HH-43B~First Rescue Helicopter to SEA

HH-43B Alert Bird Cockpit, NIP 1964, Jim Burns photo


Pictures Courtesy of Jim Burns

HH-43B, First CSAR helicopter in SEA Theater


This information is in part extracted from the below sites.




The HH-43B was the first USAF SAR bird put into the Vietnam and Laos wars. That was done in June 1964, to Nakhon Phanom (NKP) Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB)


The deployment strategy of sending units into the theater on a temporary duty or TDY status was to keep the official force level numbers down for permanent deployments. That's the way the "Huskies" came in.


In response to orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the USAF instructed the 33rd ARS in May 1964 at Naha AB, Okinawa, Japan to send two HH-43Bs, their crews and mechanics to Bien Hoa AB.

“Yankee Team” reconnaissance operations which now were being escorted by USAF and Navy fighter aircraft over Laos were incurring increasing losses, so, at the 11th hour, the two HH-43Bs were diverted from Bien Hoa to Nakhon Phanom RTAFB. A short time later, a third HH-43B came to NKP.


NKP was a better location, positioned on the northeast corner of Thailand, on the Mekong River, a stone's throw from Laos, and a short flight to respond to the “Yankee Team” area of operations.


Two HH-43Bs from 33 ARS, Naha AB, Okinawa were sent as a TDY unit arriving at NKP on 20 June 1964.  The two were 62-4565 and 62-5978, which were flown from Naha AB to Udorn AB, Thailand, in two C-130s, arriving on 17 June 1964. At Udorn AB both were reassembled and with a short delay both were flown to NKP.  A third HH-43B, 62-4564, also from 33 ARS, was delivered to NKP on a later date, most probably late June 1964. 


(Chuck Severns recollection of the arrival at Udorn.  To the best of my recollection we flew there by C-130, first stop was Danang, then to Udorn.  Dropped off the H-43's and they said they had to hide us for the night because they didn't have permission for us to be in country.  Took off in the C-130 and landed on a PSP runway.  At the end of the runway there was a ramp area, the C-130 dumped us, and our gear and said they would be back tomorrow.  At that time we didn't know what country we were in!!  The 130 picked us up the next day and took us to Udorn.  The 43's were crated, and some major from the Pentagon told me to have both helicopters on alert at NKP by 6:00 AM next morning.  I told him that was a physical impossibility.  Working through the night we had the first bird ready for test flight at 6:00 AM.  Called for fuel, an avgas truck pulled up.  No jet fuel on Udorn.  Several days delay, not our doing).


These were the first USAF helicopter aircraft and crews in the Vietnam War specifically tasked with the Combat SAR (CSAR) mission.

The aircraft arrived at Udorn painted silver with bright orange painted on their nose and tails to reflect that they were rescue birds.  Air America crews took it upon themselves to paint over the orange.


At NKP the H-43s stood alert every day to support “Yankee Team” reconnaissance over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and North Vietnam.

Among the first actions taken by the crews, they installed (tied down with bungee cords or rope) a M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) in the rear cabin door opening. The BAR had 20 round magazines, and fired only in the automatic mode, at either slow or rapid rates of speed.


Reports were that the troops often had to hide their BARs from the brass, sometimes in nearby empty fuel drums, to avoid getting the brass bent out of shape. The brass worried that crews armed with these BARs would engage in gunship operations more than SAR operations. The SAR crews worried about going into a rat's nest unarmed; unable to suppress enemy fire while they were making their rescue. You might wonder how the crews got the BARs.  GI ingenuity, a friendly trade with the Air America guys over at Udorn RTAFB was one way.  Over time, other ingenious ways were employed to obtain all kinds of weapons.


The HH-43B was designed for a 75-mile range. That was insufficient for the SAR work in Laos and North Vietnam, so the crews lashed drums of fuel inside the helicopter cargo bay and rigged up a way to feed the fuel to the main tank. They also pre-positioned fuel drums at Air America landing sites (Lima sites) in Laos so they could stop on the way home to top off.  Or, they'd simply have to recover at one of these sites or some other "safe haven" and wait for someone to deliver them fuel to get out of there.

The hoist cable was only 100 feet, insufficient for deep forest penetrations. The crews scrounged up 100-foot lengths of rope to attach to the end of the hoist cable to overcome this deficiency. On occasion, the crews would pull up a downed crew member to within 100 feet of the aircraft, increase altitude to over 100 feet above the forest canopy, and then fly off to a safe place to let their “guest” down safely and get him aboard.


Note:  Jim Burns and Chuck Severns were two that arrived with the initial deployment.

For a detailed story of his stay at NKP check out Jim Burn’s TDY to NKP in the April 06 Archives in the Blog.

Note: Anyone having further information please contact rotorheadsrus@yahoo.com