 1948, but spawned the Navy’s first two operational helicopter squadrons – HU-1 at San Diego, and HU-2 at Lakehurst for fleet training, utility, and plane-guard on carriers. Helicopters soon replaced seaplanes on cruisers and gave the Navy some measure of airpower on small decks.
For the Marine Corps, atomic bombs like those at Bikini ruled out the massed amphibious assault fleets of World War II. Corps leadership built a new doctrine of “vertical envelopment” using helicopters to take distributed combat power inland, beyond the beach. The Marines commissioned their first helicopter squadron, HMX-1, in December 1947 at Quantico to test the concept. The PV Engineering Forum (predecessor of Piasecki Aircraft, Boeing Vertol, and today’s Boeing Rotorcraft) received a contract to develop the tandem-rotor XHRP “Flying Banana” specifically to take Marines over the beach.
In 1949, the Marines issued another requirement for an observation helicopter that could double as a rescue and utility aircraft. Struggling Kaman Aircraft lost the HO competition to the Sikorsky HO5S-1, but the Navy ordered four HOK-1s with intermeshing rotors as a backup. The Korean War subsequently drove Marine and Navy helicopter requirements, and Navy investments advanced both helicopter technology and the U.S. rotorcraft industry.
The HO3S-1 on aircraft carriers and other ships off Korea gave the Navy its first Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopter, albeit one taxed to the limits of its performance. On July 3, 1951, Lt. j.g. John Kelvin Koelsch was shot down in North Korea attempting to rescue an injured flyer. He died a prisoner of war and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. On Sept. 5, 1951, Lt. H.F. Snowdon and his crewman launched from an LST anchored in Wonsan Harbor and successfully rescued a South African pilot shot down 75 miles inland.
Squadron HU-1 ultimately received a presidential unit citation for rescuing airmen and sailors, directing naval gunfire, and spotting mines in Korea. SAR missions demanded more capable helicopters. The Sikorsky HO3S gave way to the tandem rotor Piasecki HUP1 Retriever on carriers in the 1950s, still limited by the weight and power of a reciprocating engine. A Kaman HTK-1 trainer became the first helicopter to fly with turboshaft power in December 1951, and Kaman received a contract in 1957 for the HU2K-l rescue and utility helicopter (later designated the UH-2) with a General Electric T58 turboshaft.
When the Bell HSL succumbed to performance problems, the Navy looked for a bigger ASW platform and placed an initial order in April 1950 for the Sikorsky HO4S-1 (the Air Force H-19). With a 600-horsepower reciprocating engine and relatively spacious cabin, the HO4S-1 could play submarine “hunter” with dipping sonar or “killer” with torpedoes.
The more powerful, longer-ranged Sikorsky HSS-1 (later SH-34) Seabat was both hunter and killer, even to the point of lugging nuclear depth charges. HS-5 at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island received new HSS-1Ns in 1960, and with a difficult test effort, ultimately made automatic hover at night a routine part of ASW.
Both the HOS and HSS served in squadron VX-6 during deployments to Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze and in successive versions gave the fleet hard-working utility helicopters for expanding missions. SH-34s were the astronaut recovery helicopters throughout the Mercury and Gemini space programs, but the Seabat was itself an interim ASW platform. The twin-turbine HSS-2 Sea King first flew on March 11, 1959, and gave the Navy a sophisticated ASW helicopter that would take on Navy CSAR, Airborne Mine Countermeasures, and the Marine Presidential Transport mission. On May 17, 1961, Cmdr. Patrick Sullivan and Lt. B.W. Witherspoon pushed an HSS-2 to 192.7 miles per hour over a 3-kilometer course. Another Sea King, the “Dawdling Dromedary,” set a world nonstop helicopter distance record, flying 2,105.49 miles from the deck of the USS Hornet off San Diego, Calif., to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt off Jacksonville, Fla., on March 6, 1965.
Without formal CSAR doctrine or dedicated CSAR task forces, Navy combat rescue in Vietnam initially fell on anti-submarine squadrons flying SH-3A Sea Kings from ASW carriers and detachments of Helicopter Combat Support Squadrons flying UH-2A and -B Seasprites from attack carriers and smaller ships in Task Force 77. On Aug. 31, 1966, HS-6 commanding officer Cmdr. Robert Vermilya flew his Sea King into Haiphong Harbor to rescue a downed Crusader pilot under fire. He was later awarded the Silver Star. On the night of Jan. 18-19, 1968, Lt. j.g. Clyde Lassen and crew flew a UH-2A from the deck of USS Preble into North Vietnam, picked up two aviators from a downed Phantom, and returned to another destroyer through heavy fire. Lassen later received the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war, Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 7 (HC-7) had dedicated CSAR helicopters and formalized CSAR tactics.
