#JollyDown – The story of Pave Hawk, the helicopter involved in this week’s Norfolk crash
16:09 10 January 2014
SrA Brian Ferguson
Paul E Eden, an aerospace writer and editor, looks at the story behind the Pave Hawk - the helicopter involved in this week’s Cley military tragedy.
An American HH-60G Pave Hawk crashed in Norfolk on 7 January, revealing its little-known combat search and rescue role to the wider public. Demanding and frequently dangerous, the HH-60G’s missions write new chapters in a courageous history begun over Vietnam.
Pilots downed in Southeast Asia felt just a little extra hope from late 1965, when Sikorsky’s HH-3E combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopter arrived in Vietnam. An older cousin of the RAF’s bright yellow Sea Kings, it was armed, armoured, long ranged and powerful; the HH-3E brought hitherto unknown capabilities to US Air Force (USAF) aircrew rescue and recovery units.
The helicopter and its startlingly courageous crews rewrote the rescue rulebook. The big green and brown-camouflaged aircraft earned the popular nickname ‘Jolly Green Giant’, with more than a passing reference to the famous verdant vegetable icon of the same name.
Needing yet more power, the USAF developed another Sikorsky helicopter, the HH-53, whose crews created legends of their own; the aircraft became the ‘Super Jolly’. Post-Vietnam, the HH-3E fell due for replacement and once again Sikorsky stepped in.
The Connecticut-based manufacturer’s UH-60A Black Hawk had been serving the US Army since 1979 when the USAF chose it in 1981. Funding wrangles, evolutionary dead ends and the development of a complex suite of mission avionics (aviation electronics) followed, the MH-60G Pave Hawk emerging as a special forces support and CSAR helicopter for service from 1987.
Reflecting the different roles of special operations and air rescue, the latter aircraft became HH-60G Pave Hawks from autumn 1991. The CSAR equipment fit nevertheless remains very close to that for the infiltration/exfiltration of special forces. It was one of these aircraft – callsign Jolly 22 – that crashed on the Norfolk coast.
‘Jolly’ has become synonymous with USAF CSAR and it’s a common callsign for HH-60G crews. Their primary mission is dangerous and unpredictable. They recover shot-down aircrew from deep inside enemy territory, typically at very low level and almost invariably at night.
The HH-60G is a relatively long-legged helicopter, with fuel for a return trip over more than 270 miles, but the realities of combat are that no crew wants to see the ‘needle in the red’, so Pave Hawks refuel in the air. A telescopic probe allows fuel to be taken from MC-130 tankers, based on the ubiquitous Hercules transport.
Sophisticated avionics and night-vision goggles assist the crew in finding a safe path as they strive to remain undetected by the enemy. If the worst happens, the helicopter has defensive countermeasures to decoy incoming missiles, but there are few options against well-aimed small arms and the best way to avoid engagement is flying low and fast, denying the ‘shooter’ time to find and fire on the aircraft.
If all goes well, the rescuee is generally winched aboard, but should enemy forces be encountered the Pave Hawk is equipped with door guns – either 0.5in calibre machine-guns or six-barrelled, fast-firing 0.30in Miniguns. These ‘keep heads down’ for the few moments that the helicopter is winching, but this is no attack machine, its mode of operation is to sneak in, collect and sneak out again. Pave Hawk crews would rather avoid the enemy; their low-level, long-range nocturnal mission offers hazard enough, without being shot at.
PAVE HAWK PROGRAMME
Pave Hawk began CSAR flying in 1990. Its impressive combat career includes the 1991 Gulf War; Operation Allied Force over Serbia in 1999, when two pilots were rescued; and Operations Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom. In 2011, RAF Lakenheath’s Pave Hawks flew off US Navy decks in the Mediterranean, providing CSAR for Coalition fast jets over Libya. The helicopter also lends itself to humanitarian missions and peacetime rescue.
Before 7 January, the Lakenheath’s 56th Rescue Squadron had five HH-60Gs under the 48th Fighter Wing. Supported by the 352nd Special Operations Group’s MC-130 tankers out of nearby RAF Mildenhall, the Pave Hawks are well placed for rapid forward deployment into Europe, North Africa and even further afield.
Although maintained to the highest standards, the HH-60G is nearing the end of a long career. In 2006 the US$10 billion CSAR-X programme selected Boeing’s Chinook as its replacement, but after fierce objections from Sikorsky, CSAR-X was abandoned. The US$6.85 billion Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) requirement subsequently emerged, for which Sikorsky is the only company in the running, with its CRH-60 variant of the latest Black Hawk. Contract award later this year is possible, but sequestration presents funding challenges. Today should be recorded as a nadir in the Jolly’s splendid history.
Paul E Eden is an aerospace writer and editor. Based in Cambridgeshire he is editor of The Official Royal Air Force Annual Review and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and found tweeting on @TwoDrones