The Helicopter in the U.S. Military

The Helicopter in the U.S. Military

© David Burton 2021

The Helicopter

     We may think of the helicopter as a relatively recent technological development. But, the helicopter has actually had quite a long history, starting with its supposed conception by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 16th century.

     “During the mid-1500s, Italian inventor and artist Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) made drawings of an ornithopter flying machine, a fantastical machine that might have flapped its wings like a bird and that some experts say inspired the modern helicopter. In 1784, French inventors named Launoy and Bienvenue demonstrated a toy to the French Academy that had a rotary-wing that could lift and fly. The toy proved the principle of helicopter flight.
     “In 1863, the French writer Gustave de Ponton d'Amécourt (1825–1888) was the first person to coin the term ‘helicopter’ from the Greek words ‘helix’ for spiral and ‘pter’ for wings.
     “The very first piloted helicopter was invented by French engineer Paul Cornu (1881–1944) in 1907. However, his design did not work, and French inventor Etienne Oehmichen (1884–1955) was more successful. He built and flew a helicopter one kilometer in 1924. Another early helicopter that flew for a decent distance was the German Focke-Wulf Fw 61, invented by an unknown designer.
     “The Russian-American aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky (1889–1972) is considered to be the ‘father’ of helicopters, not because he was the first to invent it, but because he invented the first successful [Emphasis mine] helicopter upon which further designs were based.
     “One of aviation's greatest designers, Sikorsky began work on helicopters as early as 1910. By 1940, Sikorsky's successful VS-300 had become the model for all modern single-rotor helicopters. He also designed and built the first military helicopter, the XR-4, which he delivered to the U.S. Army in 1941.
     “Sikorsky's helicopters had the control capabilities to fly safely forwards and backward, up and down and sideways.” (Ref. 1)

     During World War II, helicopters were limited in their capabilities. Thus, they were not used widely, although they did see service as supply and rescue craft, particularly in China, Burma, and India.[2]

     Starting at the very end of World War II, the helicopter has played an increasingly significant role in the modern history of the United States military.

     The Korean war began on June 25, 1950 , when some 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People's Army poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south. This invasion was the first military action of the Cold War. The Korean war marked a milestone in the use of helicopters by the U.S. military.

     On June 25, 1950, the Army began the Korean War with only 56 helicopters. Yet Air Force helicopters were among the first to see action. Third Air Rescue Squadron, based in Japan, was sent packing for Korea. The original intent was to pick up downed air crews; but evacuation of wounded quickly gained priority. By the end of August, Third Air Rescue helicopters had airlifted 83 severely wounded soldiers to field hospitals. And as the war ground on, calls to evacuate wounded grew into a torrent; especially following the Allied landings at Inchon and the subsequent invasion of North Korea.
     Eighth Army headquarters quickly followed suit. The first Army helicopter unit arrived in Korea on November 22, 1950 which had four H-13 helicopters, together with their aviators and mechanics. It was attached to the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) located near Seoul. Three more helicopter detachments followed.
     For the first six months of 1951, the four helicopter detachments, with only 11 helicopters - each of which could airlift no more than two patients at a time while plagued by shortages of fuel and spare parts - airlifted 1,985 wounded. Helicopter evacuations of casualties over the course of the war amounted to more than 21,000. It was apparent that the helicopter was proving its mettle in the battle zone.
     The selling point of the helicopter extended beyond medical evacuation, proving effective in overcoming those earthly impediments that hinder ground transportation. And the Marines showed the way. Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 161 with 15 helicopters arrived in Pusan on September 2, 1951. It was not long before they went into action. On September 13, 1951, Marine helicopters airlifted supplies to the Marines at Hill 673, which was in the area of the notorious “Punchbowl,” on the eastern end of the UN main line of resistance. As ammunition and stores were flown in, dead and wounded were airlifted out in the first mass re-supply effort by helicopter.
     On September 21, the Marine helicopters airlifted 224 combat marines in relief of Republic of Korea (ROK) troops on Hill 884.
     This first large troop-carrying mission in a combat zone by helicopter took 65 flights in four hours to complete, which included 17,772 pounds of stores and equipment.
     Marine success with the helicopter prompted Army Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway, commanding general, Far East Command, to suggest in 1951 the creation of four Army transportation helicopter battalions. And by early 1953, what had begun with medical evacuation detachments was carried forth with the Army transportation companies.
     The 6th Transportation Helicopter Company, with 21 Sikorsky H-19 helicopters, was the Army’s first heliborne cargo unit to be employed in a combat zone. On March 20, 1953, in support of 3rd Infantry Division, the 6th re-supplied units cut off by flood waters, flying in some 34,000 pounds of stores. In May and June, in two operations in support of 25th Infantry Division, the 6th flew in more than 2.5 million pounds of supplies. On May 1, 1953, 13th Transportation Helicopter Company arrived at Inchon. Throughout June and July, the 13th evacuated 1,547 wounded. The 13th eventually joined the 6th Transportation Company to form the 1st Transportation Army Aviation Battalion (Provisional).
     Thanks to the Army and Marine Corps, the helicopter showed its promise as a viable tool for war in the forbidding arena of Korea. As a result, the course had been charted towards better aircraft and equipment; new training methods; and, an emerging leadership that would forge this technology for its employment in future conflicts. By the time of the armistice, Marine helicopters had airlifted more than 60,000 men, 7.5 million pounds of cargo and evacuated some 9,815 wounded.[3]

