As night fell over Sierra National Forest’s Mammoth Pool Reservoir in September 2020, the sky glowed eerily red.
Earlier in the day, the massive Creek Fire had swept through the forest, eventually blocking the only routes out of a popular camping area. The flames were closing in on the 200-plus men, women, and children who had come to visit the national forest.
As the last glimmering bits of sunlight disappeared behind billowing clouds of smoke, the campers heard another sound against the backdrop of snapping flames and murmured cries: The welcome chopping hum of helicopters in the distance.
“The smoke was so thick, you couldn’t see anything—but you could hear the blades of the helicopter,” one of the campers, Daniel Crouch, later recalled.
Because the weather was dangerous and the fire even more so, air crews were given the option to wait and hope the situation got better before it got worse. But to the crews waiting to board one CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a UH-60 Black Hawk, there was no decision at all. They flew straight into the suffocating smoke of the Creek Fire.
“We were quickly running out of time,” says Chief Warrant Officer 5 Joseph Rosamond, who piloted the Chinook. “We decided then to pack as many people in as we could. At that point our performance limitations were very, very close to the maximum capabilities of the aircraft.”
The two air crews began rushing campers into the helicopters. Many of the panicked campers were already seriously burned. Chief Warrant Officer 5 Kipp Goding, the man flying the Black Hawk, later said this rescue mission may have been the most dangerous flying of his 25-year career, including combat deployments to the Middle East.
“Here, the stress and the added workload of going in and out of that fire every time was definitely by far the toughest flying I’ve ever done,” Goding said. By sunrise, every stranded camper had been safely evacuated from the raging fire.
The UH-60 Black Hawk wasn’t built to land amid a raging wildfire, but it was built for survival. It was born out of the Army’s need for a helicopter that could rush troops into and out of battle quickly and safely. In the four-plus decades since it first entered service, this multi-role helicopter has proven that it’s good for much more than that.
A New Kind of Flying Machine
In 1938, Igor Sikorsky envisioned a different way to fly.
His single-engine aircraft, called the VS-300, had no wings. Instead, three long blades extended from a center point above the fuselage. As these blades were spun by a 75-horsepower rotary engine, Sikorsky’s aircraft would lift straight up into the sky, with no need for long runways—or any runway at all.
Though Sikorsky’s VS-300 debuted in 1939, it wasn’t until the atom bomb tests of the mid-1940s—when many U.S. commanders first got to witness the A-bombs’ destructive might—that a practical use for his invention began to take shape. After witnessing one such nuclear test, Marine Lieutenant General Roy Geiger promptly wrote a letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander Vandergrift, explaining that the Corps’ approach to amphibious landings was outdated in the new atomic age.
Large-scale amphibious landings, like the Normandy Invasion just two years earlier, were already incredibly dangerous. But a single atomic weapon could have wiped out the entire invasion force, if the Nazis had had such a weapon in their arsenal. Helicopters, Geiger reasoned, could quickly move troops from ships to landing sites, doing away with slow-moving amphibious troop carriers, and with them the risk of atomic annihilation.
Within a decade, the Army started receiving deliveries of Bell’s UH-1 Iroquois (nicknamed Huey) to serve as aerial ambulances. Once the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, the Huey soon tackled more missions, ranging from common transport to air assaults. More choppers were pressed into service: The Army’s total helicopter count grew from 2,500 in 1960 to more than 9,500 by 1969.
While the UH-1 was a major success, it was too vulnerable, especially when landing in combat zones. Of the more than 7,000 UH-1s flown in Vietnam, some 3,300 were shot down or destroyed, killing 2,100 pilots and crew members. By the war’s end, the Pentagon was sure about two things: First, the helicopter was essential in modern warfare. Second, its survivability was far too low.
So the Army looked for a helo that could fight back, a chopper that was purpose-built for an air assault role. It had to be fast, powerful, and resilient. A huge emphasis was placed on the survivability of these new helicopters, not only for the sake of the pilots and crew, but also for budget reasons.
Despite stiff competition from Boeing and an improved UH-1 from Bell, the contract to build America’s next workhorse chopper went to Sikorsky Aircraft, the company founded by the SV-300’s inventor. It was called the UH-60 Black Hawk.
The Flight of the Black Hawk
The UH-60 Black Hawk can be described using one word: survivor.
