Rotor & Wing International

Hope for Air Force Rescue Helo

The U.S. Air Force may be gaining the leadership and institutional and congressional backing to finally field replacements for its fleet of combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters.

The general nominated to be the Air Force’s next chief of staff appreciates the need for rotorcraft fully capable of recovering personnel from behind enemy lines, two observers told R&WI.

In addition, Sikorsky and its parent company, Lockheed Martin, are making progress developing a new Air Force CSAR helicopter.

The service has a messy history of fielding new rotary-wing aircraft. It identified a need for a new CSAR helicopter to replace Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks in 1999. The -60G’s mission is to fly in hostile environments to recover isolated personnel in war. It also performs civil SAR, medical evacuation and disaster response, among other tasks. The active Air Force has 67, the Air National Guard 17 and the Air Force Reserve 15.

The U.S. Air Force recently performed a preliminary design review of the HH-60W next-generation CSAR helicopters.Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin

But efforts to develop a replacement stalled in the 2000s by contracting missteps, award protests and cancellation of its CSAR-X program. (Boeing’s CH-47 had been selected.)

In 2010, the Air Force planned to recapitalize and replenish its Pave Hawk fleet. Then two years later, the service issued a request for proposals for a new Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH). Bell Helicopter, Boeing, AgustaWestland and EADS withdrew from the competition, arguing the specifications favored Sikorsky’s H-60.

The Air Force in mid-2014 picked Sikorsky and L-M (which bought the former last November) to develop four new CSAR helos for $1.3 billion, with the intent to field 112 for $7.9 billion by 2029. Based on the U.S. Army’s UH-60M, the new aircraft is named the HH-60W. L-M is developing its mission planning and defensive systems, data links, mission computers and adverse weather sensors. It also is integrating CRH-unique subsystems.

Gen. David Goldfein’s nomination to succeed Gen. Mark Welsh as Air Force chief July 1 gives CSAR advocates hope. (The Senate was to consider confirming his nomination at press time.)

President and CEO Norton Schwartz of Business Executives for National Security in Washington said he believes Goldfein prioritizes rotary-wing aircraft enough to get CRH into service.

Goldfein graduated from the Air Force Weapons School. He is a command pilot with 4,200 flying hours in the L-M F-16C/D and F-117A and Beechcraft King Air-based MC-12W. He flew combat missions in the First Gulf War, Operation Allied Force over former Yugoslavia and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Lexington Institute think tank COO Loren Thompson agreed with Schwartz, noting that combat pilots want to be reassured that friendly forces will come to get them if they are shot down. “Having a way of retrieving downed pilots in combat probably figures as a high priority in [Goldfein’s] mental universe,” said Thompson.

Thompson concurred with Schwartz, that the Air Force can’t wait to replace the Pave Hawks. SAR “is one part of the fleet where if you don’t field the replacement, you might not be able to do the mission. To not have a rescue helicopter would be breaking faith with combat pilots.”

Schwartz noted some HH-60Gs are so old that he flew with them when serving in command positions at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in the 1990s.

The former chief said he believes CRH has the support from the Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and key committees on Capitol Hill. The best way to get CRH into service is to stick to the “traditional formula” of stable requirements and stable funding, he said, adding that failing to do so can drive costs up.

Moving the program forward also boosts support. The Air Force recently performed a preliminary design review of the HH-60W aircraft and logistics system with Sikorsky. The critical design review is set for June 2017, and plans call for Sikorsky to begin major assembly of the test aircraft in mid-2017.

The key deadline USAF and Sikorsky have is an initial operational capability goal of 2021. R&WI