     The Vietnam War was the first “helicopter war.” The U.S. Army quickly adapted its use of the helicopter and refined the way it was fighting the war. The new concept of warfare was called “air mobility.” The Army soon used helicopters for large-scale troop movements. Additionally, the military began using them to drop bombs and fire rockets into combat zones.[2]

     The” helicopter completely changed the way the war was fought. No longer did two armies engage each other on one large battlefield. Instead, troops were flown into enemy territory by helicopter and then extracted once the fighting was over.
     “Helicopters made the fighting unpredictable and offered an element of surprise.
     “The military’s preferred helicopters were the UH-1 Huey and the CH-47 Chinook. But by the middle of the Vietnam War, it also began using dedicated combat helicopters like the AH-1 Cobra, which were equipped with guns and grenade launchers.
     “Between 1962 and 1973, the military lost over 4,800 helicopters, over half of them to enemy fire.” (Ref. 2)

     “After the Vietnam War, the military redefined its helicopter use to adapt to the threat of a European invasion by the Soviet Union.
     “With its helicopters, the Army could take on tasks that were previously restricted to the Air Force.
     “Attack helicopters like the Huey Cobra were heavily armed and able to attack targets deep behind enemy lines. The helicopters were also equipped with advanced navigation systems.
     “Advanced night imaging systems and newly developed night vision goggles for pilots enabled the Army’s helicopters to fly and fight by night.
     “In the 1980s, Army helicopters equipped with laser technology specialized in destroying enemy tanks.
     “These technological advances once again changed how war was fought; the tactics used during the first Persian Gulf War centered on attack helicopters that were used to destroy Iraqi tanks and quickly move large numbers of American troops into Iraqi territory.
     “Aside from infantry and anti-tank operations, helicopters are used for Combat Search and Rescue operations. During the Vietnam War, the Bosnia crisis, and the bombing of the former Yugoslavia, helicopters with advanced navigation systems were instrumental in several high-profile rescue missions.
     “The U.S. Navy uses helicopters equipped with radar and sonar to detect targets above and below the water that ships cannot see.
     “Naval helicopters are used for maritime surveillance, submarine hunting, and mine clearing. With their help, warships are no longer used solely to protect aircraft carriers but also to lead the offensive against other ships at long range. (Ref. 2)