Self-sealing, crash-capable fuel tanks were chosen to limit the threat posed by small-arms fire or hard landings. The tail rotor blades incorporated into the new design were made of ballistically resilient materials to minimize the chance of a tail hit, which would compromise control of the rotorcraft. The main rotors saw a similar treatment, and an armored cockpit was added as the helicopter began to take shape.
Redundant systems were worked into the designs of the flight controls, hydraulics, and electrical system to increase the craft’s ability to remain airborne after taking fire. In order to support all that weight, the UH-60 leveraged two engines and a four-blade propeller, which offered a cruising speed of over 100 mph and the ability to lift as much as 8,000 pounds with 1,000 pounds slung underneath.
The Black Hawk was also designed to be broken down and transported in heavy-lift aircraft like the C-130, allowing it to be deployed quickly anywhere in the world.
In 1979, five years after the first prototype Black Hawk took flight, the UH-60 officially entered service. For some aircraft, entering service is the end of the development stage, but that hasn’t been the case for the Black Hawk. Over the years, the Black Hawk has seen frequent upgrades and also been modified for a broad variety of operations, some of which still remain secret.
Different Breeds of Black Hawk
The H-60 Black Hawk platform has been modified by different services to meet the specific needs of their mission sets. Here are some of the most prominent purpose-specific variants of the Black Hawk in operation today:
The UH-60 saw its first action during the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and again in the 1988 invasion of Panama. But the Black Hawk really came into its own during Operation Desert Storm, during which the helicopter participated in the largest air assault mission in American history, with more than 300 Black Hawks rushing coalition troops across the Iraqi border.
In 1987, the UH-60L entered service, offering a massive increase in payload and general flight capabilities. Its new T700-GE-701C engines and improved gearbox made it possible to lift external payloads in excess of 9,000 pounds—a huge jump from the 1,000-pound external payload weight limit of the previous UH-60s. A similar variant, the SH-60B Seahawk, was also built for the U.S. Navy.
“They call it the ‘Cadillac of the Sky,’” former Army National Guard Black Hawk pilot Phil Linder tells Popular Mechanics. “It’s really versatile, so it can do a wide range of things and adapt to a wide range of environments.”
Changing With the Times
Military helicopters tend to be lumped into seven types: attack, transport, observation, utility, maritime, multi-role, and search and rescue. Black Hawks are considered multi-role rotorcraft because of their use in more than one of these categories, but the one that may surprise you the most is that of an attack helicopter. That term is usually reserved for missile- and gun-laden powerhouses like the AH-64 Apache and Bell AH-1 Super Cobra. The Black Hawk added attack capabilities with the development of the Direct Action Penetrator (DAP) in 1989.
The DAP Black Hawk, also known as the AH-60L Battlehawk, added external wings with weapon hardpoints, forward-facing machine guns, or rocket pods. The Level 2 DAP, which flies in conjunction with Level 1 rotorcraft, incorporated even larger wing stubs to add anti-armor missile capability for wire-guided (TOW) or AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, as well as large-caliber machine guns and rocket launchers.
Amazingly, the Level 2 DAP Battlehawk can carry all that ordnance without compromising its ability to carry 11 troops—with full kits in tow. But if you need more firepower (with less troop-hauling capability), the Level 3 Battlehawk adds a 180-degree gun turret.
After Desert Storm, the helicopter also garnered infamy in the 1990s, when two Black Hawks were shot down over Mogadishu, Somalia, during the ill-fated Operation Gothic Serpent. The two-day firefight that ensued saw 19 U.S. soldiers killed and became the basis for the 2001 film Black Hawk Down.
Today’s modern Black Hawks can cruise at speeds in excess of 174 mph and climb at 1,315 feet per minute. They are operated by two pilots and two chiefs or gunners, but they can accommodate as many as 11 geared-out troops ready for a fight. And if it’s a fight they’re after, Black Hawk pilots can carry as many as 16 highly accurate Hellfire missiles and even air-to-air weapons like the AIM-92 Stinger missile.
Mounting locations on either side of the helicopter allow for .50 caliber GAU-19/A machine guns, M-60 GP 7.62mm machine guns, M-240 7.62mm machine guns, or a General Electric M134 7.62mm 6-barreled minigun for additional firepower. Extra Hellfire missiles can even be carried internally and then loaded into the launchers by the helicopter’s air crew to increase its longevity in an engagement. The M56 aerial mine delivery system even allows the helicopter to lay minefields on the terrain below.
