KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- After 28 dutiful years, the HH-60G Pave Hawk with the tail number 26401 landed on the flight line at Kadena Air Base, Japan, one last time after completing its final flight on June 22, 2021.
The helicopter, often referred to as 401, is the first of its kind to retire at Kadena, leaving behind a long history of flying humanitarian and combat search and rescue missions since its arrival to the 33rd Rescue Squadron in 1993.
“More than two decades of flying – between maintaining all the search and rescue capabilities here at Kadena, as well as on the peninsula of Korea, it’s time in Afghanistan, Alaska, Indonesia, the Philippines and Guam — that aircraft has been through all of it,” said Senior Master Sgt. Joshua Emerick, 33rd RQS superintendent. “It’s been a part of every mission set this unit has done for over 25 years, and it does so with few complaints. But it’s a tired aircraft, we’ve worked it hard.”
Keeping the blades spinning all these years has required preventative maintenance and a little bit of luck, explained Staff Sgt. Marlon Natty, a 33rd Helicopter Maintenance Unit crew chief. As the dedicated crew chief of 401 for the past two years, he’d likely be the one fixing it if anything went wrong on the aircraft.
“Out here in this corrosive environment, a lot of things break down, but 401’s usually held together. It’s all love for my aircraft … mine’s pretty solid,” he said.
Not all HH-60’s are created equal, despite being the exact same model, Natty said. How reliable an aircraft is can depend on how replacement parts were manufactured, how those parts were stored before use, as well as how often the aircraft itself was flown.
“Even though they’re the same, they’re built the same, look the same – they all have their own personality,” he said. “401 barely had issues last year; it’s a top flier.”
The differences between these aircraft may seem microscopic, but it’s the sum of those differences that may determine if the aircraft is grounded or able to fly a mission.
It was during a medical evacuation in Afghanistan, Emerick explained, that he experienced the reliability of 401 firsthand in a way that left an impact on them both.
Upon arrival, the helicopter had a hard landing, causing it to slam into the ground with 11 times the force of gravity and bouncing the aircrew inside with enough power to crack his helmet, he said. After assessing the damage to the aircraft and the medical needs of the evacuee, they decided to fly to the clinic. It wasn’t until the next morning they discovered 401 had carried them for 24 miles despite damage to almost every structural component, including critical beams inside the cabin.
“It was very nostalgic to see the aircraft again when I got out here last year and to remember … it kept me alive. The aircraft was very sturdy and very durable. It took quite a beating, and that was after months of going into combat,” he said.
After a year of repairs, 401 was finally back in the skies and flying the rescue missions it was built for. As a vital part of their fleet, 401 would often go anywhere the 33rd RQS was needed. This included humanitarian missions like Operation Tomodachi, where the 33rd RQS assisted disaster relief efforts after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011. They conducted search and rescue missions, delivered essential food and water supplies and conducted air sampling missions to detect radiation during the operation.
The lifespan of an aircraft is measured in flying hours instead of years before it is retired due to the structural stress that accumulates from flying over time. Distinguished aircraft are commonly displayed in museums, while others may be salvaged for usable parts.
After 401’s retirement, the Pave Hawk will continue to support the mission as a ground instructional training aircraft with the 18th Maintenance Training Flight, providing Airmen with the opportunity to earn qualification and complete upgrade training.
“Every single one of the aircraft out here has a unique story of its own. They are as much a part of our family as anyone else here in this building,” Emerick said. “Seeped deep into the metal, every aircraft has the blood, sweat and tears of those who’ve ridden out into combat, those we’ve brought home, sadly many that we’ve lost, but also proudly many that we’ve saved. That DNA is written into the metal of this aircraft.”