Kaman’s Huskie: An Early First Responder

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Kaman’s H-43 Huskie helicopter was designed shortly after World War II, and served American military branches through the mid-1970s.  Training and utility roles came first, but the important service of aircrew rescue for the U.S. Air Force stands out, especially during the early 1960s through the end of the Viet Nam war.  The HH-43 enabled the USAF’s Air Rescue Service to carry out its motto “That Others May Live” almost daily in Viet Nam.  In fact, Huskies were involved with more Air Force rescues in Southeast Asia than any other helicopter type.

Charles Kaman formed Kaman Aircraft Corporation in Connecticut shortly after the end of World War II.  His original K-125A test bed helicopter first flew in January, 1947; it featured a pair of intermeshing sets of wooden rotor blades that were warped by outboard flaps.  A series of subsequent test airframes were produced, including several advanced K-225 variants. In 1951, a Boeing 502 turbine engine was fitted to a K-225, and the world’s first turbine helicopter took to the air.

Earlier in 1949, two K-225s were bought by the U.S. Navy for testing, and soon the production of Navy HTK-1 (training) and HUK-1 (utility) helicopters, and Marine Corps HOK-1 (observation) versions was initiated.  These early variants were powered by Pratt and Whitney R-1340 Wasp radial engines, the same basic engine that powered the T-6/SNJ trainer.  The helicopters contained the control and engine designs of the K-225, but were housed in a boxy, utilitarian airframe.

In the early 1950s, Air Force statistics showed that 80 percent of its aircraft crashes occurred within 20 miles of an air base.  In response, the Local Base Rescue (LBR) helicopter program was initiated.  An order for 18 H-43A Huskies, similar to the Navy’s HUK-1 utility version, was signed in 1952.  It called for a short-ranged helicopter with a number of firefighting and rescue tools at its disposal.

After an HOK-1 test bed was fitted with an experimental Avco Lycoming T-53 turbine engine, the Air Force realized that the improved performance and utility would benefit the LBR program and ordered a pair of turbine-powered versions of the Huskie.  The redesignated HH-43B was slightly larger than the original H–43A, and first flew in December of 1958.  Up to 8 passengers could be seated in the boxy rear section of the fuselage, which was enlarged because the engine was now positioned on top of the fuselage, not in the rear.  Later, the ultimate Huskie was built; the HH-43F had improved “hot and high” performance, armor plating, and seating for up to 11 people in the rear compartment.  Almost 200 -B and -H Huskies were manufactured.

The U.S. Air Force and a number of foreign countries (Burma, Columbia, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, and Thailand) operated these turbine-powered versions.  During the 1960s and 70s, HH-43B and –F helicopters guarded Air Force bases across the globe.  Besides their LBR commitment, these helicopters and their crews were called upon for civilian rescue and medivac flights near their bases.  Sometimes the helicopters even assisted in completing base engineering projects, acting as “skycranes”.

Specialized rescue equipment included the detachable Fire Suppression Kit (FSK), a half-ton, skid-mounted package that held a tank filled with 83 gallons of water and foam concentrate.  Immediately after liftoff the FSK was hitched to the belly of a Huskie by a cable, flown to the remote location and detached.  When the water and foam concentrate was mixed and released into the air, it expanded into a full 690 gallons of fire suppressive foam.  The FSK wasn’t designed to quench a full-blown fire, but to enable firefighters to suppress a corridor of flames to enable the rescue of crew members.

A Huskie could carry a pilot, copilot and engineer, plus up to three firefighters and medics who would deplane near a crash along with their FSK, and begin rescue operations at the scene.  The Huskie’s unique intermeshing rotor system produced a strong downdraft; this was used by pilots to push flames, smoke and heat away from the firefighters and crash victims until a rescue was accomplished. A winch system was fitted for lifting survivors into the helicopter as well as for inserting and retrieving rescuers.

During the 1960s and 70s, 100 Air Rescue Service detachments, consisting of pairs of HH-43B and –F helicopters and their crews, guarded Air Force bases across the globe.  Fourteen detachments in Southeast Asia were heavily tasked.  The HH-43’s ability to rapidly respond to an incident was one of its greatest assets.  Sources cite a scramble capability of 90 seconds from engine start to liftoff, but stories from its’ Southeast Asia combat deployments often describe scrambles in a minute or less.  Rescue times of less than 5 minutes from scramble to pickup at a base were not uncommon. Along the way, the static call sign of “Pedro” was assigned to HH-43s on rescue duty; hearing that name brought hope to aircrew in distress.

During the Viet Nam war, as combat damaged aircraft were forced down further from their bases, Pedro crews were called upon to provide combat search and rescue services farther away from their homes.  Due to the Huskie’s short 75 to 100 mile action radius, 55 gallon drums of extra fuel were sometimes carried (not by official sanction) to augment internal fuel for more distant missions.  The gray Air Force rescue color scheme gave way to camouflage colors, and defensive armament was unofficially carried too.  Innovations that provided rescue crews with increased safety and utility included the jungle penetrator, which aided the delivery of the rescue cable through thick jungle forest, and initial use of Nomex (fire retardant) flight suits.

Retired Major Lu Hallett flew the Air Force versions of the Huskie for more than 2200 hours.  Originally an F-94 Starfire navigator, he transitioned into pilot training and went to the helicopter community after learning that there weren’t any fighter assignments available after he graduated.  He flew the turbine versions of the HH-43 at the Air Force bases at Otis MA, Pease NH, Plattsburg NY, Paine WA and Goose Bay Labrador. He went on to fly 108 missions in Viet Nam in HH-53B Jolly Greens too.

