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MH-53M Pave Low’s Farewell

“Following 357’s conversion to MH-53 configuration and SLEP modifications, the aircraft served in several conflicts and contingencies, and until a few months ago, was flying combat missions in Iraq every day. We knew that the museum intended to induct this helicopter when it returned from battle, and we knew that somebody up here was probably chewing their fingernails off hoping that we wouldn’t smash it before it made it home. 357 continued to fly the tough ones though, and on one mission late last spring, the crew over-torqued both engines and the gearbox in an emergency go-around from a brownout landing. But, cheating fate one last time, 357 brought the crew safely home. It was a deliberate decision that following the last combat mission, maintenance would tear down 357 and send it directly to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Everybody involved wanted to induct the aircraft into the museum without another sortie so that its last flight was a combat mission … a fitting tribute to the machine, the crews that flew her, and the maintenance teams who kept her combat ready.

“The H-53 fleet has logged countless combat hours, flown in every contingency in the last 40 years, and met the needs of national objectives time and time again. We checked the records and found that this fleet of only 72 aircraft has racked up a combat record of 140 Silver Stars. Think of that: It is an average of two Silver Stars per airframe over their lifetime. It is hard to believe that any other aircraft in Air Force history could have such a remarkable and compelling story of heroism. It also makes 357’s statistics all the more impressive.

It is an average of two Silver Stars per airframe over their lifetime. It is hard to believe that any other aircraft in Air Force history could have such a remarkable and compelling story of heroism.

“They have served in Vietnam, Laos, Koh Tang, Jonestown, Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and the subsequent Northern and Southern Watch, Afghanistan, Iraq again, among those of which we are permitted to speak. The H-53 is always there if there is vertical lift combat action – always there, always successful. That fact is, of course, because of the people, not because of the machine. But undoubtedly each of us sense and adopt the legacy of courage and combat when we get into these aircraft, hoping we will prove ourselves worthy to be counted as brothers in the impressive history of these helicopters.

“Four Aviator’s Valor Awards, six Cheney Awards, the Mackay Trophy twice, two Daedalian Exceptional Pilot Awards, six-time Jabara Award winner, the Kolligian Trophy three times, two Schilling Awards, two Tunner Awards, four-time Pitsenbarger winner, and one Helicopter Heroism Trophy … and those represent only the missions that won. How many runner-ups were there? Also, in the early ’90s, the crew chief for 357 was selected as the Air Force Crew Chief of the Year.

MH-53M Pave Low IV

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’s newest exhibit, the Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV tail number 68-10357, sits on display in the Cold War Gallery at the museum in Dayton, Ohio. U.S. Air Force photo

“Late last summer, tail number 794 decided to cash in her chips during a night tactical sortie on the range at Eglin Air Force Base [Fla.]. I am convinced that, like survivors of the USS Arizona, who still have their remains interred in Pearl Harbor with the rest of the crew to this day, she wanted to die with her boots on. You may not know it but, within a couple of weeks, that aircraft was slated to fly to AMARC for retirement. Fortunately, she spared the crew and some exceptional airmanship got the machine near the ground before things let go for good. As you might suspect … they don’t want to go. One of the first Kirtland B-models to retire, upon landing at AMARC, realized where it was and locked up the brakes, refusing to move any further. The pilot hovered into parking to terminate that final flight. One of our recent deliveries from Hurlburt developed a rotor system problem and forced a divert into Houston, attempting to delay the inevitable. Despite averaging about 12,000 hours per airframe, they just don’t want to go. These machines are born to combat and have proven themselves time and time again.

“Even as we speak and enjoy this quiet moment, today’s MH-53 crews are preparing to fly in combat tonight – crew chiefs and specialists scramble to get the machines ready, crews review mission details, sanitize, and step to the aircraft. They start up and depart to engage the enemy like the professionals who preceded them. All of you old heads would be proud of them. They have been on the battlefield since we started this on 9/11. Never before has this force done so much, so well, for so long. That is a tribute to the crews and the maintainers. The last chapter for the H-53 is being written right now and this story will end well. Our enemies are struck with terror at the sound of these rotor blades, they fear the angry tracers from well-aimed mini-guns, and they sleep fitfully hoping that tonight is not the night they will come for me. The tradition continues. Let us remember the H-53 crews of today and honor their continuing efforts, like we do for those who came before them.”

Addendum for the Pave Low Reunion Dinner, Oct. 16, 2008

“Since 357 was inducted into the National Museum of the Air Force about three months ago, the remaining Pave Low helicopters have completed their missions in CONUS and in combat.

“First, the remaining aircraft at Hurlburt Field flew out to AMARC or permanent locations for static displays. Last month, when only one Pave Low was operational in the entire United States, and three days before it was to fly to its permanent display location at Hill Air Force Base, Hurricane Ike stormed into the Gulf of Mexico. A large ship was endangered by the storm, and true to form, 369 and her crew cranked up and launched into the fury of that hurricane to attempt a rescue of the crew. They just don’t want to go.

CV-22 Osprey

A CV-22 Osprey aircraft from the 8th Special Operations Squadron and an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter from the 20th Special Operation Squadron conduct a flight near Hurlburt Field, Fla., Aug. 20, 2008. The U.S. Air Force is replacing the MH-53 with the CV-22. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

“Finally, on 27 September 2008, the crews of the last six Pave Lows in the inventory briefed a final combat mission in Iraq. The maintainers prepared the birds, the crews prepared for their missions, sanitized, and stepped to the aircraft. Launching in a six-ship for the last time, the crews ran combat ingress checklists, checked guns, and then broke into two-ship elements for their respective missions. Each proceeded to their targets, completed their assigned tasks, and returned to Taji to reform as a flight of six. The six-ship then returned to Balad with a final fly-by, pitched out and landed, in the manner so familiar to all of us.

“After landing and shutdown, the mood was subdued but respectful. The early dawn showed the outlines of the big birds that would never fly again. Two of these will go on display, the others will go to AMARC. Crews and maintainers traded hugs and signed their names on the machines as part of this worthy history. As I walked around the machines, I did not endure a sense of loss. It was the first time that I recognized that these machines looked war worn, and perhaps a bit tired but proud of their service, faithful to their mission and calling, and committed to the end. Their stately elegance and now-silent repose reminded me of a verse from Paul the Apostle in the letter to Timothy that says, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’

“And they have.”

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