“Black Hawks can take a lot of punishment, and they can operate in a lot of very tough environments,” Linder says. “Whether it’s sand or snow, hot or cold weather, they are really built to operate in tough terrain. Look at Afghanistan. That’s some of the toughest environments on earth and we’ve been flying Black Hawks there for 20 years now.”
A Warhorse and a Mystery
Despite the helicopter’s 40-plus years of service, there are still some things we don’t know about this battlefield warhorse—including one secretive variant.
On May 2, 2011, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, members of the U.S. Navy’s most elite special operations unit, SEAL Team 6, conducted Operation Neptune Spear—a secret mission to capture or kill al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Well aware that a formation of military aircraft flying out of Afghanistan and toward his fortified building in Pakistan would likely tip Bin Laden off, the SEALs and their CIA counterparts enlisted the help of the Army’s most elite helicopter aviation unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or SOAR, commonly known as the Night Stalkers.
While details about the aircraft employed by the Night Stalkers remain sparse, press coverage after the historic raid made it clear that something had gone wrong. The burned corpse of an unusual helicopter remained inside the walls of the compound after the fight was over.
While the craft was apparently part of some kind of Black Hawk, the hard angles of the tail section were reminiscent of the first U.S. stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk. The SEALs were able to destroy the helicopter to prevent any of its technology from falling into the wrong hands.
The Modern Black Hawk
Today, Lockheed Martin, which acquired Sikorsky Aircraft, makes four standard Black Hawk trims. The first, the Armed Black Hawk, leverages weapons systems that are fully integrated into the helicopter’s flight controls, which can identify and engage both stationary and moving targets.
The HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter variant is highly survivable in contested airspace. Designed with the specific needs of the U.S. Air Force in mind, the HH-60W (sometimes called the HH-60 Whiskey) comes with doubled fuel capacity for long-range rescue operations.
The UH-60M is the latest iteration of the standard Black Hawk platform, specifically for the U.S. military. This helicopter leverages a wider rotor blade, creating an additional 470 pounds of lift, and comes equipped with the latest avionics and cockpit displays. The final version, the S-70, is a version of the UH-60M built for Poland and other countries.
The 160th operates at least three highly specialized variants of the Black Hawk (that it’ll acknowledge), not including the secretive stealth platforms used in the Bin Laden raid.
“Black Hawks are awesome because the bird can touch down, dump its occupants, and be out of there much faster than a CH-47,” former Army Ranger Luke Ryan tells Popular Mechanics. “H-60s are great for fast roping.”
Fast roping is exactly what it sounds like: Troops literally slide down a rope, and it’s one of the fastest ways to disembark a helicopter in combat.
“That’s important because helicopters are bullet magnets,” Ryan says. “You want to limit your time in the air if at all possible—it’s safer for the pilots and air crew, and it’s safer for all the ground guys to be out of there and on the ground where they can take cover and maneuver.”
Forty Years of Flying
Today, the U.S. military owns and operates more Black Hawks than any other air or rotorcraft, with more than 2,100 airframes in service. There are another 1,200 H-60 Black Hawks in operation across 30 allied and partner nations. Nearly 50 years after its first flight, the Army still considers the Black Hawk to be one of America’s most important tools for expanding partner combat capacity and military capabilities.
Although there are plans to retire the Black Hawk in favor of a more modern replacement, the Army has made it clear that it expects these highly capable, medium-lift helicopters to remain in service through 2054.
In what may be the biggest shift for Black Hawks in the history of these rotorcraft, Sikorsky is already working on converting older Black Hawks into fully automated drones, working alongside DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. If successful, old and new Black Hawks alike could soon be ferrying cargo and even people without the need for a pilot on board.
The now-legendary Black Hawk will continue to play a vital role in U.S. and allied military operations for years to come, but even as the sun sets on the Army’s drab-green fleet of H-60 combat rotorcraft, the future still looks awfully busy for this multipurpose workhorse. The Black Hawk was designed specifically for survival, and it would seem that it’s going to go on doing just that.
Outside of the military, Black Hawks have been converted for firefighting purposes and dubbed Firehawks in places like California, where wildfires present an ongoing threat. In some cases, these fire department rotorcraft are even flown by military veterans like Kipp Goding, who rode the Black Hawk into combat.
Today, many service members who spent time in Black Hawks tend to look back on them fondly.
“There are few things in the military that I loved more than sitting in a Black Hawk and dangling my feet out the side,” Ryan says. “I’m not great with heights, to be honest, but something about it was completely fear-free. It was one of those things that, no matter how tired or beat-up you were, you could just sit and enjoy.”