As the hunt continues for that missing F-16 pilot in Iraq, the Air Force has made a decision that will have a major impact on future search-and-rescue (SAR) missions. Earlier this month, the service announced that it will begin replacing its inventory of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters in 2009 with a new variant of the venerable HH-47 Chinook. The Pave Hawk has been the Air Force's primary SAR helicopter since the late 1980s. Current plans call for the service to buy 140 HH-47s over the next 12 years, as the HH-60s are phased out.
Ironically, Boeing (which builds the HH-47) was a late entrant in the competition to build the next-generation CSAR helicopter, also referred to as the CSAR-X program. Prior to Boeing's entry, the Air Force was considering the US101 helicopter (built by Lockheed-Martin/August-Westland), and the Sikorsky-designed HH-92. At the time of Boeing's submission, a spokeman told Jane's Defence Weekly that the company decided to enter the competition because the Air Force had lowered certain performance standards (including aircraft speed) to make the HH-47 eligible.
In the end, the Chinook's large internal cabin, superior lift capability and ready availability gave it the edge over competitors. The CSAR-X chopper will be similar in performance to special operations Chinooks already in service (MH-47Es), allowing the Air Force to leverage existing production facilities and U.S. Army parts inventories. According to Jane's, the Army has also expressed interest in incorporating more advanced technology that will be integrated into upgraded variants of the CSAR-X. The Air Force hopes to buy at least 36 of the advanced models (Block 10 aircraft), after purchasing 105 HH-47s in the baseline (Block 0) design. The HH-47s will be built at the same Boeing factory that now produces special ops variants of the Chinook.
With the ability to carry up to 44 troops (or, for CSAR missions, a combination of pararescuemen, combat controllers, medical teams and equipment), the HH-47 offers a greatly improved transport capability over the Pave Hawk. The Air Force's selection of the hassive Chinook reflects the service's long-standing frustration with the Pave Hawk, which has state-of-the art avionics and self-defense systems, but only a modest lift capability. In addition to its normal CSAR crew of five (pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and two pararescuemen), the HH-60 can only carry a handful of additional personnel, meaning that you may need more choppers to execute the mission. The Pave Hawk airframes are also approaching the end of their service life, another factor that prompted the search for a new CSAR platform.
The decision to retire the Pave Hawks may be a case of the service addressing concerns from its search-and-rescue professionals. When the Air Force decided to acquire the HH-60 more than two decades ago, more than a few rescue pilots, flight engineers and PJs pointed out that the new aircraft lacked the range and lift capability of other helicopters, notably the HH-53 and the CH-47. But, with the UH-60 Blackhawk entering wide service with the U.S. Army, the Air Force elected to buy the Pave Hawk, a decision that's been regretted (among some CSAR crews) ever since. It wouldn't be fair to call the Pave Hawk a mistake; the aircraft and its crews have performed superbly over the past 20 years, often under the most demanding conditions. But, by replacing the HH-60 with the HH-47, the Air Force seems to be acknowledging that it could have made a better choice for the CSAR mission years ago.