Hornets stay “Semper Paratus” for past 30 years
by Jamie Haig
16th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Hornets stay “Semper Paratus” for past 30 years
by Jamie Haig
16th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
HURLBURT FLD, Fla. — Jan.1, 2006 marked the 30th anniversary of the 20th Special Operations Squadron.
Thirty years ago, the 20th Special Operations Squadron was re-activated here with only one helicopter, a shared trailer, the motto “Semper Paratus” – always prepared, and an opportunity to follow in their forefather’s footsteps. The “20th” designation brought with it a prestigious history, including successful combat missions and humanitarian aid during the Vietnam War and the presentation of the Medal of Honor to one of its members.
Originally established as the 20th Observation Squadron in 1942, it changed designations and names several times during World War II and was deactivated in November 1945. The “20th” was active as the 20th Helicopter Squadron from 1956 to 1960. The 20th HES was reactivated in 1965 as the need arose for helicopter support during the Vietnam War.
Between their joining the 20th Helicopter Squadron in 1967 and the deactivation of the squadron in 1972, the ‘Green Hornets’ were used for both conventional and unconventional warfare missions. It was on a 20th Helicopter Squadron mission that 1st Lt. James Fleming earned the Medal of Honor for heroism during combat.
After reactivation in 1976 as the 20th SOS, it lacked the necessary manpower and equipment.
“We had to share a trailer with the combat controllers,” said retired Col. Robert Mayo, the inew commander of the 20th SOS. “We were at half our strength and had one helicopter, a CH-3, to our name. We used to stand on the flight line for our turn to fly.”
As the new commander, he sent the instructor pilots to the Reserve special operations squadron at Luke Air Force Base to be trained on the CH-3 Jolly Green Giant and the UH-1 Huey.
One of the original Hueys assigned to the 20th SOS, tail number 69-6654, is currently in use at the 6th SOS at Hurlburt Field.
“We had to go to the Panama Canal for our check rides,” said Colonel Mayo. “We were trying to get realistic training without an accident, and that was hard to do.” As the pilots were trained, more helicopters found their way to Hurlburt Field. By the summer of 1976, they were able to fly the first four-ship formation at night.
“What put the 20th SOS on the drawing board was the Joint Counter Attack program exercise,” said Colonel Mayo. “We played the part of the Russians and even painted the helicopters in their color scheme.”
A Russian helicopter pilot trained the crews in tactics and procedures. During the exercise, held at Fort Rucker, Ala., the helicopters went up against fixed-wing aircraft. Every hit was recorded, and by the end of the exercise, the 20th SOS had proven, by a five-to-one ratio, that the helicopters were better at defeating almost all other aircraft. Only A-10’s, which had a one-to-one ratio of hits, were considered competition for the helicopters. It was during this exercise that the infamous red scarf became a part of the 20th SOS flight suit. While at Fort Rucker, one of the crew chiefs found a bag of rags with red tablecloths inside.
“He stuck the tablecloth on the end of a stick as a flag on the flightline truck, to get our students to follow him,” said retired Maj. John Grove, a former member of the 20th SOS. “The rest were cut up for crew scarves. Since we were playing the part of the Russians, it worked.”
Another milestone for the squadron was the initiation of night-vision goggles. Introduced to the 20th SOS in the late 70’s, they were the first squadron in the Air Force to use NVG’s in flight. The crews were taught to practice walking at night with the goggles and then riding bicycles.
“After that, we used them full-blown in the cockpit,” said Colonel Mayo. “We always carried a roll of tape with us to cover up the panel lights in the cockpit, leaving only the ‘danger’ lights visible.”
Significant changes kept the young squadron learning as the years passed. In May 1980, eight HH-53H PAVE LOW helicopters found a temporary home at the 20th SOS, providing the squadron with a heavy-lift, long-range helicopter.
According to the squadrons’ history, within a month’s time following the devastating Operation Eagle Claw mission, where five members of the 8th SOS were killed in an accident during the Iran hostage rescue, a decision was made that the long-range capability of the PAVE LOW would be needed if a second rescue attempt was to be successful.
Orders to move the PAVE LOW helicopters from the air rescue squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., were received on a Friday and by Monday morning, personnel and equipment had been transferred to Hurlburt Field. Due to the release of the hostages, a second rescue attempt was never done, but the helicopters stayed here. It wasn’t until 1987 that the squadron replaced the HH-53 PAVE LOW with the MH-53 PAVE LOW, the only helicopter used by the squadron today.
The squadron continued to perform a variety of missions, working with other agencies both domestically and internationally.
In April, 1981, while training at Kirtland AFB, they were called upon to aid with rescue attempts during devastating hotel fire in Las Vegas. Their job was to transport the fire, medical and rescue personnel to the roof, to assist an already-taxed local police department.
Also during the 1980’s, the 20th SOS was to support Operation Bahamas, Antilles and Turks, a drug enforcement task force. Using the UH-1, they supported the OPBAT mission for two years, snagging one of the largest drug busts in history in 1985 – more than 1, 800 pounds of cocaine, valuing $300 million dollars at the time.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf stated in 1991 that “the 20th SOS had the distinction of starting the war (Desert Storm).” Using a concept and tactics that had never been used before, the PAVE LOW led eight AH-64 Apache attack helicopters into Iraq to destroy the early warning systems.
