search and rescue helicopters
Harmon (standing, on the left) performed the first helicopter evacuation
in a combat zone on April 25, 1944, in the highlands of Northern Burma.
helicopter first demonstrated its superiority over conventional
fixed-wing aircraft for search and rescue missions during World War II. A
Sikorsky R-4 helicopter showed that it
had a definite military role when was used in April 1944, in a dramatic
rescue of three downed airmen in the steamy jungles of Burma. However,
because the R-4 was so low-powered, and the heat and humidity reduced its
performance even more, the pilot could evacuate only one airman at a time.
The R-4 was also used in other missions, such as observation. In China
during the final months of the war, Sikorsky R-6As provided search and
rescue services. Later, in November 1945, an Army R-5 helicopter was used
to rescue two men off a stranded oil barge in a storm. In spite of their
limitations, military leaders soon realized that helicopters were ideal
for searching for downed airmen and for sailors stranded at sea as well as
for civilians, although bigger helicopters with greater internal capacity
and more powerful engines were needed.
Sikorsky R-6As attached to the 14th Air Force provided essential search
and rescue services
for aircraft crossing the "Hump" into China during the final months of
World War II.
In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force pressed
the Piasecki H-21 Flying Banana into service as a search and rescue
helicopter. Its primary advantage was its ability to rescue more than one
person at a time. The U.S. Navy used the Sikorsky H-19 and H-34 in the
search and rescue role, but these piston-powered aircraft lacked the
horsepower required for this mission, although the H-19 was used
successfully by the Air Force to retrieve thousands of downed aircrew and
other United Nations personnel during the Korean War.
The major advance in search and rescue
capabilities occurred in 1962, with the introduction of the Sikorsky HSS-2
Sea King, soon redesignated the SH-3A. For three decades, the Navy used
large numbers of SH-3s for submarine hunting from aircraft carriers and
also for "plane guard" duties during flight operations. Usually, a Sea
King would hover alongside the carrier. If a pilot crashed during takeoff
or landing, the helicopter would be ready to winch the pilot out of the
water. Sea Kings were also used to rescue downed airmen over land and
during the Vietnam War, when the Navy equipped them with guns.
Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King has been used for search and rescue missions since
the early 1960s.
Soon after the SH-3 entered service with
the Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard procured the similar single-engine Sikorsky
HH-52A and in 1968, the longer-ranged Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican to conduct
rescues off the coasts of the United States. The Coast Guard helicopters
could even be refuelled by Coast Guard cutters at sea to increase their
endurance; while hovering over the stern of the ship, they hauled a fuel
line up and connected it, refilling their tanks without landing.
In late 1963, the U.S. Air Force took
delivery of the first Sikorsky CH-3C Jolly Green Giant helicopter. The
Jolly Green Giant became the primary search and rescue helicopter for the
Air Force during the Vietnam War. It was eventually equipped with bigger
fuel tanks to enable it to travel deep into North Vietnam to retrieve
downed airmen. It was viewed as a rescuing angel by many pilots trapped
deep within enemy territory.
Sikorsky CH-3E Jolly Green Giant was an updated CH-3C, which first saw
service in Vietnam in 1963.
The most important requirement for a
search and rescue helicopter, in addition to long range, is its ability to
mount a strong winch, or hoist, so the person being rescued can be lifted
to safety. This is necessary because usually the helicopter cannot land.
The downed pilot or injured hiker may be in a heavily wooded area and may
need to be lifted out through the trees, or sailors have to be lifted off
the pitching decks of sinking ships in bad storms.
The winch is usually connected to a long
cable—up to 300 feet (91 meters)—carrying either a horse-collar rescue
sling, a rescue basket, or a stretcher. The sling is passed under the arms
of the person being rescued and is generally the easiest form of rescue
equipment to operate because it can be lowered quickly and is easy to
manoeuvre through the door of the helicopter. In Vietnam, for some military
rescues, a special heavy metal cone-like "canopy penetrator" was used to
lower the sling through the tree branches. But the sling cannot be used if
the person being rescued is injured since often the person might be too
exhausted to put the sling on. In this case, a rescue basket is sometimes
used. The person climbs into the basket, which is then lifted to the
helicopter. A stretcher is used if the person is injured and either cannot
move or needs to be immobilized. Both the rescue basket and stretcher are
hard to manoeuvre into the door of the helicopter, and they take up more
UH-1D was used by the Luftwaffe as a search and rescue aircraft.
Early search and rescue helicopters
often were equipped with little more than a rescue hoist. Military search
and rescue helicopters, such as the SH-3 and the Jolly Green Giant,
however, were usually armed with a door gunner who used an M-60 machine
gun or other weapon to suppress the enemy. Basic first-aid equipment was
also carried, and the helicopters were equipped with marking and
devices such as smoke bombs and powerful dyes to stain the water near a
floating sailor. Spotlights were often mounted for night rescues.
By the 1980s, search and rescue aircraft
began mounting sophisticated sensors such as night vision and thermal
imaging equipment. Forward-Looking Infrared or FLIR (pronounced "fleer")
systems enabled a pilot to see a warm human against a colder background,
possibly even spotting a person in a forest.
Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation systems were
also mounted in the 1990s, enabling a helicopter to quickly find the
location of a stricken vessel. Many military airmen were also equipped
with GPS receivers so that they could provide their precise location to
rescue aircraft. Civilian sailors and pilots often use a special satellite
system that relays their distress signals to authorities.
modified version of the Sikorsky CH-53 Stallion heavy lift helicopter
was used to rescue downed F-16 pilot Scott O'Grady in Bosnia in 1995.
Beginning in the 1980s, the Navy and the
Coast Guard replaced their helicopters with variants of the popular and
versatile Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk
helicopter, known as the H-60 in military service. Some state National
Guard units use these same helicopters in the search and rescue role and
often perform the same missions as the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard also
uses a smaller helicopter, known as the short-ranged Aérospatiale HH-65A
Dolphin. Navy SH-3s have since been adopted by some local police forces
for use in rescue work.
In December 2000, a particularly
dramatic rescue took place in the stormy Atlantic Ocean 200 miles (322
kilometres) off the coast of Virginia. The cruise liner
SeaBreaze I suffered an engine
failure in the storm and soon began taking on water. Two Coast Guard
HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters were dispatched to the scene. One helicopter
rescued 26 crewmembers and the other rescued the remaining eight. The
helicopter with the 26 rescued sailors aboard, combined with its own four
crewmen, set a new record for the most people aboard a single H-60.
The Air Force also uses the H-60 in the
search and rescue mode and occasionally uses special operations versions
of the Sikorsky CH-53 Stallion heavy-lift
helicopter in the rescue role. Today, heavily modified versions of
the CH-53 are used for this mission. Equipped with the latest in
navigation and sensor gear, they can fly deep behind enemy lines to rescue
downed airmen. They were used to rescue pilots in the Persian Gulf War, to
rescue F-16 pilot Scott O'Grady when he was shot down over Bosnia in 1995,
and presumably, to rescue a downed F-117 stealth fighter pilot in
Yugoslavia in 1999.