Helicopters in the U.S. Air Force

  • Published
  • By Mr. Christopher McCune
  • 460th Space Wing Historian

When most people think of the Air Force, their first vision tends to be of sleek fighter planes or powerful bombers.  Although not as famous, helicopters have been an important aircraft in the service’s history and been involved in some of its most heroic moments.

Although the concept of a rotary-lift aircraft goes back as far as Leonardo da Vinci’s “air screw” during the European Renaissance, helicopter technology in the first half of the 20th century was relatively primitive in comparison to its more rapidly developing fixed-wing counterparts.  Ukrainian engineer Igor Sikorsky is credited with designing the first true helicopter in 1909, although the first flight did not actually take place until October 1930 by an Italian officer named Maj. Marinello Nelli.  Sikorsky did not achieve his first helicopter flight until May 1940.  The Germans also experimented with helicopters prior to World War II, but it was the British who became the first nation to use the helicopter in combat during this era, flying R-4 “Hoverfly” aircraft. 

For the most part, the helicopter was sparingly used in World War II, being limited mostly to air reconnaissance duties and the occasional supply drop, with one notable exception.  The first helicopter combat search-and-rescue operation took place on 25 April 1944, when Lt. Carter Harman of the 1st Air Commando Group recovered four men from a jungle in Burma.  Lt. Harman’s rescue demonstrated the capability of the helicopter as a combat asset, but it wasn’t until the Korean War from 1950-53 that the platform finally came into its own.  The country’s rugged terrain and limited infrastructure of paved roads made transportation via automobile and truck a difficult task, particularly for the evacuation of wounded soldiers.  Helicopters proved ideal for providing rapid transport of the wounded to field hospitals for treatment, a task that was cemented in America’s popular imagination with the television series M*A*S*H, whose opening credits show Army medics receiving wounded soldiers from an OH-13 “Sioux.”  The helicopter’s role as a search-and-rescue vehicle also expanded during this period, particularly after the introduction of the H-19—the 3rd Air Rescue Group alone, for example, rescued nearly 10,000 United Nations personnel, including 1,000 from behind enemy lines and 200 water rescues.

By the time the United States entered the Vietnam conflict, the helicopter had become a critical aviation component for the Air Force and the country’s armed forces, providing a versatile weapon system at a relatively affordable cost.  Helicopters such as the AH-1 “Cobra” and UH-1 “Iroquois,” known colloquially as the “Huey,” provided battlefield attack, troop transport, and evacuation capabilities, while the H-43 “Huskie,” H-3 “Jolly Green Giant,” and HH-53 “Super Jolly Green Giant” were employed as search-and-rescue vehicles.  The Huey in particular, with its distinctive “whomp-whomp-whomp” engine sound, became an iconic representation of the war as nightly news reports were broadcast in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

 Following the 1973 Paris Peace Accords and the end of the US’s involvement in Vietnam, the Air Force continued to evolve the capabilities of its helicopter fleet, focusing the platform on evacuation and combat search and rescue (now known as “personnel recovery”) capabilities.  New variants such as the MH-53 “Pave Low” and HH-60 “Pave Hawk” were activated in the fleet in 1980 and 1982, respectively.  Although the Pave Low was retired in 2008, the Pave Hawk and the Huey continue to serve as workhorses, with recapitalization efforts planned for the former to improve its capabilities, while the Huey provides distinguished visitor airlift, missile security, and support for survival school and undergraduate pilot training.  The Air Force’s employment of the helicopter through the decades has shown its ability to innovate and adapt to the ever-changing needs for the defense of the nation.