Travis County STAR Flight, military-to-civilian transition, CBP’s Yuma Air Branch, the Sikorsky HH-60W program, & more!
Even if you love helicopters, you might not know much about two U.S. Navy helicopter squadrons that go by the names of “Red Wolves” and “Firehawks.” However, if you were a Navy SEAL or other special operator over the last 30 years, either of them might have come to your aid in a faraway place.
The Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC-84) Red Wolves and HSC-85 Firehawks are U.S. Navy Reserve helicopter squadrons tasked with supporting special operations and combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) missions. Both are direct descendants of two legendary Vietnam-era helicopter squadrons: the Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) Three or HA(L)-3 “Seawolves,” and Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Seven (HC-7) “Sea Devils.”
Formed in April 1967, HA(L)-3 was equipped with several different Bell UH-1 Huey variants and flew thousands of missions in Southeast Asia’s marshy lowlands and rivers, protecting the boat-equipped naval riverine forces. Many of these missions involved the interdiction and attack of enemy junks, and other boats carrying weapons and supplies to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. HA(L)-3 also provided aerial support for SEAL teams and demolition units within the Navy.
The drawdown of combat operations in Vietnam brought an early end for the squadron. HA(L)-3 formally disestablished in March 1972 as the most decorated, combat-tested Navy aviation squadron in history. In the years that followed Vietnam, the Navy realized the need to preserve certain mission capabilities within the Navy Reserve. As a result, the Navy established two specialized light attack helicopter squadrons: the HAL-4 “Red Wolves” on the East Coast in 1976 and the HAL-5 “Bluehawks” on the West Coast in 1977. Both squadrons were equipped with weaponized and hoist-equipped Bell HH-1K Huey helicopters, and specialized in the insertion and extraction of Navy special operation teams and attack support.
The Sea Devils of HC-7 performed CSAR missions in Vietnam, utilizing a myriad of helicopter types including the Sikorsky H-3 Sea King, Kaman H-2 Sea Sprite, Boeing H-46, and even one Sikorsky H-34. The Sea Devils executed 150 successful combat rescues, earning over 500 combat decorations including the Congressional Medal of Honor for pilot LTjg Clyde Lassen in a daring night rescue flying a UH-2A. Similar to the fate of HAL-3, HC-7 was disestablished in June 1975, transferring combat-tested HH-3A “Big Mother” aircraft to newly formed Navy reserve strike rescue squadron Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Nine (HC-9).
By the 1980s, the HH-1K and HH-3A were both long of tooth and not able to do the longer range, hot-and-high missions the Navy was requiring. Meanwhile, the Navy had been flying the Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk since 1983, and was very satisfied with its performance.
In the mid-’80s, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) began looking for a replacement for its aging Sikorsky HH-3F SAR helicopter, and the Navy for a new long-range special operations and CSAR helicopter to replace its HH-3As. In September 1986, Sikorsky was awarded a contract for an initial five helicopters based on the SH-60F anti-submarine warfare (ASW) version then in development. Dubbed the “Rescue Hawk,” the HH-60H was then validated as an urgent requirement for personnel recovery, anti-surface warfare (ASUW) and CSAR in support of carrier-based strike operations.
The Navy and USCG decided to procure this long-range SAR helicopter with similar characteristics to keep the overall costs down. The Navy would procure the HH-60H, while the USCG would procure a variant called the HH-60J. The airframes were virtually identical, featuring unique double sliding windows on the left side, a sliding door on the right, and a large internal fuel capacity. The USCG version would carry three external fuel tanks, while the Navy version would carry two, with the left tank mount adapted as a weapons wing.
The HH-60H made its first flight on Aug. 17, 1988, and after a smooth development process, deliveries of 42 aircraft began in 1989. In preparation for receipt of the type, HAL-4 and -5 formally redesignated as Helicopter Combat Support Special squadrons Four and Five, assuming the dual role of special operations and combat search-and-rescue. No longer in need of a dedicated CSAR squadron, Navy tasked HC-9 with training up newly minted “HCS” aircrews, before ultimately disestablishing the squadron in 1990.
The HH-60H achieved initial operating capability (IOC) in April 1990 with a standard crew of two pilots, a crew chief, and a gunner. When it entered service, the HH-60H carried various defensive features including a hover infrared suppression system (HIRSS) to minimize the heat signature and lower the threat from enemy heat-seeking missiles. During an major upgrade to the HH-60Hs in 1998, a mount was added to the nose to carry a laser designation capable AAS-44 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turret. At the same time, the HH-60H was modified to carry AGM-114K/N Hellfire missiles on the left wing using a four station M299 launcher.
The aircraft was initially configured with two window-mounted M-60D machine guns as well as one cabin-configured GAU-16 .50-cal machine gun. Later, the 7.62-mm M-240 replaced the M-60D in the crew-served weapon role, augmented by the 7.62-mm M134 GAU-17/A Minigun.