It was also during this time that the 20th SOS did the first combat search and rescue since the Vietnam War, rescuing Navy Lt. Devon Jones.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the 20th SOS was training in North Carolina. The squadron was able to quickly respond to assist with initial recovery efforts in New York and Washington, D.C.
Since then, the 20th SOS has supported operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
“Watching our guys in Iraq; seeing their professionalism and mission focus is what I’m most proud of,” said Lt. Col. Scott Howell, 20th SOS commander. “They maintain a great attitude despite being deployed all the time.”
Today, the 20th SOS is the second most deployed unit in Air Force Special Operations Command.
“We responded within 24 hours after Sept. 11 and that continued until Aug 2004 without a break,” said Colonel Howell. “After a four-month reconstitution period that was interrupted by Hurricane Ivan, we were back on the road in CENTCOM in January 2005. Even with our deployments, we were still able to assist after Hurricanes Ivan, Charley and most recently Hurricane Katrina.”
Operations weren’t the only thing the 20th did well. Their people were considered a more valuable asset.
Col. Tommy Hull, former 20th SOS commander, said the moment he will remember the most was returning Navy Lt. John Alvarez to flying status, after he lost his leg as the result of a crash. Lieutenant Alvarez received an athletic prosthesis that would enable him to manipulate the controls of a helicopter.
One year later, he did his first re-qualifying flight. Since Navy Lieutenant Alvarez was the first-ever Navy exchange pilot with AFSOC, an inter-service transfer was arranged so he could stay on permanently with the 20th SOS as Capt. Alvarez, U.S. Air Force.
“I held a commander’s call in the 20th auditorium,” said Colonel Hull. “I told them about John’s status and that he was back. The doors opened, and in walked John. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
“The teamwork, the brotherhood and the support from the 20th is what made it possible for me to come back,” said now Lt. Col. Alvarez, 6th SOS commander.
Colonel Alvarez also said, “What we did then is nothing compared to what they do now. Tactical helicopter practices were developed and honed by the 20th SOS.”
The 20th SOS has participated in humanitarian efforts throughout their history — from assisting the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office in locating and capturing a bank robber 1993 to rescuing 1,395 people from flooded areas after Hurricane Katrina.
The squadron history books reflect accomplishments of the 20th SOS are too numerous to mention but its dedication to the mission and each other is evident in everything they do.
One special tactics officer, Capt. Frank Rodriguez, 720th Operations Support Squadron Advance Skills Training commander, has worked with the 20th SOS many times. He shared a journal entry that best describes the relationship the 20th SOS has with other units.
Dec. 5, 2001
War reared its ugly face today, a day I will never forget. As the (MH) 53s arrived, the scene was what one would expect accompanies the plot of war: gruesome, horrid and painful.
As I approached the helicopter, I was greeted by one of the pararescuemen, I gave him a heads up on the EVAC (evacuation) plan. The back of the bird was carpeted with bodies; blood stains soaked through all the bandages and blankets. The U.S. flag drew and commanded your attention, draped over one of the killed in action. The flag was only red and blue, as the white had been overcome by the blood.
Amidst the chaos, a sense of pride came over me, because as the madness enveloped the situation, special tactics combat controllers, pararescuemen and AFSOC aviation forces held it together and answered the call making sense out of madness.’
The 20th SOS had once again lived up to its motto, “Semper Paratus,” always prepared.
The 20th Special Operations Squadron was reactivated at Hurlburt Field, Florida on 1 January 1976 as a part of Tactical Air Command’s 1st Special Operations Wing. The 20th’s mission was to fly the UH-1N and CH-3E in the unconventional warfare role. The next two years saw the unit grow to its full strength of six Bell UH-1N Hueys and four Sikorsky CH-3Es.
On 25 April 1977, a 20th UH-1N crew was diverted from a training mission over the Eglin Range to perform search and rescue duty for an F-4 crew. The Huey crew successfully located the downed crew and went in for the recovery as ordnance exploded from burning wreckage of the F-4 nearby. Staff Sergeant James T. Carter won the Cheney Award for his part in the rescue.
In late August 1977, the 20th was called upon to perform search and rescue duty when a Marine F-4 went down over the Gulf of Mexico. An HH-3 from Tyndall AFB near Panama City, Florida was dispatched for a rescue. The H-3 experienced mechanical problems and was forced to ditch in the gulf. The H-3 sank, but its crew and the pilot from the F-4 were picked up by the Coast Guard. The 20th flew sorties over the next several days in an attempt to locate the F-4’s backseater. Unfortunately, he was not recovered.
