The Flying Skulls


Few operational missions stimulate the imagination like Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). From a rotary perspective, it is one of the most iconic roles which tests both airmanship and the type deployed to their maximum. Located in Alberqueque New Mexico, Kirtland Air Force Base is home to the 58th Special Operations Wing (58 SOW) which is part of the Air Force Air Education and Training Command and serves as the premier training site for Air Force special operations and combat search and rescue aircrews. The wing teaches more than 120 courses in 24 different crew positions including pilot, navigator, electronic warfare officer, flight engineer, communications system operator, loadmaster and aerial gunner. Additionally, the wing responds to worldwide contingencies and provides search and rescue support to the local community.


The 512th Rescue Squadron is part of the 58th Special Operations Wing based at Kirtland which currently operates the UH-1N Twin Huey and the HH-60G Pave Hawk. The mission at the 512th RQS is to provide graduate level rotary wing training to student pilots and student special missions aviators. Kirtland is the primary graduate aircrew Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training for Air Force members. Airmen are selected at undergraduate pilot training, technical training and often based on their application or volunteering. All graduates are expected to be assigned to operational units upon graduation - these decisions are often made by subject matter (career field) experts at the Air Force Personnel Center as they are with all other career fields/specialties. Within the 58th SOW, there are 113 different courses, for all crew and some maintenance positions with an average of 2,800 students per year. Student success rate is over 90% and those who don’t progress through training will retrain into other specialties. Students who don’t make it to Kirtland have already gone through undergraduate pilot training at other locations and have a high probability of success as they continue. 

SSgt Matthew D. Hawkins is a Special Missions Aviator Evaluator who has been serving in the Air Force since February 2007. “I was an Aircrew Flight Equipment Technician for six years prior to retraining to a Flight Engineer and ultimately a Special Missions Aviator on the UH-1N. I have been stationed at Kadena AB, Japan, Nellis AFB, Nevada, Andrews AFB, Maryland and here at Kirtland AFB.” SSgt Hawkins explains what the mission of the 512th Rescue Squadron is in more detail. “Specifically, for the UH-1N community, we instruct and qualify student aviators on contact manoeuvres, including transition and emergency procedure training. Also, we instruct and qualify students on remote operations (evaluating and landing on unprepared landing areas) and search and rescue operations including alternate insertion/extraction techniques, predominantly using the rescue hoist and rescue devices. Additionally, we qualify student aviators on tactical, formation and night flying operations.”

The 512th RQS delivers qualified aviators to operational units in the UH-1N community including units under four Major Commands (MAJCOMS) - Air Force Global Strike Command, Air Education and Training Command, Pacific Air Forces and the Air Force District of Washington. “In addition to providing Initial Qualification Training we also provide training to requalification/transition aviators arriving from other airframes and/or non-flying positions. Other courses we facilitate include Air Advisor/Combat Mission Training for future combat air advisors, Instructor Upgrade courses and Local Mission Qualification Training for new instructors assigned to the 512th RQS.”

Lt Col Nick Dipoma is the current 512th RQS Commander. “The majority of our training is conducted within a 60 nautical miles of Kirtland Air Force Base, mainly to the southwest and northwest of Albuquerque. The local training area is fantastic based on a number of factors. First, the terrain; the local area has important similarities to many of the areas crews will deploy to operationally and there are also good challenges associated with flying at high elevations above sea level. Secondly, the support we receive from the local community is fantastic. We also conduct aerial gunnery training on the White Sands Missile Range and on the Melrose Range, near Cannon Air Force base.”


The UH-1 is a utility aircraft, of which Kirtland have 6. While the UH-1N can serve as a training platform, it can also have many different configurations. This includes the ability to operate a hoist, which in itself can use different attachments to be used in a rescue scenario. At the 512th RQS at Kirtland AFB, the UH-1N is purely a training platform, however at other operational units, it is utilised in DV airlift, Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training, contingency operations, and nuclear security and defense. Capt Stephen Squier is a UH-1N pilot with the 512th RQS. “The UH-1N is an incredible aircraft to fly. Since it lacks advanced and automated systems, it requires a high level of coordination to fly and is one of the few aircraft in the Air Force inventory that gives an individual as much control over the aircraft as it does. Even though it may not be as fast or as powerful as more modern aircraft, it is still highly manoeuvrable and can get the job done. It is an aircraft rich with history and is a durable airframe that has proven its worth over the years.” SSgt Hawkins also explains what a great training platform the UH-1N is. “It is a very utilitarian airframe. It is rugged, venerable and can fill multiple mission sets. What the UH-1N lacks in payload capacity, speed, range, and modern technology, it makes up for in dependability, simplicity, and versatility. It is a throwback in terms of pilot input and controllability while flying. If you love to fly, specifically fly helicopters, the UH-1N is a flying pilot's aircraft in every sense of the word.”