Aircraft survivability equipment included the ALQ-144 infrared jammer, AVR-2 laser detectors, APR-39 radar detectors, AAR-47 missile launch detectors, and ALE-47 chaff/flare dispensers (AVR-2 detectors were later deleted as laser detection capability was integrated into the APR-39A(V)2 system). Kevlar armor ballistic plates were added to the rear cabin floor to provide small arms protection, while Kevlar armor was added in the cockpit to protect the pilots.
“One advantage of the HH-60H was its large internal cargo space for gunners and our payload — SEAL teams, etc.,” recalled Kit Brown, a previous commanding officer of HSC-85 who has flown multiple versions of the Seahawk in operational, evaluation, combat, and testing situations. “We could keep it that way with the flexibility of two external auxiliary fuel tank stations. With these tanks, the range could be extended to five hours, or either could be removed to save weight.
“The self-defense capabilities were really cutting-edge at the time, and the Navy did fairly well to keep the airframe updated,” Brown continued. “The most effective weapon proved to be the GAU-17 .30-cal Miniguns. We found armed engagements with hostile troops to rarely last more than a dozen seconds, and given the limited amount of opportunity to engage, the rate of fire of those guns was paramount and very, very effective. The HH-60H had a robust suite of radios as well, allowing for critical communications with ground units, airborne units, and inter-flight communications.”
With the addition of the H model, the U.S. Navy had achieved the ability to protect the aircraft carrier against the ever-expanding enemy small boat and patrol vessel threat when transiting tight waterways and entering ports of call. Missions flown by the HH-60Hs with HS squadrons included not only personnel recovery, CSAR, and ASUW, but also special operations support, vertical replenishment, logistics, personnel transfer, airborne use of force, anti-piracy and more.
“Through the mid-1990s to 2015, the HH-60H was a mainstay with every carrier-based HS squadron,” recalled retired Maintenance Master Chief Jimmy Thompson, who served with Helicopter Training Squadron 10 (HS-10), which trained all Navy HH-60H pilots and aircrew from January 1990 until it was disestablished in July 2012.
“Each HS squadron was initially equipped with five SH-60F ASW Seahawks and two HH-60H Seahawks, but as further airframes were delivered to the fleet, in 1995 it was changed to three HH-60H aircraft,” Thompson continued. “Anti-surface warfare capabilities greatly increased with the addition of four AGM-114K/N Hellfire missiles attached to the helicopters’ left-hand extended wing pylon.”
According to Brown, “Unarguably, the HH-60H is a Naval workhorse and over time was modified based on real-world requirements after years of combat support operations. We operated the HH-60H at the extreme ends of the operating margins, routinely flying at max gross weights, but also flying at very high density altitudes, well in excess of 10,000 feet.”
Not long after obtaining IOC with HCS-4 and HCS-5, HH-60Hs deployed overseas to Saudi Arabia. By late December 1990, they were in place at Tabuk to participate in Operation Desert Shield and, soon after, Desert Storm under the call sign “Spike.” Because each unit was still training on the HH-60Hs, they combined forces to form two requested, two-plane detachments.
“Spike” worked closely with Saudi UH-1N SAR flights, with the UH-1Ns performing day visual flight rules (VFR) flights out to 125 miles, and the HH-60Hs ranging out to 210 miles at night using night vision goggles (NVGs). “Spike” Detachment flew 461 sorties and 750 flight hours, and was credited with some searches and a few rescues.
As one of the two squadrons in the U.S. Navy dedicated to Naval Special Warfare support and combat search-and-rescue, the HCS-5 Firehawks deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. HCS-4 arrived in early April to augment the Firehawks. Both squadrons completed 900 combat air missions and over 1,700 combat flight hours in three years. The majority of their flights in the Iraqi theater supported special operations ground forces missions.
In accordance with the Navy’s Helicopter Master Plan, HCS-5 received orders to redeploy home and prepare for disestablishment. The squadron ceased operations in 2006, and disestablished in December of that same year. HCS-4 assumed overall responsibility for the OIF Detachment, redesignating as HSC-84. The squadron would carry on in Iraq for five more years, accomplishing over 6,500 combat flight hours in support of special operations.
As a result of success enjoyed by the Red Wolves, the U.S. Navy decided to reestablish a West Coast special operations squadron. The fleet utility squadron HSC-85 “High Rollers” redesignated as “Firehawks” in June 2011, and exchanged Block 1 MH-60S airframes for the HH-60H. Again, less than four years later, both squadrons were directed to disestablish as a result of sequestration cost-saving efforts. Congressional intervention saved HSC-85, but HSC-84 did not share the same fate. The Red Wolves disestablished in March 2016 as the longest-deployed, most decorated Navy helicopter squadron since Vietnam.