In January 1978, the 20th became involved in a program called J-CATCH. J-CATCH, for “Joint Countering Attack Helicopters”, was to develop tactics to counter a growing threat from attack helicopters. Concern over the increased helicopter firepower and numbers in potential adversary nations led Tactical Air Command to outfit 20th UH-1Ns and CH-3Es as aggressors, creating a force that simulated Soviet attack helicopter capabilities and tactics. Scenarios included helicopter-to-helicopter tactics, and helicopter-to-fighter tactics. The J-CATCH helicopters were painted with special camouflage schemes and configured with Mini-TAT chain guns mounted under the fuselage, which were aimed by the co-pilot’s hand controlled sight. The weapon system was loaned to the Air Force by the Canadian government. The 20th’s aggressor force was known as “Red Force” and adopted a red scarf, which is still worn by the unit today. The red star on the unit patch today is a reminder of the J-CATCH mission, which successfully concluded in 1979. .
In June 1978, the 20th CH-3 section successfully provided pathfinder services for a flight of 22 Army helicopters from Fort Benning, Georgia. Operation NIGHT HAWK marked the first time this type of joint service operation had been attempted..
As 1979 began, however, U.S. Air Force special operations capability was nearing extinction. Special operations forces suffered from meager budgets and resources while Air Force priorities went into modernization of conventional forces. Events in the coming year would eventually bring major changes for special operations in general, and the 20th SOS in particular.
The 20th remained busy with J-CATCH in 1979. They also experienced problems with the weapons system on the CH-3E. Spent brass from the guns was ejected overboard, where it entered the aircraft’s slipstream. The slipstream carried the brass into the tail rotor, causing damage to tail blades. The 1st SOW developed a solution and implemented it, preventing damage to aircraft and possible loss of aircraft and lives.
Summer of 1979 found the 20th testing new hardware. In July, an infrared searchlight filter was successfully tested. The system had been developed by the Army and it was modified for use on Air Force helicopters at Hurlburt Field. August began with tests of a long range navigation system built by Teledyne. The tests successfully proved the accuracy of the system.
Later in August, a CH-3E successfully deployed a Zodiac boat and two man combat control team nearly 30 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. The Zodiac is a light weight craft which can be powered by either electric motor or gasoline engine. Later in August, another CH-3E deployed a boat and a seven-man Army scuba team simultaneously..
On 13 August, a 20th CH-3E was forced to make an emergency landing in Choctawhatchee Bay near Eglin AFB after an engine failure and fire. The aircraft was recovered safely and towed back to Eglin for repairs. The tow operation took six hours.
On 10 September, the 20th participated in a demonstration of special operations capabilities for base personnel and dependents. Two CH-3Es and three UH-1Ns were tasked for the demonstration. The first CH-3 landed, deploying two combat control personnel, a jeep, and a Fulton surface-to-air recovery kit. The second CH-3 deployed combat controllers in a HALO (high altitude, low opening) parachute jump, while other combat controllers rappelled from the Hueys. The rappellers were recovered by rope ladder aboard the Hueys, while the first combat control team demonstrated a Fulton recovery. With the Fulton kit deployed on the ground, a low flying MC-130E Combat Talon snares a cable suspended by a balloon. The cable trails along behind the fixed-wing aircraft and is then grappled and winched inside. Up to 500 pounds or two personnel can be snatched aboard the Combat Talon in this manner. The demonstration showed what teamwork among Air Force special operations forces could accomplish.
On 24 September, the Air Force approved a Statement of Need for upgraded special operations helicopters to replace the UH-1Ns and aerial refueling probes for the CH-3Es. In October, a briefing to TAC lead to the CORONET CHOPPER test program to develop rapid deployment procedures for UH-1N helicopters.
The U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran was overrun and seized by Iranian students on 4 November 1979. Many Embassy personnel were captured and held as hostages and the U.S. immediately set about planning a rescue. Most special operations air assets were owned by the 1st SOW at Hurlburt and the MC-130 Combat Talons and AC-130 Spectre gunships were tasked for the rescue attempt. Helicopters were required as well, but the 20th’s Hueys and CH-3Es were not capable of the demands the rescue mission required. As a result, Navy and Marine RH-53D Sea Stallions with Marine crews were selected for the mission. Eight aircraft were assigned and at least six were required to complete the mission.
The mission was set into operation in late April 1980. The fixed-wing aircraft, four MC-130 Combat Talons carrying troops and three EC-130s carrying fuel bladders to refuel the helicopters would stage from a base in Oman, while the choppers would stage from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The aircraft would rendezvous at a site known as Desert One. The RH-53s would refuel and take the troops on board. the helicopters would then take off for another site, while the fixed-wing aircraft would leave Iran.
The helicopter assault force would drop off their troops and then the helicopter crews would move their aircraft to a hiding place some fifty miles outside Tehran. There they would remain overnight. The assault force would secure the Embassy, while additional forces would attack and secure an airfield outside Tehran, using MC-130 Combat Talons for the assault with AC-130 gunships for close air support. C-141 Starlifter transports would land at the airfield once it was secure and the choppers would airlift the hostages and assault force from the Embassy to the airfield. The freed hostages, the assault force and the chopper crews would board the C-141s for home. The abandoned choppers would be destroyed.
Early on, the mission experienced problems. The Marine helicopter aircrews were not experienced in desert flying or flying while using night vision goggles. The RH-53 was prone to mechanical problems and the different components of the force had not practiced together.