Lu appreciated the Huskie’s low disk loading afforded by the twin intermeshing rotor system design.  This improved high altitude performance, but more importantly enabled a low altitude maneuvering capability during autorotation (a unpowered forced landing) almost unheard of in helicopters of that era.  Lu recollected where he’d descend in a normal manner during an autorotation until 100 feet above the ground… when “I’d give it a good pull, and actually have two or three seconds of hover”.  These few seconds offered a rare last chance for some lateral control, good for avoiding tree stumps, a fence post, or other obstacles before settling on the ground.  He made a pair of successful autorotations in the Huskie during his Air Force career.

Training flights in the Huskie could last for two hours but normally not more than one and a half.    Crews often trained together at a fire simulator, which contained a large metal simulated aircraft  (or even a discarded airframe), and a pit for flaming fuel.  The firefighters and FSK were deployed, and the pilot used the helicopter’s rotor downwash to push away heat and flames. Sometimes the training got quite realistic; Lu remembers having the lower part of his Plexiglas windscreen begin to melt as he fought the flames during a fire suppression training flight.

Operating in cold weather could be challenge for the Huskie and her crews.  Bases in Germany, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the northern U.S. forced crews to fight the environment as well as fires and other challenges of rescue work.  Lu said that the heaters installed in their helicopters didn’t work well, and they’d bundle up in bulky clothing that would barely allow them to fit into their seats and operate their helicopter’s controls.   As the rotor blades were wooden, tape and fabric were attached to the leading edge to guard against damage from snow, ice and even rain.

In Viet Nam, the LBR mission was the key to saving many pilots and crewmembers from damaged aircraft after they limped back to the vicinity of an air base.  Often, a pilot would declare an emergency many miles away.  Pedro would be scrambled, and would fly towards, or hover a short distance away from the runway, awaiting the inbound casualty.  Rapid accident response was attained if the damaged aircraft ran off a runway, or the aircrew ended up abandoning their aircraft before reaching the base.   Accidents on departure were dangerous too.  Fully loaded fighters and bombers raced down a runway in tropical heat… operating at the limits of controlled flight.  In 1969, Pedro70 and all but one of her crew was lost after a fully loaded B-52 at Thailand’s U-Tapao air base failed to get airborne and overran the runway end.  As the crew hovered near the wreckage, the helicopter was suddenly slammed to the ground as the Stratofortress exploded in a flash.

For combat search and rescue flights further away from a base, the FSK and airborne firefighters would not be carried, but a pair of Air Force Pararescue Jumpers (better known as PJs) would be boarded.  Since the Huskies were usually based in pairs, two helicopters would fly on longer-ranged search and rescue missions if the second helicopter was available.  This redundancy was invaluable if there was a maintenance abort, or combat damage to the primary rescue helicopter rendered it unusable.

Many times a downed pilot hid deep in a forest and outside of visual range of the helicopters. Radio contact was made, and security checks completed to insure a trap wasn’t set for the rescuers.  One could use the Direction Finding (DF) equipment aboard Pedro, or they’d fly back and forth while the soon-to-be-rescued aircrew member on the ground relayed whether the sound of the helicopter was increasing or decreasing.  When located, one PJ would be sent down through the forest canopy via the hoist and jungle penetrator (which unfolded into a sort of multi-seat bench), render first aid if needed, and the pair would be hoisted up into the HH-43 as it hovered above the trees.  The awards for gallantry while under fire earned by HH-43 crew members were numerous, and cost a high price.  HH-43 PJ William Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during an extended rescue mission.  At least 12 Huskie airframes and unfortunately, a number of Air Force Rescue crew were lost in the line of duty.

As the Viet Nam war wound down, other helicopters took over the combat search and rescue role, and the LBR mission was phased out by the late 1970s.    After the war, the U.S. military quickly phased out the short ranged Huskies, and while some airframes made it into civilian hands, most were scrapped.

Today, there are a handful of Huskies and their FSKs found in museums, but only a few that are still airworthy. One big factor for the demise of the helicopter’s flying career was its wooden rotor blades, which were difficult to maintain over time.  A pair of HH-43s were recently hauling timber in the Pacific Northwest, but their airworthiness was in doubt by early 2014.  The Olympic Flight Museum of Olympia WA still flies its Huskie on occasion, and Kaman still has a pair of Huskies in service based in Bloomfield CT, where they fly irregularly as assets for K-MAX pilot training.

Kaman’s Huskie was once the most prolific and successful rescue helicopter in the U. S. Air Force.  The aircraft wasn’t glamorous, and her crews were often unsung heroes.  The LBR mission was phased out long ago, but hundreds of military and civilian lives were saved while this team stood watch during the 1960s and 70s.  The Huskie’s limitations of having short legs and limited armament and armor have been addressed by new generations of rotary and tilt-rotor search and rescue aircraft.   The HH-43 was an important tool that allowed Air Force rescuers to ply their heroic work so “that others may live”.

Special thanks to Major Lu Hallett for taking the time to describe some of his helicopter experiences, I can’t wait to hear more of them!  Photo credits include photos courtesy of the Ramsay Research Library, New England Air Museum (NEAM collection), and the U.S. Air Force and the National Museum of the United States Air Force archives.


Ken Kula

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