“The idea of a vehicle that could lift itself vertically from the ground and hover motionless in the air was probably born at the same time that man first dreamed of flying.”
– Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky
The MH-53M PAVE LOW IV was retired in September 2008 in Iraq upon flying it’s last mission in combat. This was the only way for an aircraft that had been flying in the USAF inventory since the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s. The name PAVE LOW was a code name assigned to a project specifying the modification to the HH-53s. The project stemmed from a requirement to operate the helicopter at night and in adverse weather in order to be more effective against enemy forces. In order to understand her history, it’s important to start from the very beginning.
The Sikorsky CH-53A was ordered in 1962 to satisfy the Marine Corps’ requirement for a heavy-lift helicopter. The first aircraft flew October 12, 1964. It would be replaced by the CH-53D.
The U.S. Air Force H-53 began its legacy in late 1967 during the Vietnam War as the HH-53B Super Jolly Green Giant, created as the finest combat search and rescue helicopter in the world. A total of 72 helicopters were ordered by the USAF, HH-53B and HH-53C variants. During the H-53’s first three years of service between 1967 and 1970 it was credited with over 371 combat rescues.
In 1968, eight HH-53 B/Cs received the first of several modifications, called Limited Night Recovery System (LNRS), which incorporated a low light TV and a hover coupler. The B-model was an A-model airframe, which Sikorsky separated into three sections to add the supports (struts) for the auxiliary fuel tanks. The tanks were needed to increase the range of the HH-53’s for CSAR duties in Vietnam. The C-model airframes already incorporated support for the aux tanks. As the Jolly Greens were conducting rescue missions in theater, the catalyst for the development of Special Operations Helicopters occurred to Air Force aircrews in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In 1965, the 20th Helicopter Squadron was changed to the 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) as the first dedicated special operations helicopter unit in the Vietnam War, flying UH-1 F and UH-1 P Hueys.
The 21st SOS was established in Thailand flying the CH-3C Jolly Green Giant known as “Charlies”. This foundation formed special operations helicopter tactics and doctrine, which would be used well beyond the jungles of Southeast Asia with a myriad of Special Operations actions in the years to follow.
On 21 November 1970, the U.S. launched one of the most defining operations of U.S. Air Force helicopter history. Five HH-53’s and one HH-3E performed the Son Tay prison rescue attempt of American POW’s held captive in Hanoi. Known as Operation KINGPIN, it is one of the most “successful failures” in American Special Operations history. The lessons of Son Tay are echoed today in special operators training; that a mission properly planned and practiced can succeed even under the most demanding conditions.
In July 1970, the USAF requested the need for an integrated system on their HH-53s to enable a rescue platform to perform search and rescue under conditions of total darkness and/or adverse weather in all geographical areas, including mountainous terrain, low level altitude, and capable of penetrating hostile territory.
On May 12 1975, the 21st SOS, which had 10 CH-53Cs assigned in the same year, launched seven of these helicopters along with five HH-53s from the 40th ARRS for the SS Mayaguez rescue. The infiltration of over 230 forces on Koh Tang Island in order to rescue 40 personnel that eventually were discovered not on the island. The mission resulted in a loss of 41 brave Americans. One of the 21st SOS choppers experienced a catastrophic sleeve and spindle failure just minutes after takeoff, crashing and killing the 5 crew-members and 18 security policemen that were on-board.
1st Lt Richard Brims flew a night FCF and joined the rest of the helicopters for the rescue attempt along with another 21st SOS chopper. That made for a total of 9 of the 10 choppers assigned to the 21st SOS. Lt Brims made the final evacuation of Marines off the island, after dark, under fire, with his landing and hover lights on so he could see. Lt Rich Vandegeer, an H-53 pilot, was one of the losses and is the last name imprinted on the Vietnam memorial wall.
The 40th ARRS and 21st SOS also participated in the evacuation of Phnom Penh Cambodia, and the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.
In April 1974, the HH-53 modification program was signed and incorporated a radar, and terrain following/avoidance avionics to the HH-53, called PAVE LOW III.