“The UH-1 is defined as a single pilot aircraft, meaning only one pilot is required to operate the aircraft. This allows for a lot of versatility in the crew composition, and crew composition varies depending on a unit's mission. However, a standard crew composition consists of two pilots and at least one Special Missions Aviator (SMA).  The pilots are responsible for flying the aircraft, talking to Air Traffic Control agencies, and managing the overall mission. Special Missions Aviators are responsible for calculating aircraft performance data, monitoring aircraft performance inflight, operating hoist and other mission equipment, as well as assistant the pilots in any other delegated duties.” Capt Stephen Squier.  

SSgt Matthew D. Hawkins explains, “For most mission sets, the crew complement is two pilots and one Special Missions Aviator. There are exceptions to the standard crew complement such as Night Tactical, Low Level/Formation flight, which require an additional Special Missions Aviator. The Aircraft Commander is the approval authority for mission decisions and performs standard pilot duties. The Co-Pilot also performs pilot flying duties as well as pilot non flying duties including navigation and mission execution. The Special Missions Aviator is the aircraft systems expert, he calculates weight and balance, Takeoff and Landing Data (TOLD), operates the crew served weapon, rescue hoist, and provides back up navigation, scanning operations, and communications integration.”


As well as the UH-1N, the 512th RQS flies the HH-60G Pave Hawk - a platform that has proved to be such a valuable asset on the battle field as a combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopter. The HH-60G Pave Hawk is the US Air Force’s primary combat search and rescue helicopter used by the Air Force special tactics teams and pararescuemen. When soldiers, airman and sailors are injured by enemy fire, ambushed or pinned down by dangerous attacks, the HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters are tasked with the risky combat mission of flying in behind enemy lines – to save imperilled service members.

TSgt Bradley W. Bickford is a HH-60G Instructor Flight Engineer and Special Mission Aviator within the 512th RQS and I spoke to him about what the HH-60 was like as a helicopter. “I love flying on the HH-60. It is so smooth to fly, its not too complex or cramped like other helicopters. The HH-60 is one of four helicopters I have flown on and I think the best part about it is how reliable it is. I have over 1450 hours in it and have only ever had a few small issues.” TSgt Bickford went on to say, “The size and range of the HH-60 make it such a good platform - there isn’t a perfect platform out there yet but I think the HH-60 is the best choice for the rescue mission. For example, the CV-22 Osprey is fast but cannot hover at altitude. The Chinook can hover easily at 11,000 feet but is big and slow. The HH-60 is a tradeoff of all the ideal qualities.”

The HH-60G is a heavily modified version of the Army Black Hawk which features an upgraded communications and navigation suite that includes integrated inertial navigation/global positioning/Doppler navigation systems, satellite communications, secure voice and Have Quick communications. With these improved defensive, navigation and communications systems the Pave Hawk is able to perform the vulnerable mission of CSAR. All HH-60Gs have an automatic flight control system, night vision goggles with lighting and forward looking infrared system that greatly enhances night low-level operations. Additionally, Pave Hawks have a colour weather radar and an engine/rotor blade anti-ice system that gives the HH-60G an adverse weather capability. Being equipped with an over-the-horizon tactical data receiver the HH-60 is capable of receiving near real-time mission update information. Pave Hawk combat enhancements include a radar warning receiver, infrared jammer and a flare/chaff countermeasure dispensing system. Facing the regular threat of Taliban or insurgent RPG, Pave Hawks are armed with 50-cal machine guns and 7.62mm weapons. They are also built with extra armour to defend against small arms fire and various kinds of enemy attacks. The HH-60Gs are outfitted to go into a hostile environment to recover people, which is why they need extra armour and guns. The mission incorporates more than just recovering the downed airman, it could also include someone who is injured by an IED.  They are ready to go recover them bring them back and give them the aid that they need. The Pave Hawk is also fitted with a retractable in-flight refuelling probe which gives it the ability to aerial refuel giving it twice the range. 

TSgt Bickford explained what the crew composition consisted of and what the roles of each member was. “We fly with four crew. Two pilots, they fly and manage the mission duties such as navigation and communications. Two SMA’s (Special Mission Aviators) who man the defensive weapons and aid the pilot in mission management. The Special Mission Aviators also deploy AIE’s (Alternate Insertion Extraction) devices which includes ladders, ropes and the hoist.”

“On actual missions, the PJ’s (pararescuemen) are brought along to assist in the recovery of downed personnel. In training we support each others training and qualification needs. Such as, SMA’s (Special Mission Aviator) require a certification and a recurring currency on hoisting live personnel. The training is crucial to a successful mission, we have to be able to work together seamlessly in a combat environment.” TSgt Bickford explained. 

Using Format