Area 51 Has Its Own Unique Fleet Of HH-60U Ghost Hawk Helicopters
Originally intended as replacements for the Air Force's aging HH-60G Pave Hawks, they now exclusively support operations at the top-secret base.
- The War Zone
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Almost everything about the U.S. military's Area 51 flight test facility, also known as Groom Lake, is shrouded in secrecy and mystery. This even extends to the base's small and unique fleet of HH-60U rescue helicopters, sometimes called Ghost Hawks, which at least help provide security, local search and rescue, and other types of utility support in and around the base.
The Air Force is understood to have a total of four HH-60Us, one of which is seen at the top of this story and all of which are modified examples of the U.S. Army's HH-60M Black Hawk medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), or "Dustoff," helicopter. Area 51 watchers have determined that the U models are likely assigned to a unit colloquially know as the "Ghost Squadron." This helicopter unit is one of a number of secretive elements associated with Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center, which appears to be one of the main Air Force entities at Groom Lake. Detachment 3 also reportedly oversees operations involving other more traditional aircraft and so-called "Foreign Materiel Exploitation," or FME, examining non-American aircraft and systems at the secretive base, along with its other top-secret flight test duties.
The history of how the U models came into existence is similarly convoluted and nebulous as the history of their present home. By the end of the 2000s, with the strains of the Global War on Terror, it had become painfully obvious to the Air Force that its fleets of already aging HH-60G Pave Hawks, the first of which rolled off Sikrosky's production lines in the 1980s, were getting overworked.
The Air Force had kicked off a program to acquire new replacement combat search and rescue helicopters, known as CSAR-X, in 2006, but it had experienced numerous delays and contracting complications, a saga you can read about more in this past War Zone story. The service canceled the project for good three years later and subsequently began what it dubbed the Operational Loss Replacement (OLR) program.
Originally, the plan was for the Air Force to piggyback on Army contracts to buy new UH-60Ms and then convert those helicopters to a configuration similar to the Pave Hawks. The Army's Aviation and Missile Research and Development Center's (AMRDEC) Prototype Integration Facility (PIF) at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama was responsible for the initial conversions, beginning in 2010.
The new helicopters would be known as HH-60Us, a designation that caused particular consternation for Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Personnel Recovery Division of what was then known as the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which was managing the OLR program, according to documents the author previously obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In July 2010, this office put in a request to designate these helicopters as HH-60Ws, or, if that was not possible, as HH-60Ps.
"We understand that DoD 4120-15 [the official U.S. military directive regarding assigned aircraft and missile designations] indicates that the series should be assigned in consecutive order," the chief of the Rotary Wing Branch of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Personnel Recovery Division, who's name is redacted in the request letter, wrote. "However, the 'U' which appears to be the next available series, has [a] negative connotation in the PR community."
The War Zone's has had no luck in determining what this "negative connotation" is or was. One HH-60G pilot previously told the author that it could have to do with the "U" commonly standing for "unsatisfactory" across the Air Force. Whatever the case, the Air Force officials in charge of assigning aircraft designations rejected the request. It's worth noting that, at this point, HH-60P had already been assigned to a rescue variant of the Black Hawk in service with the South Korean Air Force.
In 2011, the PIF delivered two of the new HH-60Us, which the Air Force described as "minimally modified" UH-60Ms in 2011. With the exception of their gray rather than green pain jobs, these helicopters were largely indistinguishable from the Army's HH-60M configuration.
The U variants had the same FLIR Systems Talon sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras under a duckbill-like sponson on the front of the nose and the rescue hoist on the right side of the fuselage as their Army cousins. The new helicopters lacked the inflight refueling probe and nose-mounted weather radar of the earlier Pave Hawks, though the Air Force had said that it planned to add that capability in later conversions, along with range-extending internal fuel tanks.
However, by 2012, the Air Force was already reconsidering whether or not to continue buying new UH-60M-based helicopters or take a more potentially cost-effective approach of acquiring second-hand UH-60Ls, the variant that the HH-60G was originally based on, with low flight hours and converting them into Pave Hawks.
The Air Force had also looked into a deep upgrade program for the existing Pave Hawks, known as the Block 152 configuration. A small number of HH-60Gs were converted to this standard, which most notably included repositioning the weather radar in the center of the nose, similar to the installation on the MH-60Ls, Ks, and Ms, assigned to the Army's elite 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment.