As the mission began on the evening of 24 April 1980, it began to unravel. Soon after the helicopters crossed the coast into Iran, one chopper experienced a malfunction indicating a possible main rotor blade failure. The aircraft was abandoned and its crew was picked up by another chopper. The helicopters available had decreased to seven. They were also fifteen minutes behind schedule now.
A desert storm limiting visibilty forced two RH-53s to turn back and land when they lost sight of the other aircraft and the ground. The remaining five choppers pressed on. The pilots of the two choppers on the ground decided to make another attempt after a forty five minute wait. Shortly after entering the storm, the first helicopter experienced a failure of the second stage hydraulic system. The pilot elected to continue on. The second aircraft’s compass and pitch and roll indicators both failed, along with a malfunction of the inertial navigation system. The second chopper turned around and headed back to the Nimitz. Now only six aircraft remained.
Shortly after midnight on the 25th, the first two choppers landed at Desert One. The sixth and last chopper landed just before 0100. The choppers were nearly two hours behind schedule now, but began to refuel from the EC-130s.
The chopper which had experienced the hydraulic failure was deemed unflyable by the senior Marine helicopter pilot. The mission now had only five choppers to do the job of six. The mission commander ordered the mission aborted and the ground forces began to re-board the C-130s. At 0225 on the morning of 25 April, tragedy struck in the Iranian desert. One of the choppers pulled into a hover to make room for another one to be refuelled. The crew experienced a “brown-out” as the rotor wash kicked up dust and obscured visibilty. The RH-53 collided with the cockpit of an EC-130 and both aircraft burst into flames, killing crewmen aboard both the chopper and the EC-130. The survivors boarded the remaining planes, abandoned the choppers and aborted the mission.
After the failure of the Iranian hostage rescue attempt, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force ordered the reassignment of nine HH-53H Pave Lows from the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service to the 1st SOW on 14 May 1980. By 17 May, eight of the aircraft had been transferred from Kirtland AFB, New Mexico to the 20th SOS at Hurlburt Field. The ninth aircraft was still undergoing modification at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.
The HH-53H Pave Lows, which had become operational only a few months earlier, were the result of a number of upgrades of the old HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter. The modification program was code named “Pave Low” and the name stuck on the helicopter. The Pave Low program had actually begun in the late 1970s to augment combat rescue forces with an all weather, nighttime, low level capability.
The transfer of the Kirtland Pave Lows, including Kirtland aircrews and maintenance personnel to special operations, began the 20th’s transition out of the H-3. The sudden transfer of rescue aircraft and personnel to Tactical Air Command created a lot of hard feelings in the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service and its parent Military Airlift Command.
Almost immediately, the Pave Lows and their crews, along with AC-130 gunships and MC-130 Combat Talons were deployed for what was billed as a RED FLAG exercise, but was in reality HONEY BADGER, a project to upgrade the capabilities of SOF aircraft. It was also a rehearsal for a possible second rescue attempt for the hostages in Iran. The new wrinkles in the problem: the Iranians had dispersed the hostages to hamper further rescue attempts and the Soviets had stepped up surveillance of U.S military movements in the U.S. and in the Middle East. Still, after nearly five months of training and the loss of an HH-53H in a tragic crash at Dugway, Utah, HONEY BADGER was ready to go. Plans to press with the rescue were put on hold because estimates put potential losses of rescuers and hostages at an unacceptable 30 percent. The force remained on standby, however, until the hostages were released in January 1981.
While the Pave Low section awaited orders to deploy to Iran, the 20th’s UH-1N flight was pressed into rescue duty while deployed to Nellis AFB, Nevada for a RED FLAG exercise. Early on the morning of 21 November 1980, fire broke out in the MGM Grand Hotel in downtown Las Vegas. Within the first thirty minutes after the fire was spotted, a Las Vegas police helicopter, augmented by three civilian helicopters, had rescued between 250 and 300 hotel patrons from the building’s roof. Many more were still trapped in the building, perhaps thousands, when a call went out to the Nellis AFB command post for help. Nellis’ 57th Tactical Fighter Wing maintained a detachment of UH-1Ns at Indian Springs Auxiliary Air Field, which soon joined the rescue effort. Nellis command post, realizing the dire need for helicopters, also notified the 20th’s deployed crews and the 302nd SOS, an Air Force Reserve unit flying CH-3Es deployed to RED FLAG from Luke AFB, Arizona.
Within forty minutes of the call, the 20th’s three UH-1Ns were airborne. They joined the three CH-3Es from the 302nd and three UH-1Ns from the 57th’s Detachment 1. They began to ferry fire, medical, and rescue personnel and supplies and equipment to the roof of the hotel, returning with exhausted rescue personnel and firemen. 20th crews transported around 150 emergency personnel to or from the roof, along with five survivors. The UH-1N crews from Det 1 pulled 57 survivors from the roof, while the CH-3E crews from the 302nd pulled 17 survivors from balconies with their rescue hoists and forest penetrators.
