MH-53 Pave Lows often worked in conjunction with MC-130H Combat Talon for navigation, communications and combat support
During the Vietnam War, the US Air Force ordered 72 HH-53B and HH-53C variants for Search and Rescue units. After the war, these helicopters were improved through the “Pave Low” program and became the MH-53, designed for special operations missions.
The new MH-53s featured a multitude of innovative systems, new engines and new rotors, which greatly increase the aircraft’s nighttime capabilities in all weather conditions. MH-53 was designed for long-range, low-altitude flights, and combat search and rescue, in an effort to support ground special forces on covert missions, extraction and resupply as needed – usually behind the enemy’s front lines. The U.S. Air Force’s MH-53J/M fleet was retired in September 2008.
MH-53 measures 88 ft (27 m) long, 25 ft (7.6 m) tall, 32,000 lb (14,515 kg) empty, and has a maximum take-off weight of up to 50,000 lb (23,000 kg). It powered by two General Electric T64-GE-100 turboshaft engines, with 4,330 shp (3,230 kW) each. MH-53 could reach a top speed of 170 kn (310 km/h), cruising speed at 150 kn (280 km/h), range of 600 nmi (1,100 km), can be extended with in-flight refueling, and the service ceiling was 16,000 ft (4,900 m).
Defensive suppression armament can consist of 3 x 7.62mm miniguns or 3 x 12.7mm heavy caliber machine guns. Onboard systems included GPS, inertial navigation and Forward-Looking InfraRed (FLIR) along with an APQ-158 terrain-following and avoidance radar. This allowed the MH-53 the ability to complete low-light, low-level, all-weather flights consistent with special forces operations. Improved armor protection for the crew and systems also greeted the design.
Five MH-53Js of the 20th Special Operations Squadron deployed to Panama as part of Operation Just Cause in December 1989. During the operation, MH-53Js conducted missions including reconnaissance, small team insertion, medivac, logistics, and fire support. The MH-53’s terrain-following and terrain-avoidance radar, along with GPS, enabled the helicopters to reach objectives other helicopters could not.
The MH-53 Pave Low’s last mission was on 27 September 2008, when the remaining six helicopters flew in support of special operations forces in Southwest Asia. These MH-53Ms were retired shortly thereafter and replaced with the V-22 Osprey.