CSAR detachments used the fuel tanks left on board destroyers by the unsuccessful Gyrodyne QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH). DASH also provided the basis for the SH-2F Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) Mk. I, with the Kaman SH-2F Seasprite in 1973 and LAMPS III with the Sikorsky SH-60B in 1984. LAMPS datalinks made helicopter sensors extensions of the ship, initially for outer-zone ASW, and later for anti-surface warfare (ASuW).
In Operations Earnest Will (1987) and Desert Storm (1991), LAMPS helicopters with radar, electronic support measures, and electro-optical payloads scouted for gunboats and mines in the Persian Gulf. The Navy established its first Helicopter Maritime Strike (HSM) Squadron with the MH-60R in 2007 and today deploys the Romeo on carriers and small decks in networked strike groups. The highly integrated Romeo Seahawk has the processing power for autonomous operations and the datalink connectivity for joint operations.
Helicopter-borne vertical replenishment (VERTREP) routinely resupplies ships under way. The tandem-rotor Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight introduced to fleet squadrons in 1964 earned its keep hauling sling loads from supply ships to surface combatants. The MH-60S Knight Hawk, first deployed in 2002, not only replaced the aged ’46 in VERTREP but gave Helicopter Sea Combat squadrons a modern, multi-mission platform for armed Strike Rescue, Special Warfare Support, and Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM). Modern air wings mix MH-60Rs for ASW and ASuW with MH-60S Seahawks for strike rescue and other missions. The MH-60S will also share small-deck frigates and the littoral combat ship with the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout Unmanned Aircraft System.
Mine-hunting helicopters scouted for surface minesweepers during the Korean War, but helicopters also promised a way to clear sea lanes without endangering surface sweepers. Early trials with a Piasecki XHRP-1 towing mechanical cable cutters showed AMCM was promising, but it was not until 1965 that the Navy received specially equipped RH-3A Sea Kings for AMCM. Operation End Sweep at the close of the Vietnam War borrowed Marine CH-53Ds to tow mechanical cutters and clear Vietnamese ports of U.S. mines in 1973. The Marine Sea Stallions were replaced first by more powerful RH-53Ds and ultimately by three-engined MH-53Es. From October 1990 to July 1991, MH-53Es from AMCM Squadron HM-14 swept sea lanes around Kuwait and cut loose 30 moored mines with mechanical cutters, located seven bottom mines with sonar, and detonated two influence mines with magnetic sweep sleds. The big MH-53Es remain the Navy’s dedicated AMCM helicopters, but the MH-60S promises a new era of organic mine countermeasures with mine neutralization equipment launched from any air-capable ship.
From the Sea
Vertical envelopment aims to build combat power ashore quickly. Trials at Quantico with the Piasecki XHRP1 in 1948 showed the “Flying Banana” could carry only four to six Marines at a time. With their ideal assault helicopter still years in the future, the Marines ordered the Sikorsky HRS-1 (the Air Force H-19 or Navy HOS) in 1950 and commissioned the first Medium Helicopter Squadron, HMR-161, in 1951. Operations in support of the 1st Marine Regiment started in August 1951 in the Eastern Punchbowl region of Korea. Operation Windmill in September 1951 moved about 19,000 pounds of supplies in 28 sorties and evacuated 28 casualties. In successive operations, HRS-1s and -2s moved troops and rocket launchers, and by the Korean Armistice, HMR-161 had logged more than 18,000 sorties.
The big Sikorsky HR2S-1 with five-blade main rotor and twin 18-cylinder engines was delivered to HMRM-461 at New River in 1955. The huge Deuce was designed to Marine requirements with folding rotors, clamshell cargo doors, and room for 20 troops, but persistent reliability problems kept it from deploying aboard amphibious assault ships in large numbers. The Marines filled the gap with the Sikorsky HUS-1/CH-34 (the Navy HSS) in 1957, and they relied on the trusty piston-engined troop and cargo transport though the early years of the Vietnam War. Operation Shufly sent Marine Medium Lift Squadron HMM-362 to South Vietnam with CH-34s in 1962. The Marine helicopters moved Vietnamese troops and started building a body of experience with air mobility in a difficult environment.