The HH-60H also served others in combat, including the 2515th Navy Air Ambulance Detachment (NAAD). Formed in 2006 as a mixture of HSC-25 and HS-15 aircraft and personnel, the unit operated several Navy HH-60Hs out of Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Equipped with a litter management system and red cross markings, they performed missions into southern Iraq to provide airborne medical response in support of ground operations.
HCS-5 Firehawks Corpsman Greg Sanderson was already a highly trained Los Angeles Fire Department firefighter flight paramedic when he reported to the squadron in 2003 and subsequently deployed with the HH-60H to Iraq. He told Vertical 911, “The HH-60H was showing its age, but was still a very capable workhorse for the Navy and had plenty of endurance. Five-hour flights were normal as it could bag out to about 5,000 pounds of fuel, including the auxiliary tank mounted on the port sponson. I was always impressed with the incredible amount of firepower it could provide for close air support after we dropped off a special operations team. Typical configuration was left window M-240 and right door GAU-17. Using the short-travel pintle on the left, we could also carry Hellfire missiles mounted to the extended pylon. She was truly a gunship!”
Sanderson continued, “Due to the aircraft’s long loiter time, we used the HH-60H to provide top cover and close air support to our ground teams after insertions. We were also there to provide medical support and casualty evacuation. There were missions where other aircraft we were working with, such as the MH-53 Pave Low, would need to air refuel off a tanker while Army UH-60s would need to leave to get fuel. We stayed behind to continue covering the action, and [this] made for some very long flights lasting up to five hours in the HH-60H. This was hard on both the mind and body, but was also very satisfying knowing we were there for our guys.
“During night missions we used the FLIR with outstanding success. It worked great for finding the house or facility we were targeting and additionally for catching enemy ‘squirters’ as they tried to escape our team who were paying them a visit.”
Sanderson concluded, “I’ve worked with Bell 412s, Hueys, and AW139s in the fire department; all great helos. But the HH-60H is a true combat aircraft and extremely robust, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the greatest helicopter ever made.”
End of an era
Despite the H model’s impressive capabilities, as is the case for all aircraft, the time eventually came for its replacement. At that point, the Navy also wanted to streamline logistics, so the decision was made to replace the HH-60H with the MH-60S, the standard fleet logistics airframe.
Although the aircraft are very similar in appearance, the MH-60S is based on the UH-60L Black Hawk. It provides a number of improvements over the H model to include enhanced survivability, robust avionics and communication systems, and the larger cabin volume and double doors ideal for cargo and passenger transport, enabling troops to embark and disembark quickly for insertion/extraction.
The MH-60S also has the ability to increase range with the installation of internal Robertson fuel tanks, making the aircraft flexible in multiple mission areas. Meanwhile, a common glass cockpit with the MH-60R reduces costs and provides the ability for the models to work together exchanging tactical information in a hunter/killer littoral environment.
“The MH-60S has been serving the Navy well since 2002 and is now a proven and understood airframe. With a common glass cockpit design between the new MH-60S and MH-60R, both homeland and overseas support and upgrades would be much easier,” Brown explained.
“Having the tail wheel further aft, having the two large sliding doors, and the cavernous cabin like Army UH-60 airframes made the MH-60S a useful transport for the special operations and combat SAR missions. The drawback is if we need to go further some of the cabin space is sacrificed for removable internal fuel tanks. The MH-60 can carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, M240 machine guns and will be upgraded to the GAU-17 7.62-mm Miniguns soon.”
Brown admitted, “Change is often difficult to embrace, particularly for those of us set in our ways. The transition from the HH-60H to the MH-60S is no different. There will be plenty to miss not flying the HH-60H, but there is plenty to be excited about with the MH-60S and its long future in the Navy special operations world.”
Despite the type model change from the HH-60H to the newer MH-60S, at least one thing remains unchanged: the Navy has a very capable CSAR aircraft that will continue to provide advanced capabilities and be a true force multiplier to special forces.
“I have worked helicopters for nearly 30 years and specifically on the HH-60H for nearly 17 of those,” said Thompson. “To watch a piece of history retire brings a tear to my eye, but [I know] the legacy of the HH-60H is not forgotten as the MH-60S continues on carrying out the full spectrum of multiple warfare mission areas.”
HSC-85 officially ceased HH-60H operations in March 2019 and the “Hotel” will fly its last days with training squadron HSC-3 until its official “sundown” ceremony during May 2019. To say it has served its crews and country well is an understatement. After nearly 30 years of continuous combat service, no one can discuss everything that the HH-60H has done for the United States, but rest assured there are thousands of stories.
And its legacy of service is not yet over. While one or two may be saved for display in museums, the majority will transfer to the USCG. There, they will be converted into MH-60T “Tangos” and continue performing the demanding mission of long-range overwater search-and-rescue for the American people.