     Today, multiple types of helicopters are in widespread use with America’s military. Helicopters in the military perform a variety of roles. Some are built specifically for speed and attack while others offer transport and support functions.
     Advanced military helicopters come in all shapes and sizes and are used for a wide range of purposes. Attack helicopters, for example, can reach high speeds and are well armed, while transport helicopters are bigger and can carry a much heavier payload. Multirole or utility helicopters must be good all-rounders in all environments.
     Attack helicopters, armed helicopters and helicopter gunships are designed for one purpose – firing on enemy troops and vehicles. Whether it is providing close air support for ground troops or destroying enemy armed vehicles and tanks, the attack helicopter is built for speed and comes heavily armed with an array of cannons, machine guns, rockets and missiles.
     The Boeing AH-64 Apache. for example, holds a chain gun with 1,200 rounds, along with four hardpoints for the carrying of air-to-ground rockets and missiles. The Apache can also carry air-to-air missile for aerial defense and anti-tank missiles. Attack helicopters also come with advanced radars for targeting enemies and guiding projectiles.
     Search and rescue helicopters, such as the Sikorsky HH-60W, must be durable, agile and packed with the latest avionics and radar systems to navigate all types of terrain and weather conditions while seeking personnel on land and at sea who need vital assistance. Most are equipped with self-defense systems such as infrared jammers and laser detection equipment.
     However, since the primary role is search and rescue, a good helicopter needs the latest avionics to detect soldiers in critical situations.
     Maritime helicopters like the Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk are fitted with anti-submarine warfare armaments such as torpedoes and depth charges. In this role, they can work in tandem with surface ships.
     Transport helicopters are designed to fly large groups of troops, light vehicles and cargo near to the battlefield and thus need to be able to carry significant amounts of weight, both internally and externally, as well as being relatively fast.
     The most recognizable U.S. military transport helicopter is the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, which can travel at a maximum speed of just under 200 mph - making it faster than many attack helicopters.
     Advanced military helicopters also have a role to play in terms of intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance. Observation helicopters have been used for activities such as calling in and directing air strikes and can guide anti-tank missiles or laser-guided bombs fired from other aircraft.
     The main tool of the observation helicopter is its suite of sensors and communications equipment. The aircrew is supported by forward-looking infrared cameras, low light level televisions and multi-functional laser systems for range-finding or targeting purposes. The Bell OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopter is currently in use with U.S. military and other armed forces worldwide.
     Utility helicopters must strike a balance to perform all aforementioned activities such as conducting ground attacks, air assault, reconnaissance, troop and equipment transport, and medical evacuation. To this end, utility helicopters are highly versatile. The iconic Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk is a utility helicopter which gained notoriety during the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.[4]

     Helicopters proved indispensable to the U.S. military during the Vietnam War for their ability to hover and maneuver vertically in dense jungle environments. They’ve continued to play a crucial role in missions ranging from combat search and rescue and air assault to MEDEVAC and reconnaissance. The missions and threats of today and the future are different. The next generation of these aircraft will need to be faster, more maneuverable, more lethal, and technologically advanced, including the ability to team with autonomous aircraft. Helicopters for the U.S. military are today beginning a technological generational leap with next-generation compound helicopters and tilt-rotor crafts - such as the Osprey V-22 - heralding the advent of a new era that is likely to witness a significant expansion of the operational spectrum, capabilities and performance threshold of these machines. This is likely to eventually redefine their role besides enhancing overall effectiveness in conducting a wide range of military missions and operations.

     The United States military must continually look to the future. Consequently, it is looking to secure a complete family of helicopters to help replace an aging stock of attack, scout, and transport types. This includes the classic Boeing AH-64 "Apache" attack helicopter, Bell OH-58 "Kiowa" scout, and the venerable Sikorsky UH-60 "Black Hawk" transport lines. The "Future Vertical Lift" - or FVL – program wants to find potential successors for this massive endeavor. The FVL program has branched out to include the "Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft" (FARA) program, of which at least two leading high-profile contenders exist: the Bell V-280 "Valor" tilt-rotor helicopter and the Sikorsky S-97 "Raider" compound helicopter.
     The United States Army will select two bids from the field of five current candidates for further development. Initial Operation Capability (IOC) is tentatively scheduled for 2028 and the service could be eyeing as many as 500 units.[5]

