When people think about special operations helicopters, the specialized, stealthy Blackhawk that was used on the raid to take out Osama bin Laden comes to mind. One might even think of the MH-47D, a variant of the Chinook that was upgraded with several tools to better handle the special operations mission. But one helicopter dominated in the 1980s — not just the special operations side of things, but also in search-and-rescue. The helicopter was the HH-53 Pave Low.
While the Pave Low did kick some serious ass — in Panama during Operation Just Cause, during Desert Storm, over the Balkans, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom — most of its combat experience comes from a time when they weren’t “Pave Lows.”
It was during another war — one where these birds went in on missions — that they became legendary.
The Pave Lows were originally known as Super Jolly Green Giants, helicopters the Air Force used during the Vietnam War to rescue downed pilots. These choppers were given some extra guns (either M2 .50-caliber machine guns or 7.62mm M134 miniguns – the latter providing kind of a mini-BRRRRRT) for self defense, supplemented by armor to provide added protection from enemy fire.
A relatively small amount of these helicopters were built — a total of 72 airframes for the Super Jolly Green Giant mission were constructed. In 1980, when it came time to make the Pave Lows, a total of 41 were produced. Initially, the Pave Low helicopters were slated to exclusively handle the combat search-and-rescue mission, but that was before Operation Eagle Claw.
In the wake of the Desert One debacle, Pave Lows were moved over to Special Operations Command. Special operations troops needed more capable helicopters with crews that were just as well trained as the operators who went in, and the Pave Lows had the gear to do the job.
The Pave Low helicopters had impressive electronic suites — terrain-following radar, global positioning system, communications gear, and forward-looking infrared sensors — which allowed it to make long flights. In fact, while the AH-64 Apache was the star of Task Force Normandy, an Air Force Pave Low was the pathfinder for the mission. The Pave Lows retired in 2008 after decades of honorable service.
Learn more about this legendary helicopter in the video below.