The modified Pave Hawks also had a more robust self-defense suite with radar warning receivers and missile warning sensors, as well as countermeasures dispensers loaded with flares and chaff built into the landing gear sponsons, in addition to the ones mounted on the rear fuselage. Some of these helicopters are based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Between 2012 and 2014, the Air Force took delivery of two more HH-60Us in the same general configuration, but eventually decided to go with the converted L models. The service took delivery of the first L-based HH-60G OLR helicopter in 2016.
It's unclear when the decision was made to send the small fleet of four Us to Groom Lake, but it seems plausible that it would have occurred after the decision to shift course in the OLR program. Lacking the inflight refueling probes and weather radars found on the G models, the HH-60Us are certainly better suited to shorter-range missions.
Based on the M, with its more powerful General Electric T700-GE-701D engines, these helicopters would have had better hot-and-high performance than the HH-60G, making them even better candidates for replacing the small contingent of Pave Hawks that had previously supported activities at Area 51. The base sits in the Nevada desert at an altitude of around more than 4,400 feet with surrounding mountain peaks that are even higher.
We do know that, by 2014, the Air Force's 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, a special projects office better known as Big Safari, had taken responsibility for managing the HH-60Us. That year, the 661st Aeronautical Systems Squadron in Waco, Texas replaced the existing FLIR Systems sensor turrets on all of the helicopters with the L3 WESCAM MX-15HDi type.
The goal of the upgrade was to "improve the pilots' situational awareness when flying low, at night, in mountainous terrain. etc," according to another Air Force document the author obtained via FOIA. "A high definition monitor was also added at the Flight Engineer's crew station, as were a fixed and tethered hand controller, and a video recorder."
"The team also replaced the hoist system, which due to poor design saw the cable rubbing against the fuselage and presented a safety hazard," the annual historical review added. "The modified helicopters typically delivered 35-40 days ahead of schedule."
Little else is known as the HH-60U's present configuration, which likely also includes additional communications systems and other equipment to perform the security and search and rescue functions for Area 51. The extent of its activities, and whether the Air Force also uses the helicopters for research and development or operational test and evaluation purposes is also unclear.
No available pictures indicate that these helicopters are armed, but any weapons mounted in the crew chief's windows on either side of the aircraft, as is the case on standard Army Black Hawks, could be stowed when not in use. Personnel on board could easily carry small arms that they could use in flight or after inserting on the ground, as well.
Tourists looking to get a peak of Area 51 from Tikaboo Peak, which sits some 26 miles away, have caught glimpses of the helicopters flying around the base. Video footage of one of the HH-60Us in action appeared online in June.
The Dreamland Resort website also has a pair of photographs of one of the HH-60Us, serial number 10-20323, clearly showing its new MX-15HDi sensor turret, at Centennial Hills Hospital Medical Center in Northwest Las Vegas, Nevada. The helicopter had reportedly dropped off a patient on Aug. 7, 2019. The Air Force Safety Center responded to a FOIA request from The War Zone regarding this by saying it had no records of any mishap that resulted in the transportation of any individual to Centennial Hills. It is possible that this could have been part of an exercise as Centennial Hills would certainly be a likely destination for any casualty from Groom Lake in the event of an actual emergency.
Whether or not the Air Force would ever acquire additional HH-60Us is uncertain, but it would seem unlikely. Last year, Boeing and Italy's Leonardo won the service's competition to replace its aging UH-1N Twin Huey helicopters with a variant of the latter company's AW-139, known as the MH-139. Sikorsky, now a division of Lockheed Martin, had offered a version of the HH-60U.
Sikorsky did win the Air Force's Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) contract for the HH-60G replacement, which, interestingly enough, is another Black Hawk variant designated the HH-60W. So, in the end, the service's Personnel Recovery community is getting a helicopter with the designation it wanted nearly a decade ago.
It will be interesting to see if any HH-60Ws or MH-139s, the latter of which the Air Force intends to use for various security and light utility missions, eventually make their way to the Ghost Squadron to supplement or supplant the HH-60Us. In the meantime, we will be keeping our eyes out for any new details about Area 51's unique helicopter fleet.
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