When the blaze was finally brought under control and extinguished, 84 lives had been lost and nearly 700 persons had been injured in the second deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history. Undoubtedly, many more would have lost their lives if not for the actions of the crews from the 20th, their comrades in Det 1 and the 302nd, and their civilian counterparts. After the rescue, all three Air Force helicopter units were recognized on the national television program “That’s Incredible”. Co-host John Davidson honored all the Air Force members involved in the rescue, saying “They are truly American heroes.” Following the tragic Iranian hostage rescue attempt, a Special Operations Review Group was commissioned and the Air Force began to take a look at its future needs with the Air Force 2000 Study. As a result of the studies, special operations gained new emphasis. Active duty Air Force special operations forces were still aligned under the Tactical Air Command and consisted of the single wing at Hurlburt Field, and two squadrons overseas.
The Air Force 2000 Study recommended that special operations be placed under HQ USAF as a Special Operations Agency or in a major command as a numbered air force. Military Airlift Command, originally opposed to consolidation, was now a proponent of consolidating special operations and combat rescue forces. MAC argued that placing these assets under MAC control would be the most efficient way to manage both special operations and rescue forces. Since MAC already controlled most C-130 and helicopter aircraft and personnel anyway, MAC argued that it was only logical that MAC should control the special operations assets. The logic of the argument finally convinced TAC commander General Wilbur Creech and in September 1982, TAC agreed that Military Airlift Command should be the sole manager of Air Force Special Operations Forces. In March 1983, MAC established the 23rd Air Force at Scott AFB, Illinois. Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service and the newly reactivated 2nd Air Division at Hurlburt Field fell under the new numbered air force. The 2nd Air Division was to manage all Air Force special operations forces, including the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt, the 1st Special Operations Squadron at Clark AB, Republic of the Philippines, the 7th SOS at Sembach, Germany, and a special operations detachment at Howard AB, Panama, along with all Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units with special operations missions. The 1st Special Operations Wing consisted of three flying squadrons, the 8th SOS, flying MC-130E Combat Talons, the 16th SOS, flying AC-130H Spectre gunships, and the 20th SOS, still flying UH-1Ns and HH-53Hs.
In May 1983, the 20th SOS UH-1N flight was tasked for drug interdiction in a mission code named Operation BAT. The purpose was to stem the flow of illegal drugs from the Bahamas, Antilles, and Turks Islands in co-operation with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the government of the Bahamas. The 20th’s UH-1Ns continued to fly Operation BAT missions until October 1985, when the UH-1Ns and the BAT mission were transferred to Homestead AFB, Florida, and the 48th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron.
On 4 July 1983, Operation BAT missions resulted in the capture of a Cessna 404 aircraft, its pilot, and 863 pounds of cocaine, plus the capture of a 70 foot motor vessel and more than 3,000 bales of marijuana, weighing more than 30 tons.
In mid 1983, the 20th began to train Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service crews to perform the Operation BAT mission.
In October 1983, President Reagan ordered U.S. troops to intervene in the Carribean island nation of Grenada where the Soviet Union and Cuba were establishing a disturbing presence. The resulting operation, URGENT FURY, did not involve 20th aircraft and crews. Problems encountered in the joint service operation lead to a Senate Armed Services Committee study. Identified were a number of inadequacies, such as lack of communications and coordination between Army and Navy forces. The study recommended reorganization of Department of Defense, including the creation of unified commands for transportation and special operations. The recommendations resulted in the eventual formation of the United States Special Operations Command and the Air Force Special Operations Command.
A UH-1N crashed during an Operation BAT mission in January 1984, killing three of the four crewmen aboard. Dead were Captain Dyke H. Whitbeck, First Lieutenant Thomas L. Hamby, and Staff Sergeant Edgardo L. Acha. Staff Sergeant Paul B. Cartter was seriously injured.
Despite the losses, the Green Hornets continued to perform the OpBAT mission. In September, a chase of a DC-6, the civilan version of the Air Force’s C-54 cargo plane resulted in the capture of the aircraft and crew and the seizure of an estimated 13,000 pounds of marijuana.
The Pave Low section was busy as well, participating in a number of exercises. In October 1984, Pave Low crews and aircraft deployed to the Republic of the Philippines for Exercise COPE THUNDER 85-1. The deployment ended tragically when a crash destroyed a Pave Low and killed its crew. Dead in the crash were Major James S. Prowell, Captain Michael W. Skeen, Technical Sergeants Thomas M. Ortiz, Jr. and Wayne A. Johnson, Staff Sergeant Robert G. Barker and Sergeant Max B. Lincks, Jr. Just a month later, another Pave Low was destroyed while deployed to Pope AFB, North Carolina. The aircraft suffered a tail rotor failure when the tail rotor and gearbox separated from the aircraft. Only the quick reaction of aircraft commander Lieutenant Colonel Horace “Bo” Johnson saved the lives of the 15 persons on board.
A 20th SOS Operation BAT UH-1N worked with a U.S. Customs aircraft in December 1984, chasing a drug smuggler aircraft from the Bahamas to Seabring, Florida. Two smugglers were arrested and the aircraft and its load of marijuana was seized.
Early 1985 found the 20th’s Pave Low crews on the road, training to fly in mountainous terrain. Training was conducted at Dobbins AFB, Georgia and Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.