The high-density altitudes of hot Vietnam taxed the performance of piston-engined helicopters. The Marines had used Kaman HOK-1 observation helicopters starting in 1953, but they entered the turbine age with the Bell UH-1E, delivered to squadron VMO-1 in 1964. Just like Army and Navy Hueys, the Marine UH-1s would serve as gunships, troop transports, command and control, and medevac aircraft. The UH-1N Twin Huey started to replace the UH-1E in 1971, and it remains in Marine light attack squadrons until fully retired by the powerful new UH-1Y in 2015. The new UH-1 Yankee flew in counter-piracy operations from USS Boxer in 2009 and has since taken over combat deployments in Marine Light Attack Helicopter (HMLA) squadrons.
Bell AH-1Gs gave the Marines their first dedicated attack helicopters with VMO-2 in Vietnam in 1969. HMLA-369 flew Marine Hunter Killer (MARHUK) missions around North Vietnam in 1972 with the twin-engined AH-1J Sea Cobra. Through the missile-armed AH-1T and more powerful AH-1W Super Cobra, Light Attack Squadrons have brought responsive firepower to operations from Just Cause in Grenada to Enduring Freedom today. The powerful, sophisticated AH-1Z achieved initial operational capability in February 2011, and will fly and fight alongside the UH-1Y with common engines, dynamics, and avionics in deployed light attack squadrons.
The turbine replacement for the hard-flown, piston-engined HUS was the Boeing CH-46, introduced in 1965 and still flying in medium-lift squadrons today. HMM-164 took the CH-46A into Vietnam in 1966 and logged 2,700 combat sorties in the first month of operations. Marine CH-46s flew the last evacuation flights from Saigon in 1975. Through successive models and rehabilitation programs, the trusty “Phrog” was the assault helicopter that took Marines to war in Grenada in 1983, Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and Afghanistan in 2001. The -46 has been the transport, rescue, and medevac platform for Marine Expeditionary Units around the world. This March, CH-46Es of HMM-265 flew 1,000 miles from Okinawa to Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan to join in aid efforts after the earthquake and tsunami.
Vertical envelopment aims to build combat power ashore fast, and the replacement for the medium-lift Phrog is the 275-knot MV-22B tilt rotor. Sized to fit Marine amphibious assault ships, the Bell/Boeing Osprey was designed to carry a Marine reinforced rifle squad 50 nautical miles from a launching deck to an insertion point, return to the ship, and fly another round-trip before refueling. Marine Medium Tilt Rotor Squadron (VMM) 162 took the Osprey on its first combat deployment to Iraq in 2008, and VMM-261 followed suit in Afghanistan a year later. In both theaters, the helicopter-airplane dramatically expanded the range and reduced the time of troop transport, medevac, and resupply missions. The Navy intends to operate the MV-22 in combat rescue and other missions to be defined.
Marine Corps heavy-lift helicopter requirements started in 1950 with suggestions of a flying crane to transfer aircraft from replenishment ships to carriers. The piston-engined HR2S-1 did recover downed aircraft in Vietnam, but it retired as an operational disappointment. The twin-turbine Sikorsky CH-53A introduced to the war zone by HMH-463 in 1967 gave the Marines an aircraft recovery helicopter with growth potential. The more powerful CH-53D arrived in theater in 1969, and the twin-engined Sea Stallions evolved into the three-engined, seven-bladed CH-53E Super Stallion. In composite helicopter squadrons aboard ship, today’s -53Es lug howitzers, light armored vehicles, or 16 tons of external cargo to the beach over a 50-nautical-mile radius at sea level. In Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, HMH-466 -53Es recovered downed aircraft, inserted troops at night, and hauled heavy cargo from ports to staging areas. CH-53Es rescued an F-16 pilot on the run in Bosnia in 1995. They inserted the first conventional forces into Afghanistan on Nov. 25, 2001, with the longest amphibious airfield seizure in Marine history – 381.5 nautical miles from the USS Peleliu and USS Bataan off the coast of Pakistan to Forward Operating Base Rhino. They remain the prime lifters of the Marine Corps in mountainous Afghanistan.
The Marine Corps plans 200 CH-53Ks to replace worn CH-53Es and aged CH-53Ds. To implement modern Sea Basing and Ship-to-Objective Maneuver concepts, the Kilo model -53 has to sling-load 27,000 pounds over 110 nautical miles at sea level – more than twice the load of today’s CH-53E – yet fit the same amphibious assault ships and cost half as much to operate and support. The CH-53K is expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2018, and with the MV-22, UH-1Y, and AH-1Z, give fleet squadrons vertical lift with digital connectivity for network-centric warfare.
