Sikorsky MH-53 (Pave Low) History

The MH-53 was a series of large transport helicopters operated by the United States Air Force in the special operations role. The MH-53 designation breaks down as "M" standing for Multi-Mission and "H" standing for helicopter. The designation came about after extensive modifications were made to existing HH-53 "Super Jolly Green Giants" (or "Super Jollies") operated by the USAF in Vietnam. After the war, these HH-53 aircraft were fitted with a myriad of improved systems, new engines and new rotors - earning them an all-new designation through the "Pave Low" program, a program which greatly increased the type's ability for night and adverse weather operations. These helicopters were designed for long-range, low-level flights in an effort to assist ground special forces through clandestine insertion, extraction and resupply as needed - often times behind enemy lines.

The MH-53 was operated by a crew of six consisting of two pilots (officers), two flight engineers and two enlisted gunners. Defensive suppression armament can consist of 3 x 7.62mm miniguns or 3 x 12.7mm heavy caliber machine guns. The MH-53 can record speeds of up to 165 miles per hour, a ceiling of up to 16,000 feet and a range of 690 miles. Power is derived from twin General Electric T64-GE-100 series turboshaft engines developing 4,330 horsepower each and powering a six-blade main rotor and a four-blade tail rotor.

The MH-53J "Pave Low III" series was based on modified MH-53H and HH-53 models for the special forces insertion/resupply/extraction role. Thirty-two HH-53s along with nine MH-53H systems were selected for Pave Low III modification. Onboard systems included GPS, inertial navigation and Forward-Looking InfraRed (FLIR) along with an APQ-158 terrain-following and avoidance radar. This allowed the MH-53 the ability to complete low-light, low-level, all-weather flights consistent with special forces operations. Improved armor protection for the crew and systems also greeted the design.

The MH-53M "Pave Low IV" represented the final iteration of the Pave Low series. These systems were upgraded platforms of the MH-53J "Pave Low III" and fitted with improved defensive capabilities. Chief among these is the implementation of the Interactive Defensive Avionics System/Multi-Mission Advanced Tactical Terminal (IDAS/MATT). Pave Low IV gave MH-53 crews access to battlefield situations via a color digital map (even visible with the use of night vision goggles). The map was updated via satellite linkages and displayed near real-time data (including threats) along the flight route. MH-53Ms served on through 2008 in the special operations role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The MH-53 series was then officially retired from active service with the US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in 2008. Dating back to their days as the HH-53 in the Vietnam War (a famous group of five such aircraft taking part in Operation Kingpin - the rescue of American POWs from Son Tay prison near Hanoi), these aircraft served for many decades in their modified forms. Operations in Desert Storm were also conducted with this platform.

Sikorsky MH-53 (Pave Low) Specification


Retired, Out-of-Service


[ 41 Units ]:
Sikorsky Aircraft - USA


- Transport

- Special Forces



91.86 ft (28 m)


71.85 ft (21.9 m)


24.93 ft (7.6 m)


Empty Weight:

32,000 lb (14,515 kg)


46,297 lb (21,000 kg)

(Diff: +14,297lb)


2 x General Electric T64-GE-100 turboshaft engines developing 4,330 shaft horsepower each and driving six-blade main rotor and four-bladed tail rotor.


Maximum Speed:

196 mph (315 kph; 170 kts)

Service Ceiling:

15,997 feet (4,876 m; 3.03 miles)

Maximum Range:

690 miles (1,111 km; 600 nm)


Typical: 3 x 7.62mm M134 Miniguns OR 3 x 12.7mm Browning M2 Heavy Machine Guns (HMGs) positioned one at left fuselage side, one at right fuselage side and one on the rear loading ramp. Two external side sponson hardpoints reserved for external fuel stores.


MH-53 - Base Series Designation

YHH-53H "Pave Low I" - Prototype Designation

HH-53H "Pave Low II" - Night Infiltrator variant

MH-53H - Redesignation of HH-53H production mark

MH-53J "Pave Low III" - Special Forces variant based on HH-53B, HH-53C and HH-53H production models.

MH-53M "Pave Low IV" - Improved and modernized MH-53J production mark.

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