On 1 October 1985, the 20th officially transferred Operation BAT and its UH-1Ns to the 48th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Homestead AFB, Florida. During Operation BAT, the 20th had flown more than 3,000 sorties which lead to the capture or destruction of more than $1.5 billion in drugs, and the aircraft, vessels, vehicles and equipment used to smuggle them.
In January 1986, the Air Staff directed that ten H-53s be upgraded to the Pave Low III Enhanced or MH-53J configuration. The MH-53J enhancements included an integrated inertial navigation system, doppler radar, global positioning system, improved terrain following radar and forward looking infrared systems, a night vision goggle compatible heads up display, range extension provisions for an internal auxiliary fuel tank, improved weapons and defensive systems, and an improved secure communications system. The program was funded with $59.6 million and completion was scheduled for 1988.
In mid-March 1986, testing began to develop maintenance procedures for shipboard operations with the H-53. Unlike Navy and Marine versions on the H-53, the Air Force version was not equipped with a fold system to allow the helicopter to be stored below decks on an aircraft carrier. A twelve man maintenance team deployed with on HH-53H to NAS Norfolk, Virginia for tests on the USS Saipan.
Shortly after the tests began at Norfolk, the 20th received a short-notice tasking for POWERFUL GAZE, an important joint service exercise. Aircraft and crews were recalled from deployments to Kirtland, Dobbins, and Norfolk. With only five days notice, the 20th aircrews and maintenance unit prepared the aircraft, packed the support bins, and redeployed to Pope AFB to successfully participate in the exercise.
May 1986 found the Pave Lows back on the road, this time in the Southwestern U.S. for an exercise named ELATED CYCLONE. The deployment, which began on 13 May, was conducted under bare base field conditions. The scenario was designed to test the limits of the aircraft and crews. Sadly, the exercise terminated following the death of Major Richard C. Brims in an HH-53H accident on 21 May.
The tragedy in May did not slow the pace of operations for long. In June, five aircraft deployed to Kirtland for a 60 day TDY to upgrade crews and to verify new formation flight procedures In October, three aircraft deployed to NAS Jacksonville, Florida for deck landing qualification where 20th crews trained to perform shipboard operations.
In January 1987, testing of the titanium spar main rotor blade on the HH-53H began at Robins AFB, Georgia. A single aircraft deployed for the test. The test was to determine the feasibility of using the titanium spar blades on the Air Force version of the H-53. The blade had been in use on Navy and Marine H-53s, but never tested with the different rotor head used by the Air Force. Tests resulted in the approval of titanium spar blades on the Pave Low. The advantages to the new blade included lighter weight and greater lift.
1987 was a busy year for the 20th. In March, three aircraft deployed to Pope AFB for U.S. Army Ranger sustainment training. In July and August, 20th crews and aircraft deployed to Knoxville, Tennessee for mountain training and to NAS Norfolk for water training. They also deployed to MacDill AFB, Florida for weapons and tactics training and Lawson Army Air Field, Georgia for Ranger sustainment training. November 1987 found the 20th with six aircraft deployed to Martinsburg, West Virginia for Exercise CASINO GAMBIT. The long range capability of the Pave Low was amply demonstrated when a mission scenario included a short-notice tasking to recover Special Forces teams near the Canadian border. The teams were successfully recovered following an 800 nautical mile flight to their pick up point.
January 1988 began with six aircraft deployed for a joint readiness training exercise, followed by a three aircraft deployment to Colorado and Washington for mountain training in February and March. Six aircraft were deployed for mountain training again in July. September and October saw four aircraft deployed for Exercise ALASKAN HUSKY, while another four deployed to Panama for Exercise PAVE JUNGLE.
During a deployment to Fort Pickett, Virginia in October, a Pave Low crash resulted in damage to the aircraft, but no fatalities. Cost of repair was estimated to exceed $6.7 million.
The next year opened with a major exercise. JAGUAR BITE was the 1st Special Operations Wing operational readiness inspection and designed to test the wing’s ability to perform a variety of missions from a variety of locations. The 20th was heavily involved. Operations in extreme cold and snow and ice conditions taxed both the personnel and machines. The exercise earned an overall rating of “Excellent”.
Following JAGUAR BITE, operations returned to normal for the 20th. In March, three Pave Lows deployed to the USS Charleston for deck landing qualifications. April saw the 20th deploy four aircraft for capabilities exercise and June saw the return of four Pave Lows to the USS Charleston, again for deck landing qualification training.
In October, the 20th deployed for joint special operations exercise KNIFE BLADE, which heavily taxed airframes, aircrews, and maintainers. The exercise involved redeploying to several different locations and included teardown of the Pave Lows, transport aboard C-5 Galaxy cargo planes, and reassembly and flight testing at the new operating location, followed by heavy mission taskings.
November was no less hectic with heavy committments for a joint readiness exercise at Pope AFB, North Carolina and Hurlburt Field.
