Maxwell dedicates veteran MH-53 to Air Park
By Carl Bergquist, Air University Public Affairs
/ Published June 13, 2009
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The Air Force Pave Low helicopter #69-5785, better known as 785, static display was dedicated a veteran June 8 at Maxwell Air Force Base's Air Park with more than 250 base and River Region members in attendance.
For 785, on loan to Maxwell by the Air Force Museum, this was the culmination of an extensive combat history beginning in 1970 in Southeast Asia and ending in late 2008 in Southwest Asia. The aircraft began as an HH-53 Jolly Green Giant flown in rescue missions in Southeast Asia. It was later used to evacuate U.S. personnel from the Cambodian capitol of Phnom Penh, was involved in the Mayaguez rescue incident, and was flown in special operations missions in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. More recently, 785 was involved in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq before being deactivated and moved to Maxwell.
"This is the absolute perfect site for this aircraft, juxtaposed against the mighty B-52," Lt. Gen. Allen Peck, Air University commander, said of the Pave Low's new location at the corner of Ash and Twining Streets at Maxwell. "The location places the aircraft in a prominent spot, but it is also a reminder that these machines would be nothing if not for those who operate them."
Col. Kris Beasley, 42nd Air Base Wing commander, said that the location is symbolic of the aircraft's importance in the Air Force. He also said 785 came to Maxwell directly from the Southwest Asia area of responsibility and was flown aboard a C-17 Globemaster III.
"This is a significant ceremony for both Maxwell-Gunter and the Air Force," he said. "Some of you came from across the base, while others came from across the country. That shows the significance of what we are doing here today."
Brig. Gen. Tom Trask, former commander of Squadron Officer College and now at Air Force Special Operations Command, said those who flew these aircraft would tell you they never looked as good as 785 did for the dedication ceremony. He said he flew Pave Lows for about 25 years and actually flew 785.
"It's an honor to have an aircraft that I flew here at Maxwell," he said. "I first flew 785 on Dec. 24, 1989. It was a 'snatch operation' and my first taste of combat, but, old hat for this aircraft."
The general said in the 1980s all Jolly Green Giants were modified to Pave Lows, and some were the first aircraft to go to Afghanistan after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. He said that is one of the worst places on the planet to operate a helicopter, but the Pave Lows did their job well.
"These aircraft blazed a trail for air commandos that will last for decades to come," General Trask said. "This is truly a remarkable legacy for a decision to buy a few dozen helicopters 40 years ago."
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Fisk, a pararescueman, who flew on 785 many times including the Mayaguez rescue, said it was an honor to have the opportunity to stand next to, "this magnificent bird I've known for so many years."
"My first combat mission with the aircraft was in October 1971, and we were both young and eager," he said. "In 1975, she was severely damaged during the Mayaguez incident, but she got her men home, and then she healed. You can still see the scars on her skin. Now, she stands as a monument to those magnificent men in their flying machines."
Chief Fisk described the dedication as splendid and said the Pave Low is the first rotor-wing aircraft to grace Chennault Circle at Air University. He said he also felt the location was appropriate for the aircraft, as if it were, "on guard for all the other aircraft at Air Park."
Maj. Brian Roberts, chief of Service Office Matters at AFSOC and the pilot who flew 785 on its last mission, said his fondest recollection of the aircraft was night flying at low altitude.
"My favorite memory of the Pave Low was flying through the darkness 50 feet above ground with the world bathed in the green of night vision goggles," he said. "Our goal was perfection; to execute the mission and get everyone home. It was harrowing at times, exhilarating at other times, but you never had any trouble getting to sleep at night."
Retired Lt. Col. John Guilmartin was at the dedication and also flew 785 on many occasions. He said he gave the aircraft its final check flight before the Mayaguez rescue mission.
"The ceremony was wonderful and on target," he said. "Every speaker captured the smoke and dust of combat."
Chief Fisk said he had no doubt that one day an elderly man with a grandchild would wander by the display, and the child would look up and ask his grandfather if he had flown 69-5785.
"The man's mind will flood back to combat, and in his mind's eye he will see the missiles and rockets that flew past him. He will remember the anxiety and fear he felt, the smell of volatile fumes and remember the desperate radio calls of those who were in worse shape than himself. And, he will remember the look in the eyes of those he rescued from harm's way," the chief said. "He will remember with heartbroken and sad eyes those who didn't return, and he will answer his grandchild by saying, 'Yes, I did fly in this aircraft, and I owe my life to her.'"