early helicopter technology
early helicopter development
contributions of the autogyro
Heinrich Focke Fa 61W
Anton Flettner Kolibri
Jacques Bréguet Gyroplane
Igor Sikorsky VS-300
search and rescue helicopters
civil and commercial helicopters
Bell UH-1 "Huey"
M.A.S.H. medevac helicopters
helicopters at war
private helicopters
Sikorsky UH-60/S-70 Black Hawk
assault helicopters
Soviet and Russian helicopters
French and British helicopters

search and rescue helicopters

Carter Harmon (standing, on the left) performed the first helicopter evacuation in a combat zone on April 25, 1944, in the highlands of Northern Burma.

The helicopter first demonstrated its superiority over conventional fixed-wing aircraft for search and rescue missions during World War II. A Sikorsky R-4 helicopter showed that it had a definite military role when was used in April 1944, in a dramatic rescue of three downed airmen in the steamy jungles of Burma. However, because the R-4 was so low-powered, and the heat and humidity reduced its performance even more, the pilot could evacuate only one airman at a time. The R-4 was also used in other missions, such as observation. In China during the final months of the war, Sikorsky R-6As provided search and rescue services. Later, in November 1945, an Army R-5 helicopter was used to rescue two men off a stranded oil barge in a storm. In spite of their limitations, military leaders soon realized that helicopters were ideal for searching for downed airmen and for sailors stranded at sea as well as for civilians, although bigger helicopters with greater internal capacity and more powerful engines were needed.

Sikorsky R-6As attached to the 14th Air Force provided essential search and rescue services for aircraft crossing the "Hump" into China during the final months of World War II.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force pressed the Piasecki H-21 Flying Banana into service as a search and rescue helicopter. Its primary advantage was its ability to rescue more than one person at a time. The U.S. Navy used the Sikorsky H-19 and H-34 in the search and rescue role, but these piston-powered aircraft lacked the horsepower required for this mission, although the H-19 was used successfully by the Air Force to retrieve thousands of downed aircrew and other United Nations personnel during the Korean War.

The major advance in search and rescue capabilities occurred in 1962, with the introduction of the Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King, soon redesignated the SH-3A. For three decades, the Navy used large numbers of SH-3s for submarine hunting from aircraft carriers and also for "plane guard" duties during flight operations. Usually, a Sea King would hover alongside the carrier. If a pilot crashed during takeoff or landing, the helicopter would be ready to winch the pilot out of the water. Sea Kings were also used to rescue downed airmen over land and during the Vietnam War, when the Navy equipped them with guns.

The Sikorsky HSS-2 Sea King has been used for search and rescue missions since the early 1960s.

Soon after the SH-3 entered service with the Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard procured the similar single-engine Sikorsky HH-52A and in 1968, the longer-ranged Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican to conduct rescues off the coasts of the United States. The Coast Guard helicopters could even be refuelled by Coast Guard cutters at sea to increase their endurance; while hovering over the stern of the ship, they hauled a fuel line up and connected it, refilling their tanks without landing.

In late 1963, the U.S. Air Force took delivery of the first Sikorsky CH-3C Jolly Green Giant helicopter. The Jolly Green Giant became the primary search and rescue helicopter for the Air Force during the Vietnam War. It was eventually equipped with bigger fuel tanks to enable it to travel deep into North Vietnam to retrieve downed airmen. It was viewed as a rescuing angel by many pilots trapped deep within enemy territory.

The Sikorsky CH-3E Jolly Green Giant was an updated CH-3C, which first saw service in Vietnam in 1963.

The most important requirement for a search and rescue helicopter, in addition to long range, is its ability to mount a strong winch, or hoist, so the person being rescued can be lifted to safety. This is necessary because usually the helicopter cannot land. The downed pilot or injured hiker may be in a heavily wooded area and may need to be lifted out through the trees, or sailors have to be lifted off the pitching decks of sinking ships in bad storms.

The winch is usually connected to a long cable—up to 300 feet (91 meters)—carrying either a horse-collar rescue sling, a rescue basket, or a stretcher. The sling is passed under the arms of the person being rescued and is generally the easiest form of rescue equipment to operate because it can be lowered quickly and is easy to manoeuvre through the door of the helicopter. In Vietnam, for some military rescues, a special heavy metal cone-like "canopy penetrator" was used to lower the sling through the tree branches. But the sling cannot be used if the person being rescued is injured since often the person might be too exhausted to put the sling on. In this case, a rescue basket is sometimes used. The person climbs into the basket, which is then lifted to the helicopter. A stretcher is used if the person is injured and either cannot move or needs to be immobilized. Both the rescue basket and stretcher are hard to manoeuvre into the door of the helicopter, and they take up more space.

This UH-1D was used by the Luftwaffe as a search and rescue aircraft.

Early search and rescue helicopters often were equipped with little more than a rescue hoist. Military search and rescue helicopters, such as the SH-3 and the Jolly Green Giant, however, were usually armed with a door gunner who used an M-60 machine gun or other weapon to suppress the enemy. Basic first-aid equipment was also carried, and the helicopters were equipped with marking and signalling devices such as smoke bombs and powerful dyes to stain the water near a floating sailor. Spotlights were often mounted for night rescues.

By the 1980s, search and rescue aircraft began mounting sophisticated sensors such as night vision and thermal imaging equipment. Forward-Looking Infrared or FLIR (pronounced "fleer") systems enabled a pilot to see a warm human against a colder background, possibly even spotting a person in a forest. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation systems were also mounted in the 1990s, enabling a helicopter to quickly find the location of a stricken vessel. Many military airmen were also equipped with GPS receivers so that they could provide their precise location to rescue aircraft. Civilian sailors and pilots often use a special satellite system that relays their distress signals to authorities.

A modified version of the Sikorsky CH-53 Stallion heavy lift helicopter was used to rescue downed F-16 pilot Scott O'Grady in Bosnia in 1995.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Navy and the Coast Guard replaced their helicopters with variants of the popular and versatile Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk helicopter, known as the H-60 in military service. Some state National Guard units use these same helicopters in the search and rescue role and often perform the same missions as the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard also uses a smaller helicopter, known as the short-ranged Aérospatiale HH-65A Dolphin. Navy SH-3s have since been adopted by some local police forces for use in rescue work.

In December 2000, a particularly dramatic rescue took place in the stormy Atlantic Ocean 200 miles (322 kilometres) off the coast of Virginia. The cruise liner SeaBreaze I suffered an engine failure in the storm and soon began taking on water. Two Coast Guard HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters were dispatched to the scene. One helicopter rescued 26 crewmembers and the other rescued the remaining eight. The helicopter with the 26 rescued sailors aboard, combined with its own four crewmen, set a new record for the most people aboard a single H-60.

The Air Force also uses the H-60 in the search and rescue mode and occasionally uses special operations versions of the Sikorsky CH-53 Stallion heavy-lift helicopter in the rescue role. Today, heavily modified versions of the CH-53 are used for this mission. Equipped with the latest in navigation and sensor gear, they can fly deep behind enemy lines to rescue downed airmen. They were used to rescue pilots in the Persian Gulf War, to rescue F-16 pilot Scott O'Grady when he was shot down over Bosnia in 1995, and presumably, to rescue a downed F-117 stealth fighter pilot in Yugoslavia in 1999.