As Christmas 1989 approached, the 20th SOS had just completed a major training exercise when they were tasked for a real world mission: Operation JUST CAUSE. (continue)
20TH SPECIAL OPERATIONS SQUADRON
The 20th Special Operations Squadron (20th SOS), located at Hurlburt Field Fla., is one of nine flying squadrons within the 1st Special Operations Wing. Known as the “Green Hornets,” the 20th SOS flies the MH-53J/M Pave Low III/IV, the Air Force’s most sophisticated helicopter.
The primary mission of the 20th SOS is to conduct day or night low-level penetration into hostile enemy territory, to accomplish clandestine infiltration and exfiltration, aerial gunnery support and resupply of special operations forces throughout the world. These operations involve tactical low-level navigation, night vision goggle operations, airland and airdrop techniques and over-water operations. The unique capabilities of the MH-53M Pave Low allow the 20th to operate from unprepared landing zones in any type of terrain and from otherwise inaccessible areas.
In December 1989, members of the 20th SOS were mobilized as part of a joint task force for Operation Just Cause, successfully restoring democracy in Panama.
Among the first units to deploy to Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, 20th SOS crew members and aircraft led U.S. Army AH-64 Apaches in the air strike, opening the air war in Operation Desert Storm. A 20th SOS crew rescued Navy Lt. Devon Jones, logging the first successful combat rescue of a downed Airman since the Vietnam War. The crew deservedly earned the MacKay Trophy for their accomplishments.
Squadron personnel deployed in support of Operation Restore Democracy in Haiti, providing support to a National Command Authorities resolution. Members of the 20th SOS, participating in operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, went into harms way in attempting a rescue of two downed French crewmen, receiving two Purple Heart Medals and the coveted Cheney Award.
Green Hornet crews were also involved in the search and rescue operations resulting from the CT-43 crash in which Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and his party lost their lives. These same crews deployed shortly thereafter to support the American Embassy evacuations in Monrovia, Liberia – airlifting more than 2,000 evacuees to safety. The squadron deployed crews and aircraft to Southwest Asia in support of Central Command and Operation Desert Thunder in February 1998. The Pave Low gave the theater commander a night, all-weather personnel recovery capability, unparalleled in the U.S. inventory.
In 1999, the Pave Low III’s were upgraded to the MH-53M Pave Low IV. The M model brought more technology and vastly superior avionics to the mission, furthering the capabilities and resources available to the crews flying the world’s most sophisticated helicopter. These new technologies were battle tested during Operation Allied Force when the Green Hornets rescued downed pilots from an F-117 and an F-16, earning two Silver Stars and numerous Distinguished Flying Crosses.
In 2001, terrorism brought great tragedy to our nation and the Green Hornets were quick to respond in the initial recovery efforts at the Pentagon and Ground Zero in New York City supporting Operation Noble Eagle. But our work did not stop there. The 20th rapidly deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, engaging in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan with continuing endeavors into Iraq as the Global War on Terror continues.
To date, the Green Hornets have flown direct assaults on numerous high profile targets and effected the rescue and exfiltration of hundreds of US and allied soldiers. Included among these heroic actions are the daring daylight medevac of 32 injured soldiers in the midst of a battle and the rescue of a downed aircrew deep in hostile territory, which earned the squadron its second MacKay Trophy.
Constituted 20th Observation Squadron (Light) on 5 Feb 1942; Activated on 2 Mar 1942; Redesignated 20th Observation Squadron on 4 Jul 1942; 20th Reconnaissance Squadron (Fighter) on 2 Apr 1943; 20th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron on 11 Aug 1943; Inactivated on 27 Nov 1945; Consolidated (19 Sep 1985) w/20th Helicopter Squadron, which was constituted on 24 Feb 1956; Activated on 9 Jul 1956; Discontinued, and inactivated, on 8 Mar 1960; Activated on 24 Sep 1965; Organized on 8 Oct 1965; Redesignated 20th Special Operations Squadron on 1 Aug 1968; Inactivated on 1 Apr 1972; Activated on 1 Jan 1976.
Air Force Combat Command, 2 Mar 1942; Army Air Forces, 9 Mar 1942;
76th Observation (later, 76th Reconnaissance; 76th Tactical Reconnaissance) Group, 12 Mar 1942; III Reconnaissance Command, 23 Aug 1943; Army Air Forces, India-Burma Sector, 26 Dec 1943 (attached to 5306th Photographic and Reconnaissance Group [Provisional], 26 Dec 1943-17 Jan 1944, and to Tenth Air Force, 17 Jan-7 Mar 1944); Tenth Air Force, 7 Mar 1944 (attached to 5320th Air Defense Wing [Provisional], Mar-May 1944); 8th Photographic (later, 8th Reconnaissance) Group, 25 Apr 1944; Army Air Forces, India-Burma Theater, Oct-27 Nov 1945; Eighteenth Air Force, 9 Jul 1956 (attached to 314th Troop Carrier Wing, 9 Jul 1956-); Ninth Air Force, 1 Sep 1957-8 Mar 1960 (remained attached to 314th Troop Carrier Wing to 16 Jul 1959; attached to 354th Tactical Fighter Wing, 16 Jul 1959-8 Mar 1960); Pacific Air Forces, 24 Sep 1965
2d Air Division, 8 Oct 1965 (attached to 6250th Combat Support Group, c. 10 Dec 1965-8 Mar 1966); 14th Air Commando (later, 14th Special Operations) Wing, 8 Mar 1966; 483d Tactical Airlift Wing, 1 Sep 1971-1 Apr 1972; 1st Special Operations Wing, 1 Jan 1976; 1st Special Operations (later, 16th Operations) Group, 22 Sep 1992-15 November 2006. 1st Special Operations Group, 16 November 2006-.
