CH-54 Skycrane / Tarhe - Operations
The S-64 (YCH-54A) helicopters which were procured by the US Army off the shelf and delivered to South Viet Nam confirmed the need for these heavy lift aircraft through the successful operations which showed the speed and ease with which bulky type cargos could be transported and its use as a battlefield recovery vehicle. Based on the number of downed aircraft which were recovered from inaccessible areas, it has been estimated that each S-64 Flying Crane has paid for itself four to six times over the initial cost of the vehicle.
The CH-54 was used in aircraft recovery operations when loads were too heavy for the CH-47 Chinook. It was also useful for off-loading during ship-to-shore operations. The CH-54 could also be rigged to drop the large 10,000 lb. cratering bomb used to create landing zones ("LZs") in dense jungle. In Vietnam it was used to retrieve 380 downed aircraft. The "Skycrane" served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. The last one was retired in 1993 by the 113th Aviation of the Army National Guard based in Reno, Nevada in a time where was already replaced by the less powerful but more flexible Boeing Vertol CH-47 Chinook.
DARPA promoted CH-54 "flying crane" helicopters to move heavy Army equipment over otherwise impassable terrain in Vietnam. Such experimentation favored improving large ground units and using air power more for conventional than counterguerrilla warfare. The 1st Cavalry Division (AM) airlifted successfully the 155mm howitzer into positions which otherwise would be inaccessible. The CH-54 "Flying Crane" was utilized to sling-lift the howitzers into position. This capability provided medium range artillery support to ground elements in practically all types of terrain.
During MASHER-WHITE WING in 1966, the 155-mm howitzer was airlifted for the first time using the CH-54 "flying crane" helicopter. During this same campaign, it became an accepted technique to select hilltops for artillery positions since these were easier to defend and provided open fields of fire.
The most successful innovation of the Ia Drang campaign was airlifting the 155-millimeter howitzer for the first timq in combat. The roadbound medium artillery could not occupy positions within range of the objective area in the An Lao Valley. The division had the use of the CH-54 Flying Crane helicopter. After consultation with this unit, it was concluded that the 155-millimeter howitzers could be airlifted provided the weight was reduced to about 12,600 pounds. This was practical, so by utilizing a combination of Flying Crane and Chinook helicopters, one 4-gun battery was airlifted a distance of 15 miles in approximately two hours. Thereafter, the 155-millimeter howitzers were airlifted during all operations.
In April 1967 the 1st Cavalry Division was given less than twelve hours to put a battalion task force into the Duc Pho area and less than 36 hours to increase that force to brigade size. It was immediately obvious that the first requirement in this area would be the building of a heavy duty airstrip for support by Air Force aircraft. The decision was made to build a C-7A Caribou strip immediately at landing zone MONTEZUMA which could be expanded to accommodate C-123 aircraft. At landing zone MONTEZUMA there would also be space enough to build a parallel Caribou strip while the first airstrip was improved and surfaced to handle the larger and heavier C-130 aircraft. Company B of the 8th Engineer Battalion had arrived at landing zone MONTEZUMA during the morning of the 7th and immediately began a thorough reconnaissance of the airfield site. During the next two days, 31 pieces of heavy engineer equipment weighing over 200 tons were airlifted into Duc Pho. This move required 29 CH-54 "Flying Crane" sorties and 15 Chinook sorties. Much of the equipment had to be partially disassembled to reduce the weight to a transportable helicopter load. By 1800 hours on the 7th, enough equipment was on the ground to begin work. The earthmoving commenced and continued throughout the night by floodlights. By midnight, six hours after construction had begun, 25 percent of the Caribou strip was completed.
The Army accepted delivery of the first CH-54B Tarhe helicopter in December 1969. The latest model of the Tarhe fleet, it provided improved performance and reliability, reduced maintenance, and a two-ton payload increase over older models. It is the Free World's largest flying crane helicopter and is capable of airlifting large bulk items of equipment - (up to twelve tons) , including artillery weapons, heavy engineer equipment, and downed aircraft.
Prior to the March 1970 Closed Loop Support conference, it had been planned to deploy 23 CH-54B's, the modified "Flying Crane," to U.S. Army Vietnam. However, after consultation with the U.S. Army Vietnam representative, and recognizing the potential phaseout of "Flying Cranes" in the next 18 months, it was agreed that such a transfer would be costly and was unnecessary since the CH-54A's in U.S. Army Vietnam were accomplishing the required mission in a satisfactory manner. Accordingly, the CH-54A's were retained in U.S. Army Vietnam, except for those hightime and crash-damaged aircraft that had to be returned. The CH-54B's were assigned elsewhere in the Army. This program reduced both transportation and depot maintenance overhaul costs that would have been incurred, if the CH54A's had been returned to the Continental US.
The US Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) executed a major portion of the force development activities in the active Army in fiscal year 1979. During the year, FORSCOM executed Phase III of the Aviation Requirements for the Combat Structure of the Army Study (ARCSA III), which involved inactivation of twelve aviation units, including the three heavy lift companies employing the CH-54 Flying Crane rendered obsolete by the improved CH-47D helicopter.
The Army retired its Skycranes in the 1970s and they were completely removed from military service in the 1980s. Ex-military Skycranes entered commercial service, where they are used in various heavy-lift roles, including the lumber industry. The U.S. military preferred a heavy-lift aircraft that also had a cabin capable of carrying cargo and troops.
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