The effectiveness with which World War II’s Air Commandos turned unconventional ideas into battlefield success has been held forth, rightfully so, as a classic example of what can be accomplished with imagination, common sense and a “can do” attitude.
By aggressively attacking enemy fortifications, transport, lines of communications, and in general making a nuisance of themselves to the Japanese command, the 1st Air Commando Group’s fighters, bombers and transports made possible British and American long range penetrations behind enemy lines.
In 1944 the Air Commandos went a step further with a gamble on something really strange, even by their standards.
At the time it was called simply, “Project 9.” When implemented in Burma the project went on to become another first in a series of Air Commando successes: The first ever combat employment of the helicopter.
Designated the YR-4B, the Sikorsky helicopter was short on speed, range, payload, and altitude and reliability, not to mention looks. The pilot and single passenger sat in front of a 180 horsepower engine and transmission supported by a fabric covered, skeleton type airframe. On a “good day” its wooden main rotor would lift it to a maximum ceiling of approximately 4,000 feet density altitude.
While the Pentagon resisted the temptation to schedule the Army Air Corps Band for the YR-4B’s official rollout, it did do something much more important. It sent the helicopter to . . . you guessed it . . . the Air Commandos.
To fly the YR-4B, the designer of the aircraft. Igor Sikorsky sent his nephew to handpick eight pilot candidates for training from a group of Army Air Corps volunteers. The remaining four pilot graduates, with four YR-4Bs and four mechanics, were sent to the Burma-India Theater for their baptism of fire.
The four helicopters and crews arrived in Lalaghat, India, near the Burma-India border in April, 1944, for their big moment. Within 30 days only one remained operational due to a series of crashes and mechanical failures.
The remaining pilot, Lt. Carter Harman, flew solo 600 miles to a secret base in central Burma. Secret to the Japanese commander at least, who didn’t know the commando base was operating 30 miles behind his front lines. Harman’s next flight took him still further into Japanese-controlled territory and into the history books as well.
The mission that had brought Harman so far was the rescue of a downed American pilot and the three wounded British soldiers he had been flying back to friendly lines when his L-l aircraft had gone down. With no airstrip or friendly troops near the rescue site, the Air Commando leader Col. Phil Cochran gambled on the unproven helicopter. There were however, some very good arguments to be made against his decision.
Burma’s excessive heat and humidity so limited the YR-4B that Harman could barely hover with only himself on board. When tasked to rescue the isolated group, the easy part was figuring that four separate flights were needed. But how to get a survivor on board even if he got to the site?
Harman used a technique familiar to many of today’s helicopter pilots who have survived similar situations. By jerking the vertical lift controls he could get the helicopter to pop momentarily into the air. By quickly but gently nosing the aircraft forward from the top of this “pop-up,” he stood a fair chance of getting sufficient forward speed and airlift to flyaway. If he didn’t hit the ground and explode first. Fortunately for a lot of people, Harman’s “field expedient” take-off was successful.
With a useful payload of only 500 lbs after the auxiliary fuel tank had been mounted, Harman took two days to complete the four rescue missions. The downed L-l pilot later reported that seeing the YR-4B drop down from the sky was “like seeing an angel” coming to his rescue.
Colonel Cochran had witnessed the rescue, observing later “We want people to know it’s not just a stunt. It really works. Just imagine what we could do with a couple hundred of them.”
In the ensuing weeks, other helicopters went on to save 18 additional lives.
The Air Commando willingness to try something different, Harman’s flying skills and courage, and the required dose of good luck all combined to underscore again, 50 years later, what can be done when “accomplishing the mission” is the paramount consideration.
The 1st Air Commando Group, the first helicopter combat rescue mission.
by Col. Mike Haas, USAF Special Operations School