Savannah AB, GA, 2 Mar 1942; Pope Field, NC, 28 Mar 1942; Vichy AAB, MO; 14 Dec 1942; Morris Field, NC, 8 May 1943; Key Field, MS, 31 Aug-8 Nov 1943; Camp Anza, CA, 11-c. 17 Nov 1943; Bombay, India, 26 Dec 1943; Camp Deolali, India, 28 Dec 1943; Guskhara, India, 5 Jan 1944 (flight operated from Kisselbari, India, 6-25 Mar 1944); Kisselbari, India, 26 Mar 1944 (operated from Dinjan, India, 1 May-20 Jun 1944; detachment at Tingkawk Sakan, Burma, 21 May-20 Jun 1944; operated from Tingkawk Sakan, Burma, 21 Jun-c. 10 Nov 1944; detachment at Myitkyina, Burma, 10 Jul-c. 25 Aug 1944); Myitkyina, Burma, c. 9 Nov 1944
(flight operated from Akyab, Burma, 12 Apr-22 May 1945); Nagaghuli, India, c. 20 Apr 1945; Dergaon, India, 6 Jul 1945; Piardoba, India, Sep-4 Nov 1945; Camp Kilmer, NJ, 26-27 Nov 1945; Sewart AFB, TN, 9 Jul 1956; Myrtle Beach AFB, SC, 16 Jul 1959-8 Mar 1960; Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam, 8 Oct 1965; Nha Trang AB, South Vietnam, 15 Jun 1966; Udorn RTAFB, Thailand, 1966; Tuy Hoa AB, South Vietnam, 5 Sep 1969; Cam Ranh Bay AB, South Vietnam, 25 Sep 1970-1 Apr 1972; Eglin AF Auxiliary Field No. 9 (Hurlburt Field), FL, 1 Jan 1976-.
A-20, DB-7, L-1, L-4, and P-43, 1942-1943; P-40, 1942-1945; L-5, 1942-1945; B-25, 1942-1945; P-51/F-6, 1945; H-21, 1956-1960; CH-3, 1965-1969; UH-1, 1967-1972; UH-1, 1976-1985; CH-3, 1976-1980; MH-53, 1980-.
World War II
World War II
Vietnam Air Offensive
Vietnam Air Offensive, Phase II
Vietnam Air Offensive, Phase III
Vietnam Air Offensive, Phase IV
Vietnam Summer-Fall, 1969
Vietnam Winter-Spring, 1970
Commando Hunt V
Commando Hunt VI
Commando Hunt VII
Defense of Saudi Arabia
Liberation and Defense of Kuwait
Armed Forces Expeditionary Streamers
Presidential Unit Citations
8 Mar 66-7 Mar 67
21 Jun 68-30 Jun 69
Southeast Asia (Army General Order No. 25, June 2001)
1 Jun 67-31 Aug 68
1 Nov 68-31 Mar 72
Gallant Unit Citation
6 Oct 01-30 May 03
Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards with Combat “V” Device
10 Jan-12 Mar 66
1 Nov 66-1 Apr 67
16 Jun 67-20 Jun 68
1 Jul 67- 30 Jun 68
1 Jul 70-30 Jun 71
1 Sep 71-31 Dec 71
1 May 82-30 Apr 84
1 Jun 97-31 May 99
1 Jul 03-30 Jun 05
Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards
1 Jan 76-31 Mar 77
6 Nov 78-2 Mar 79
15 Jul 79-15 May 80
16 May 80-30 Apr 82
1 May 85-30 Apr 87
1 May 88-30 Apr 90
16 Apr 92-15 Apr 94
1 Jun 95-31 May 97
1 Jul 99-30 Jun 01
1 Jul 01-30 Jun 03
1 Sep 04-31 Aug 06
Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Crosses with Palm
1 Jan-30 Aug 68
16 Jun 67-1 Apr 72
Blue background represents the sky, the primary theater of Air Force operations. Yellow refers to the sun and the excellence required of Air Force personnel. The black disc denotes the night sky, which is the theater of operations of special operations units. The band represents the unit’s heritage when organized in 1976 in tri-service support of an unconventional warfare mission. The stars reflect the nine primary functions of the unit and the nine aerospace employment principles of war. The red star signifies the unit’s participation in Operation J-CATCH. The green hornet symbolizes the hovering capabilities of the rotary wing aircraft that the unit utilizes in a low-level environment. The hornet’s “stinger” denotes the gunship weaponry.
Point Of Contact
1st Special Operations Wing, Public Affairs Office, 131 Bartley St., Suite 326; Hurlburt Field, FL 32544-5271; DSN 579-7464 or (850) 884-7464; e-mail: email@example.com