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Chariots of the Rescue Service

In the early 1960s the standard USAF rescue helicopter was the light-lift Kaman HH-43B Huskie, used mainly for local base rescue. As hostilities increased in SEA in June 1964, two HH-43Bs deployed to Thailand for rescue support. However, early missions demonstrated that the current helicopters were not capable of operating over the hostile skies of Southeast Asia. Better aircraft were needed.

As a temporary solution, modified Huskies, HH-43Fs, with armor plating, larger self-sealing fuel tanks, and bigger engines, entered SEA in 1964. They served as the primary rescue vehicle until the arrival of the first two Sikorsky CH-3 helicopters in 1965.

Eventually, fifty improved CH-3s, called HH-3s, had more powerful engines, defensive armament, larger cargo capacity, rescue hoists, and aerial refueling capability. The aircrews called them the Jolly Green Giants. With watertight hulls, the HH-3s could land on water, and their large rear doors and ramps permitted easy loading and unloading.

HH-43s and HH-3s satisfied immediate rescue requirements. However, neither had the speed or range to rapidly reach Airmen downed in North Vietnam or Northern Laos.

To address this problem, Sikorsky introduced the first HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant for service with the ARRS in 1967. The biggest improvements were a larger cargo compartment, greater lift capacity, and more defensive capabilities. The aircrews nicknamed the aircraft “BUFF” for “Big Ugly Fat Fellow,” with “Fellow” often being substituted with an obscenity.

Capable of flying farther and in more hostile territory than its predecessors, the HH-53 became the ultimate rescue vehicle by the end of American involvement in SEA. Yet, it was the HH-43, the first rescue helicopter to arrive in SEA and the last to leave, that had more combat saves than any other USAF helicopter.

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