Defense Media Network

MH-53M Pave Low’s Farewell

“The machines did not do the job themselves; it was the people who launched them, the people who flew them, and those who sustained and repaired them that are the real heroes of the efforts. But, the machines have seen a couple of generations of these people come and go, and always they remain … the enduring posture to respond to the nation’s call when needed. Today, I will talk about crews and heroics, but I have intentionally left the names of individuals out. It is for one simple reason: There are too many to mention, and inevitably we would miss many who deserve to be named. So, today we’ll focus on the aircraft.

“These helicopters have flown on 13 missions that earned the Air Force Cross: three for the first three chalks of the Son Tay mission in 1970 to rescue POWs in North Vietnam, six for daring rescues of downed airmen during the Southeast Asia conflict, and four during the Mayaguez recovery effort at Koh Tang Island. Of those 13 aircraft, only one was not subsequently lost in combat or to an accident. That aircraft is 357. It flew as Apple 1 to Son Tay Prison Camp near Hanoi in 1970 – carrying the famed Bull Simons and his team of commandos to rescue American prisoners. On that mission alone, 357’s crew earned one Air Force Cross and four Silver Stars; if you count the decorations of the assault force, add two Distinguished Service Crosses and 20 more Silver Stars to the count.

It flew as Apple 1 to Son Tay Prison Camp near Hanoi in 1970 – carrying the famed Bull Simons and his team of commandos to rescue American prisoners. On that mission alone, 357’s crew earned one Air Force Cross and four Silver Stars; if you count the decorations of the assault force, add two Distinguished Service Crosses and 20 more Silver Stars to the count.

“During the remainder of its service in Southeast Asia, 357 was directly involved in several other noteworthy and historic actions. It was involved in18 combat rescue missions, nine while flying as the ‘Low Bird,’ contributing to a total of 28 combat saves. In the course of these sorties, 16 more Jolly Green crewmen earned Silver Stars while aboard. Amazingly, 357 participated in a second mission for which the pilot was awarded the Air Force Cross; it flew as Low Bird on the first day of the Oyster 01 Bravo mission to recover a survivor who had spent three weeks successfully evading in North Vietnam. And, while we are counting, 357 also picked up a PJ who was awarded the Air Force Cross for dragging a survivor 150 yards through enemy territory to a suitable extraction point. The crew of 357, taking 16 hits in the process, picked up the PJ when the helicopter who inserted him was unable to complete the recovery. A remarkable record for an aircraft who flew combat there for three years and saw action in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and the DMZ!

“Following the end of the Vietnam War, 357 was reassigned to rescue forces in the Pacific for the next 10 years – first in Hawaii, then in Okinawa. Later, it moved to McClellan Air Force Base in California, where it served in the 41st Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron until it was inducted into the Pave Low line in 1987.

MH-53 Pave Low

A U.S. Air Force pilot from the 20th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron conducts a pre-flight check of an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter prior to the final combat mission at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, on Sept. 27, 2008. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force

“The years of the early ’80s were challenging, as congressional forces sought to revitalize the country’s special operations capability. The nation had made commitments to generate a viable force and the special operations era of H-53 history began in earnest. The first Pave Low had been built before the accident at Desert One, though the production had been canceled.

“Subsequently, the Holloway Commission made specific recommendations regarding the Air Force H-53 fleet and its future potential as Pave Low helicopters within special operations. A reluctant Air Force bore the brunt of the congressional fury that was inspired when the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and the Air Force signed a series of initiatives, including Initiative 17, which made commitments to transfer the mission of rotary wing special operations to the Army.

“Congressional action and investment eventually turned every remaining H-53 in the Air Force inventory into an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter for special operations, where the aircraft continued to serve for an additional 20 years. At one point during this series of convoluted missteps, Army aviators were sent to the training wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, to begin training in the MH-53 to enable the Army to eventually assume ownership of the helicopters and the mission responsibilities. This represented the last straw for the Congress. The concept was scrapped, and one senior defense official was quoted as saying, ‘Giving the Pave Lows to the Army is like giving the space shuttle to Chad.’

“Based on the performance of the MH-53s in the Air Force for the last 20 years, their vision has proven accurate. But, the history of the H-53 and the Pave Low cannot be completely understood without considering the impact of Initiative 17, the actions and individuals who overturned it, and its aftermath. These were essential shaping factors in the second half of the life of the H-53 fleet. Like many other stories of courage and exposure, these need to be captured and recorded.

“During the conversion process, from CH or HH-53 to MH-53, numerous electronic upgrades were included – terrain-following radar, forward-looking infrared, ring laser gyro inertial, doppler integration, moving map display, hover coupler, and night-vision compatible lighting inside and out. Additionally, the aircraft received a much needed Service Life Extension Program or SLEP, which included crashworthy fuel tanks, self sealing fuel lines, steel hydraulic tubing, stroking seats, improved landing gear, elastomeric rotor heads, improved flight control servos, titanium blades, and a host of other improvements that dramatically increased the survivability of the aircraft.

MH-53 Pave Lows

A sight never to be seen again. AFSOC MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, stationed at Hurlburt Field, Fla., fly over the Gulf of Mexico June 12, 2008, during the last five-ship formation flown by the 20th Special Operations Squadron before being transferred to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., with the rest of the 27th Special Operations Group. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Emily S. Moore

“In addition to our depot teams who oversaw and engineered the work, there were dedicated and committed individuals that seized the opportunity presented by the Congress to improve this fleet and its ability to support national objectives. The results speak for themselves. In the first 20 years of service, the H-53 fleet endured 23 Class A accidents at the cost of 80 lives. The next 20 years of service proved as difficult in terms of accidents, with a total of 18 – but the remarkable difference was that only seven people have lost their lives in H-53 helicopters since the SLEP. Five of them were lost in a single accident in Afghanistan when a disintegrating blade slashed one of the aux tanks, igniting a fire. We had not had a post-crash fire since the SLEP 20 years earlier and scores of lives of Pave Low crew members and ground force customers have survived mishaps that would have been fatal in a pre-SLEP aircraft. Similar efforts following difficult lessons learned in the dusty brownouts and the marginal power environment of Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in rapid software upgrades and improved hover stability – significantly improving the safety of the crews in these difficult environments.

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Maj. Gen. Richard Comer (USAF-Ret) spent 32 years on active duty, 17 of which were...