An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.



Kirtland AFB's MH-53J Pave Low -- a historic pioneer

  • Published
  • By Christopher McCune

The stretch of Aberdeen Avenue between Truman and Doris Streets, on the west side of Kirtland AFB, is home to several reminders of the Air Force's special operations and rescue heritage.

The 58th Special Operations Wing maintains several historic aircraft displays along this road, most of which the wing's mission predecessors acquired between 1977 and 1991. The most recent addition, which joined its airpark brethren in 2007, is the MH-53J Pave Low III, aircraft number 66-14433.

This aircraft holds a distinctive place in the Air Force's history, having served as the prototype for the Pave Low III program. The Pave Low concept first emerged during the Vietnam War, in response to a need for implementing a helicopter rescue platform capable of performing nighttime missions.

The Air Force awarded the initial development contract in 1968 to helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky to modify its CH-53A helicopters, which had just been placed into service. Designated first as the Pave Star and then Pave Imp, the initial modifications incorporated automatic flight-control systems and low-light-level televisions.

Concurrently, Military Airlift Command, which oversaw the Air Force's air rescue and recovery service, issued a required operational capability directive to produce an aircraft that outlined the operational needs of nighttime missions. The aircraft needed to possess "an integrated system to enable a rescue vehicle to perform search and rescue under conditions of total darkness and/or adverse weather," as well as "low-level capability to penetrate hostile territory against radar-directed weapons."

Cost overruns plagued the initial research and development phases. The fault primarily lay with the technological limitations of the LLLTVs. They were usable only in good weather, which rendered them unfit for the desired mission capability that MAC had outlined.

These problems compelled the Air Force to shift focus to terrain following/ terrain avoidance (TF/TA) radar technology instead. The inclusion of TF/TA radar into the platform became the basis for the Pave Low configuration in 1970.

As costs continued to rise, MAC, Air Force Logistics Command and Air Force Systems Command determined to develop a single prototype for testing. In 1974, at a cost of $3.2 million, the Pave Low III program was established. The question then became which H-53 to use as the "guinea pig."

The developers at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, decided to reconfigure an HH-53B "Super Jolly Green," serial number 66-14433. That helicopter had already seen combat duty in Southeast Asia, so its service and reliability record was well known.

On September 18, 1975, it was redesignated as an HH-53H for the duration of its testing period. From January to July 1976, and again from April 1978 to May 1980, #66-14433 conducted operational testing and evaluation at Kirtland AFB with the 1550th Aircrew Training and Test Wing. The rigorous tests covered everything from aerial refueling to night ingress and egress in all kinds of weather to rapid-deployment in a C-5 Galaxy.

The aircraft also participated in numerous Red Flag exercises to recover survivors in simulated high-threat scenarios, and helped pioneer tactics in the use of night-vision goggles for low-level flights.

In May 1980, the Air Force transferred #66-14433, along with eight other newly configured Pave Lows, to the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Although the commander of the 1st SOW initially did not want the Pave Lows, they quickly proved themselves as valuable assets and served there with distinction for several years, participating in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

As the Pave Low system underwent further modifications, 66-14433 was designated as an MH-53J in 1990, and returned to Kirtland AFB in May 1991. By then, the wing had been redesignated the 1550th Combat Crew Training Wing; it underwent another redesignation to the 542nd Crew Training Wing in November 1991, and finally the 58th Special Operations Wing in April 1994.

Although #66-14433 accomplished much during its time with the 1st SOW, it is appropriate that the aircraft returned to Kirtland to rejoin the 1550th, where its Pave Low training career began. During the remainder of its flying career, it served as a reliable training platform for special operations and rescue aircrews, until the last class of MH-53 students graduated in March 2007.

As the prototype for the Pave Low, #66-14433 achieved several milestones during its time at Kirtland. Along with other Pave Low-configured aircraft stationed at Kirtland in 1980, the helicopter assisted with the first Pave Low-credited rescues, as aircrews saved four lives between January and May of that year. It also became the first MH-53 to reach 10,000 flying hours, in November 1996. From December 1991 to May 2005, it participated in nine searches, with four saves credited, and contributed to the training of more than 750 Pave Low aircrew members.

In June 2007, #66-14433 was placed in its final resting spot among several other historic aircraft in the 58th SOW airpark. In a dedication ceremony, 58th SOW commander Colonel Morris "Eugene" Haase remarked that the aircraft represented "the heart of the 58th SOW -- the intertwined heritage of Air Force rescue and special operations." It now sits as a visible reminder of the special mission for which it was assigned, as well as the dedicated aircrews and maintainers who executed that mission.