To the Rescue
Pioneers in naval rotary-wing aviation, the Coast Guard aviators made the first shipboard landings, flew the first lifesaving mission, and embraced the helicopter while the other services were debating their usefulness. The Coast Guard moved its Rotary Wing Development Project and helicopter training from Floyd Bennett Field to Coast Guard Station Elizabeth City, N.C., in 1946. It began to replace rescue floatplanes with helicopters that same year and progressed through the 1950s from the HO3S to the bigger HO4S-3G (HH-19G) and HUS-1G (HH-34F). Over-water helicopter operations with single piston engines were as dangerous for the Coast Guard as they were for the Navy, and though Sikorsky’s single-turbine S-62 amphibian lost a Navy competition for a new utility helicopter, the Coast Guard chose the HH-52 for rescue. Sea Guards flew from Coast Guard air stations from 1963 to 1986.
Coast Guard leadership nevertheless wanted a medium-range recovery (MRR) helicopter to go 300 nautical miles, loiter 30 minutes, and return with six survivors plus crew. The service chose the Sikorsky HH-3F (a version of the Air Force HH-3E Jolly Green Giant) in a competition with the Boeing CH-46. CGAS New Orleans received the Pelican first in 1968, and three or four HH-3Fs were typically assigned to Elizabeth City; San Diego, Calif.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Cape Cod, Mass.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Astoria, Ore.; and Annette and Kodiak, Alaska. Realignments over the years put H-3s in Sitka, Alaska; Clearwater, Fla.; San Francisco, Calif.; and Traverse City, Mich. The Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Ala., had H-3s for training.
Coast Guard rescues are flown routinely in difficult conditions, but Alaskan SAR operations are some of the most challenging. After a water landing in Kiluda Bay on Feb. 25, 1984, an HH-3F flown by Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Ng delivered a possible heart attack victim to Kodiak and less than 10 minutes later launched for the fishing vessel Mia Dawn sinking in 80-knot winds and whiteout conditions. With visibility down to 100 feet in blowing snow and sea spray, and with the windshield covered in ice and salt, the Coast Guard crew fought severe turbulence to home on a signal from the boat. Trapped by mountains in front, dangerous turbulence behind, and winds so high that a left or right turn would have exceeded the limits of tail rotor authority, the Coast Guard crew picked their way through blowing snow until a crewman spotted the boat behind the helicopter. The Coast Guard crew backed up over the boat, and struggled in continuous buffeting to hoist three survivors aboard. The pilot put the nose down, accelerated to 100 knots, and banked sharply away from the mountains before climbing out to return to base.
The Sikorsky HH-60J replaced the HH-3F, and Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City received its first Jayhawk in July 1991. On the night of Oct. 28, 1991, an Elizabeth City Jayhawk flew into Hurricane Grace on a distress call from the sailing vessel Anne Kristina about 300 nautical miles east of Cape Henry, Va. The Coast Guard crew refueled on the Navy carrier USS America, located the sinking schooner with night-vision goggles, lowered a rescue swimmer in 40-foot seas, and hovered in 60-knot winds and driving rain to hoist nine sailors from the Atlantic. The helicopter returned to the carrier with 13 people aboard. Pilot Lt. Paul Lange and rescue swimmer Petty Officer Duane Jones were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The Eurocopter HH-65 Dolphin short-range recovery (SRR) helicopter replaced the HH-52 starting in 1985 and currently serves at air stations from Kodiak, Alaska, to Borinquen, Puerto Rico. The Coast Guard plans to update all of its helicopters under the Deepwater modernization project. Re-engined HH-65Cs will undergo a major avionics upgrade for the multi-mission cutter helicopter portion of Deepwater. Armed and armored MH-60Js are already the platform for Coast Guard Airborne Use Of Force missions, and MH-60T modernization now under way rebuilds the Jayhawk fleet with new glass cockpits, modern communications, and renewed airframe structures. Like the Navy, the Coast Guard is experimenting with the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system.
The importance of rotary-wing aviation in seapower is undeniable, but U.S. Navy investment in rotorcraft technology has long been dwarfed by fixed-wing spending and aimed at improving existing designs. However, the Naval Aviation Center for Rotorcraft Advancement (NACRA) was started in 2008 to focus the Navy’s vision and resources on next-generation rotorcraft, and to partner with industry, academia, and other armed services on future vertical-lift technology.
This article was first published in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.