March 1, 2006  

Rescue mission

The Pave Hawk helicopter has been a life-saver, but it’s no longer up to the job

The Air Force combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) force is reaching a critical juncture as the HH-60G Pave Hawk reaches the end of its expected service life. Our U.S. military’s operations tempo has demonstrated the need for a new CSAR platform with greater capabilities than the venerable HH-60G.

Throughout September, the nation was riveted to news coverage of the tragic scenes from the ravages of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Hundreds of military and civilian helicopters filled the skies over coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, including 23 Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawks, which performed around-the-clock search-and-rescue missions, which included plucking people from rooftops in flooded New Orleans.

During this massive search-and-rescue operation, the versatile HH-60G demonstrated its flexibility to not only execute combat rescue missions, but to perform civil rescue as well.

By the time operations were complete, Air Force helicopters had saved more than 4,200 people, and more than 2,900 of those were rescued by the HH-60G. The operation was the largest rescue effort ever conducted within the U.S.

The Pave Hawk’s primary mission is to conduct day or night personnel recovery of downed aircrews in hostile areas. This 1980s airframe has performed admirably, but it’s reaching — and in some instances exceeding — its service life. Since the beginning of the global war on terrorism four years ago, the HH-60G has operated at maximum capacity in support of operations in Afghanistan, the Philippines and Iraq. Prior to that, it was employed in operations Just Cause, Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

In the years following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Pave Hawks were deployed nonstop in support of operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch. Our airmen flew in the skies over Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Pave Hawk was there to rescue them when they went down.

Throughout this era, the HH-60 has been the workhorse for combat search and rescue. Nothing looks better to downed aircrew members than the mighty Pave Hawk coming to take them home.

Combat search and rescue is an Air Force core competency, and the Air Force is the only service with forces dedicated to the CSAR mission. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) owns or gains the continental U.S. forces that perform this core task, with an active-duty wing, a Reserve wing and two National Guard wings. We have hundreds of specially trained, dedicated professionals and more than 100 HH-60Gs devoted to this mission.

Pave Hawks are among the most highly demanded Defense Department CSAR systems. The other services depend on the Air Force’s air rescue warriors to lead and conduct CSAR missions during joint operations.

Since our HH-60Gs are in high demand, both in the global war on terrorism and in collateral missions such as relief operations, Pave Hawks are feeling their age. We are looking for a versatile, vertical-lift platform that can do everything the HH-60G can do and more.

We need a vehicle that can fly faster, farther, higher and with greater cargo capacity.

Our rescue record is stellar, but due to the limitations of the HH-60G, we often have to compromise among passengers, crew or cargo to ensure mission success. During a Balkans rescue mission, an HH-60G had to do without some survival supplies to make room for the downed pilot. It was either the supplies or the pilot. That is unacceptable. We cannot continue to put our rescue aircrew, in that position.

During another rescue mission in the high mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan, limited helicopter performance again put the aircrew at risk. The aircraft’s altitude restrictions, combined with surrounding high terrain, forced the Pave Hawk to perform aerial refueling within small-arms range of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants on the ground.

Altitude and cabin-space limitations are just two critical shortfalls a new airframe must overcome.

We need a CSAR platform that can cruise at a minimum speed of 135 knots. The next-generation aircraft also needs to have a 325-nautical-mile unrefueled combat radius, including a 30-minute loiter time in the search area. We need the aircraft to hold five crew members, three pararescuemen, extra fuel and four rescued personnel. We need an aircraft that can operate at night, in adverse weather and survive in a modern threat environment.

We need these capabilities yesterday.

We no longer have the luxury of waiting for industry to design the perfect vertical-lift platform. We need to pick the best available airframe and develop it for CSAR missions now.

We cannot allow our combat-rescue capability to lapse. America’s sons and daughters have voluntarily put their lives on the line, serving in harm’s way in hostile situations in defense of our nation. When they need help, we owe it to them to bring them home alive. To do that successfully, we need to bring the HH-60G’s replacement online now, so our rescue forces can succeed in their motto: “These things we do that others may live.”