The MH-53M Pave Low helicopters of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) flew their last missions supporting combat operations in Iraq on the night of Sept. 27 and 28, 2008. The retirement of the helicopters had been scheduled three years earlier when U.S. SOCOM decision-makers opted not to continue funding of MH-53s beyond the first of October and the beginning of the 2009 fiscal year.
The retirement of the helicopters had been scheduled three years earlier when U.S. SOCOM decision-makers opted not to continue funding of MH-53s beyond the first of October and the beginning of the 2009 fiscal year.
Since their induction into the U.S. Air Force, the H-53s had lived several lives. The HH-53 Super Jolly Greens and the CH-53 Dust Devils flew combat rescue and combat special operations in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After 1975, the CH-53s moved into tactical support of radar units, and the HHs continued in rescue around the world. The first Pave Lows, as HH-53H models, were produced for combat rescue, scheduled to go to Europe, and were diverted to special operations use after Desert One in 1980. After the formation of SOCOM in 1987, all the H-53s in the Air Force were modified into Pave Lows.
None of the aircraft were young, and all were two-engine versions, originally designed not to fly above 42,000 pounds gross weight. Continuously modified and heavier with each change, the aircraft had been flying missions over 46,000 pounds as the normal operating weight since 18 of them participated in Operation Desert Storm 18 years ago. To tell the truth, I flew a number of missions in Desert Storm, and I don’t remember any in which our mission weight was under 48,000 pounds. The aircraft tend to age quickly under such circumstances. Originally designed for 3,000 to 4,000 hours of helicopter flying, they finally retired at an average of around 12,000 flying hours. To compare, many of the Marine H-53s with two engines were replaced by three-engine aircraft after an average of 2,500 flying hours.
The real story of these aircraft, however, resides in the stories of the people and their accomplishments while using those helicopters. Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster spoke of that record during the induction of one of them, aircraft 68-10357,
into the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. His speech does the best job possible of telling the story of these venerable aircraft. Attending the ceremony were veterans of the Vietnam War – including the Son Tay Raiders Association. All other H-53 and Pave Low combat operations were also represented by flyers and maintainers of Just Cause in Panama, of operations in Bosnia, the first Gulf War, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and numerous humanitarian missions, from flood relief in Thailand in the ’70s to hurricane relief after Katrina in the southeastern United States.
As Wurster described, the H-53s of the Air Force seemed to want to go to the sound of guns, toward the action, and they never expected to retire.
Wurster has given us permission to print his speech, along with a short addendum he added after witnessing the final mission in Iraq:
“We are here today to induct H-53 tail number 68-10357 into the National Museum of the United States Air Force. This proud machine, like many others here, has a unique story to tell. Its background is heroic, as you will hear from the speakers today, but we need to remember that it is but one of a fleet of 72 helicopters of its kind that the Air Force owned and operated for nearly the last 40 years. There are many other H-53s, many other stories of courage and daring, and innumerable actions by maintenance and support crews who made it all possible.
“This aircraft has really had two significant and different segments of service – the first as a Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter, and the second as a Pave Low helicopter serving in special operations. The Air Force originally bought 72 H-53s between 1966 and 1973. There were eight B-models with the external struts supporting the aux tanks. When the HH-53 went into production the sponsons were strengthened and the struts were no longer required. These C-models included 44 HH-53s and 20 CH-53s. Like 357, each tail number has a history. But, as a fleet, the story is a remarkable compilation of courage, daring, and the grace of a merciful Creator. Of these 72 aircraft, 22 have been lost in combat operations, another 20 crashed and were destroyed in accidents due to the difficult environment in which we train and fight, and we have damaged and rebuilt 20 more. Many of the remaining aircraft have been transferred to AMARC [the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center] and we will fly the last dozen in the inventory at Hurlburt Field [Fla.] and in Iraq until they retire at the end of September this year. These statistics are pretty remarkable – a career combat loss rate of 30 percent, directly attributable to the types of missions this incredible machine can accomplish. When the training attrition is factored in, the loss rate approaches 60 percent over the life of the airframe – a testament to the difficult nature of combat rescue, or the night, low altitude, terrain following, assault mission of the Pave Low. If you add in the recovered aircraft that we managed to rebuild, 62 of 72 have hit the ground hard at one time or another, although there were a few two-time winners.