They swoop in to rescue military personnel behind enemy lines, but after flying beyond their service life, the Air Force is replacing the Pave Hawk helicopters like the ones the public has seen during Davis Monthan Angel Thunder training missions.
Impressive to watch in action -- they are the Air Force's HH-60G Pave Hawk Helicopters, the aircraft of choice when U-S pilots are shot down or service members are stranded in enemy territory and must be rescued.
"Need to see my family again, whoo, whoo, whoo, you see this thing coming in, you survive a lot of times because not only the men but the aircraft itself," said Sawyer.
Craig Sawman Sawyer, former Navy Seal Team 6, has flown in the Pave Hawks. He calls them workhorses. "They're special because they're kind of tailored for the special operations role in that they can refuel at night, they got electronics packages and they train with Air Force Para-rescue operators."
Sawyer describes how every kind of Hawk helicopter takes a lot of pounding during missions. "I've flown through a set of power lines outside of Sarajevo. And we flew through and did not crash but it tore up the rotors. Browned out -- what they call brown out with the sand at night flares up upon landing -- the pilots couldn't see and chopped the throttle and landed about 50 feet -- very hard impact," he said.
Now the entire 1980s era fleet has aged beyond their expected life. Once 112 strong -- now thinned out to 96 because of "mishaps" and "maintenance" problems, according to a just-released report by the Government Accountability Office.
68 percent of the remaining fleet were mission-capable last year -- 16 fewer than the Air Force requires. And the GAO says the growing maintenance failures can affect the availability and success rate of missions. "There are a lot of times now that guys don't have air support overhead because either there aren't enough aircraft in theatre or they are down for maintenance, so it's important for an aircraft to be up and running," said Sawyer.
The GAO reports Davis Monthan AFB has 15 Pave Hawks.Active-duty rescue squadrons are scheduled to begin receiving new helicopters in 2020 -- six years before the reserve units.