On June 9th, 1975 the first HH-53 “PAVE LOW”, tail number 66-14433, flew its first flight. The flight was originally scheduled for June 6th, but ground abort due to an error in the fuel jettison system
The original eight HH-53H’s were the very first U.S. Air Force helicopters modified to become the MH-53J PAVE LOW. All remaining B, C, and H model H-53’s were then modified to the MH-53J model standard. The airframes rolled out in the late 70’s and had the same basic radar, but very different avionics. The J-model PAVE LOW solved many H model problems and provided improved avionics. The only external difference between an early J model and the H model PAVE is the IRCM pod on the sponsons. The H-model PAVE had a long tube like device for IRCM capabilities. The Air Force never flew the H model PAVE LOWs in combat.
On 5 December 1974 Sikorsky delivered the last HH-53 to the Air Force.
Under the PAVE LOW III program, the U.S. Air Force NAVAIR 26BFTG, dated 18 Nov 1976, called for the “PAVE LOW III” modification to nine MH-53H aircraft between Sep 1978 and Jan 1980 (the remaining 32 HH-53s followed) for night and adverse weather operations. Modifications included forward-looking infrared, inertial global positioning system, Doppler navigation systems, terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radar, an on-board computer, and integrated avionics to enable precise navigation to and from target areas.
The Air Force designated these modified versions as MH-53J’s. The thirty two HH-53’s that followed created a total of 41 MH-53J PAVE LOW III helicopters. The PAVE LOW III concept was expedited from the sad lessons of Operation EAGLE CLAW in 1979 (Desert One), where the PAVE LOW would have been the clear choice of aircraft, but was just leaving the production line.
In 1989, the MH-53J participated in Panama for Operation JUST CAUSE, led the way across the Iraqi border for AH-64 Apaches in Operation DESERT STORM, and performed the first combat search and rescue mission since Vietnam. She later participated in Operations DENY FLIGHT and PROVIDE PROMISE in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The MH-53J was modified to become MH-53M PAVE LOW IV.
In 1999, the MH-53M performed rescue missions in Bosnia during Operation ALLIED FORCE, recovering the shoot-down survivors of Vega 31 (F-117) and Hammer 34 (F-16).
After the tragic events of September 11th 2001, the MH-53 PAVE LOW aided search efforts in Washington D.C. and New York. She subsequently flew direct action missions in Afghanistan for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, and again led the way into Iraq in 2003 as the first aircraft behind enemy lines during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.
The Rescue and Special Operations H-53 aircraft and personnel led the way for over forty one years standing up to fight “Any Time, Any Place”. The PAVE LOW creed lives on in the Special Operators of past who garnished the “Red Scarf”, a brotherhood whose life is the mission and the security of our nation.
Other Historical Facts:
PAVE LOW I (YH-53 / HH 66-14433) – The first aircraft to be fitted with PAVE LOW I trials for a projected night/all-weather combat rescue/infiltration mission. Fitted with early low-light TV system which proved inadequate, though the first successful night rescue was made with an improved system in December 1972, in Laos. The aircraft later modified to ‘PAVE LOW II’ standard, with external sponsons and tanks.
CONSTANT GREEN – MH-53H Pave Low upgrade program
PAVE IMP – An Air Force night vision program under which HH-53Cs were equipped with low-light-level television (LLLTV) cameras, providing the aircraft with the all-weather capability to rescue downed airmen. The program replaced the service’s PAVE STAR program, cancelled.
PAVE STAR – Modification of HH-53C for night/adverse weather operations
PAVE LOW – Modification of HH-53B for night/adverse weather operations: AN/APQ-141; AN/APQ-126B, AN/APQ-158, AN/AAQ-10
PAVE LOW II – One HH-53C converted to YH-53H, eight plus two HH-53G converted to HH-53H, MH-53H PAVE LOW, 1975, 1979/1980
– Remaining 31 HH-53B/C to MH-53J PAVE LOW IIIE (E = Enhanced), 1985
PAVE LOW III – MH-53J
PAVE LOW IIIE (aka PAVE LOW IV) – MH-53M