     The U.S. Army is staking its flying future on aircraft that can cruise like planes over vast expanses of the Pacific and Africa, hover like helicopters, evade detection with swift maneuvers, and live out in the dirt.
     The Future Vertical Lift program -to replace the iconic Black Hawk and Apache helicopters - is a crucial test to show the Army can modernize without delay and cost overruns, after some high-profile failures over the last 20 years.
     The Army wants the new aircraft to fly at least twice as fast and twice as far as the helicopters they’re replacing, the Black Hawk and the Apache, which have been its aerial mainstays since Grenada, Panama, and the first Gulf War.
     Despite major investments and overhauls, the military’s vertical lift fleet hasn’t gone through generational change since the 1980s - particularly within the Army, which has the largest fleet.
     For the competing teams led by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Bell Textron Inc., it could be a make or break moment: Winning would cement a foothold as the Army’s aviation provider for decades, and reap the benefits of a market projected to be worth from $60 billion to as much as $90 billion.
     The Pentagon’s ultimate goal is to also replace other helicopter types, such as Boeing Co.’s heavy lift Chinook CH-47.
     With a request for proposals, the Army officially kicked off competition for the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft - just one part of the broader Future Vertical Lift program - to replace the Black Hawks by 2030.
     The Army is expected to select a winner next year to build prototypes for the successor to its 2,000 Black Hawks. The Army already chose Lockheed and Bell for a competitive demonstration phase.
     That gives the Army two different aircraft to pick from. One is an advanced tilt-rotor offered by Bell - called the V-280 Valor - which is derived from the V-22 Osprey, with its vertical lift and takeoff technology. The second is the coaxial lift compound rotor helicopter called Defiant X, built by the Lockheed team.
     Bell’S V-280 builds on its experience from the V-22 tilt-rotor, which has been in production since the late 1990s.
     The Defiant X, a team effort of Lockheed’s Sikorsky unit and Boeing, continues Sikorsky’s new helicopter design. The Defiant X is a larger variant of Lockheed’s Raider X, which is competing for the light-attack program.
     The Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft to replace Boeing’s AH-64 Apache helicopters is on a later timeline than the Black Hawk replacement. But Sikorsky and Bell are competing for that one too, with a design fly-off taking place at the end of 2022.
     The Lockheed team is offering a scaled-down version of Defiant X, called Raider X, while Bell is pursuing a concept that doesn’t use tilt-rotor technology. The winners will be replacing helicopters that have helped define the post-Vietnam Army: Black Hawk and Apache choppers fought their way in an out of combat zones for 40 years to deliver and extract troops and supplies, or evacuate casualties.[6]
     Still more helicopterimprovement programs will evolve as the technology and the threat to our militry continue to grow.

     Drones are considered by many to be a four-rotor helicopter. And yes, the drone has found its niche with the military – one main military application is for intelligence gathering and battlefield observation. Small drones can be carried and launched by individual soldiers or larger drones can be flown from ships or from just about anywhere. They can carry cameras, deliver packages, designate targets and even carry weapons. Their role with the military is constantly expanding.

     Today, the military uses drones quite a bit. Consider most - military or civilian - as unmanned four-rotor helicopters or “quadcopters”. There have also been “tricopters” and “hexcopters”. So, most drones - quadcopters - are technically helicopters. Specifically, they are multi-rotor, fixed pitch helicopters, meaning they have more than one main rotor and, unlike regular helicopter blades which change their “twist” during flight, drone blades don't change their “twist” as they fly.[7]

     We can see that the use of the helicopter in the U. S. military has continually grown since its introduction during World War II. Helicopters - manned and unmanned - now come in a multitude of configurations, sizes, costs and applications. Back in the 16th century, Leonardo Da Vinci had no idea of what his concept would evolve into.

  1. History of the Helicopter, Mary Bellis, ThoughtCo, 4 October 2019.
  2. Helicopters At War, Rob V., Century of Flight, 5 December 2019.
  3. The Korean War – The Helicopter, Mark Albertson, ARMY AVIATION Magazine, Pages 130-131, August/September 2020.
  4. Advanced military helicopters: how function dictates capability, Talal Husseini, Airforce Technology, 29 January 2020.
  5. AVX Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), Talal Husseini,, 7 March 2020.
  6. Army Bets on Faster, Stronger Rotorcraft After Notorious Flops, Roxana Tiron, Bloomberg Law, 12 July 2021.
  7. Are drones small lightweight helicopters?, Jasmine Adamson, Quora, 13 July 2018.


  12 August 2021 {Article 488; Govt_91}    
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