"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 Ivanovitch Sikorsky
PAVE LOW Historical Documents
PAVE LOW was a project name to modify the H-53s owned by the U.S.A.F. since Vietnam. 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 Air Force H-53 began its legacy in late 1967, during Vietnam, as the HH-53B Super Jolly Green, created as the finest helicopter in the world for combat search and rescue. The US Air Force ordered 72 HH-53B and HH-53C variants for Search and Rescue units. During the H-53’s first three years of service between 1967 and 1970 it was credited with over 371 combat saves.
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 auxillary fuel tanks. The tanks were needed to increase the range of the first Air Force 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 SOS as the first dedicated special operations helicopter unit in the Vietnam War, flying UH-1 F/P Huey.
Another SOF helicopter unit, the 21st SOS was established in Thailand flying the CH-3C “Charlies”. This foundation formed special operations helicopter tactics and doctrine which would be used well beyond the jungles of Southeast Asia, in the 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 AF helicopter history. Five HH-53’s and one HH-3E performed the Son Tay prison rescue attempt of American POW’s 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 AF requested the need for an integrated system 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 and low level capable to penetrate hostile territory.
On May 12, 1975, the 21st SOS, which had 10 CH-53Cs assigned in the same year, launched seven of these, along with five HH-53s from the 40th ARRS for the SS Mayaguez rescue. The Infil of over 230 forces on Koh Tang Island was to rescue 40 personnel that was discovered not on the island, however, 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 and crashed, killing the 5 crewmembers and 18 security policemen that were on-board.
One of the 21st SOS choppers experienced a catastrophic sleeve and spindle failure just minutes after takeoff and crashed, killing the 5 crewmembers 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 chopper.. That made for a total of 9 of the 10 choppers assigned to the 21st SOS. 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 Vandegeer, H-53 pilot, was one of the losses and is the last name imprinted on the Vietnam memorial wall.
The 40th ARRS and the 21st SOS also participated in the evacuation of Phnom Penh Cambodia and the evacuation of Saigon in 1975.
The original eight HH-53H's were the very first Air Force PAVE LOW helicopters. All the remaining H-53's (B/C/H) were upgraded to J-model standards. They rolled out in the late 70's and had the same basic radar but very different avionics. The J-model PAVEs solved many of the H model's problems and provded improved avionics. The same with the M-model upgrade which created a different cockpit than the J-model. The only external difference between an early J model PAVE and the H model PAVE is the IRCM pod on the sponsons. The H-model PAVE had a long tube looking thing for IRCM duties. The Air Force never flew the H model PAVE in combat.
In April 1974 the HH-53 modification program was signed, incorporating a radar and terrain following/avoidance avionics to the HH-53, called PAVE LOW III.
In May 1975 the first HH-53 “PAVE LOW”, tail number 66-14433, flew its first flight.
Under the Pave Low III program, the 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 41 MH-53J’s. The PAVE LOW III concept was expedited to 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.
The MH-53J, later modified to become MH-53M, would be the aircraft of choice to participate and lead the way during every conflict to follow, including Panama, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
The PAVE LOW and its crews lead the way for Army Apaches into Iraq beginning Operation DESERT STORM and performed the first combat search and rescue mission since Vietnam.
In 1999, the MH-53M performed rescue missions in Bosnia during Operation ALLIED FORCE, recovering survivors of Vega 31 and Hammer 34.
After September 11th, the PAVE LOW aided search efforts in New York and Washington D.C. She 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 have led the way for over forty one years and will stand 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 (YHH-53H 66-14433) - The first aircraft to be fitted with PL 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 - 1 HH-53C converted to YHH-53H, 8 plus 2 HH-53G converted to HH-53H, MH-53H Pave Low, 1975, 1979/1980, and the remaining 31 HH-53B/C to MH-53J Pave Low IIIE (E = Enhanced), 1985
PAVE LOW III - MH-53J
PAVE LOW IIIE (aka PL IV) - MH-53M