GEAR & TECH

The Chinook could have been a search and rescue legend

Search-and-rescue choppers have become legendary. Remember the Jolly Green Giants and Pave Hawks? Well, it turns out that there was another helicopter that almost joined those two in fame. Why it didn't make it? Well, it's a long story — and it had nothing to do with the chopper's performance.


The Air Force had been looking to replace their search and rescue helicopter, the HH-60G Pave Hawk, in the 2000s. The program even had a name — Combat Search and Rescue, or CSAR-X. Three designs competed for that contract, one from Lockheed (based on the EH-101 helicopter, also used then as the basis for a Marine One replacement), one from Sikorsky (based on the S-92), and one from Boeing (the HH-47, based on the MH-47G, a special ops version of the CH-47F Chinook).

An Army CH-47 helicopter attached to the 159th Aviation Regiment lifts a Naval Special Warfare 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) during a maritime external air transporation system training exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robyn Gerstenslager)

Boeing's HH-47 won the contract, but Lockheed and Sikorsky protested the decision. Such protests aren't exactly unusual  — the recent M17/M18 handgun contract drew a protest from the loser of that competition, too. Unlike the protest over the M17/M18, however, the Government Accountability Office upheld the protests and forced a re-do.

Well, the HH-47 won again. That's when the politicians, including Senator John McCain, stepped in. All in all, the CSAR-X program never had a chance to get off the ground. In 2009, the HH-47 was cancelled by the Obama Administration. In 2013, the new Combat Rescue Helicopter program picked a joint Lockheed-Sikorsky design, the HH-60W, as a winner after other companies declined to bid.

Artist's impression of Sikorsky's HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter (Graphic from Lockheed Martin)

Did the Air Force miss out on a better helicopter due to the political maneuverings of the CSAR-X competition losers? A look at the specs on paper indicates the HH-47 would have offered higher speed, more range, and more capacity to evacuate wounded personnel. But by sticking with a version of the HH-60, however, the Air Force will not have to make major changes to logistics systems training programs. Much of this is speculation, however, as both Lockheed and Sikorsky reps declined to comment for this piece.

Interestingly enough, the South Korean Air Force uses a modified version of the CH-47D Chinook as a search and rescue platform, an aircraft very similar to the contract-winning HH-47. One has to wonder what it could have done in the hands of the United States Air Force.